By Liam Tunney
Ruairí Óg (Aontroim) 2-11 St Thomas’ (Gaillimh) 0-18
Corner back David Sherry’s 64th minute point was enough to break Cushendall hearts as Galway champions St Thomas’ reached the AIB All-Ireland Club SHC Final after a one-point victory in Parnell Park on Saturday afternoon.
There was still time for one late Ruairí Óg chance as Donal McNaughton raced clear in the dying seconds, but his low effort was well-saved with the hordes in the stand baying for a point.
“At the end of the day, if that hits the back of the net we’d have won the match.” said a disappointed Eamon Gillan afterwards.
“If we’d got the score then it would have gone to extra time and that’s a lottery. I don’t blame him at all.”
McNaughton’s effort almost capped a Herculean second half effort from Ruairí Óg, as they fought back from a seven-point half-time deficit to draw level ten minutes from time.
The Tribesmen had opened the scoring in the first minute of the game, James Regan punishing a handling error in the ‘Dall defence, before Neil McManus dispatched a 4th minute penalty low to the corner of Gerald Murray’s net to put them ahead.
Éanna Burke almost hit back immediately with a goal of his own up the other end, goalkeeper Eoin Gillan alert enough to turn it over the bar before Kenneth Burke swept over an equalising score for St Thomas’.
Despite missing a few early efforts, Neil McManus broke his duck on 11 minutes to put Cushendall back into the lead, but the Galway men then found their rhythm, hitting 0-06 without reply, with no less than four separate Burkes – Darragh, Éanna, Bernard and Fintan – among the scorers alongside Conor Cooney.
Seán McAfee broke the scoring spree, battling to win a loose ball and shortening the stick to point from an angle, but further points from Darragh and Éanna Burke left them eight ahead, only a late McManus free reducing the deficit to seven at the break.
Team manager Eamon Gillan introduced Conor Carson at the break and with the Cushendall crowd doing their bit to get the Green Glens of Antrim reverberating around the stand, McManus notched the first score of the half from a 65.
Shane Cooney then traded scores with Eoghan Campbell as the intensity began to rise on the Parnell Park turf and there was a further trade, this time between McManus and St Thomas’ substitute Damien McGlynn as the gap remained at six points.
The Ruairi’s comeback then got the spart it needed when Fergus McCambridge latched onto a breaking ball forty yards from goal and as the St Thomas’ defence opened up, the young midfielder raced clear and finished neatly into the corner of Murray’s net to halve the deficit.
The goal appeared to unsettle the 2013 All-Ireland champions and a lacklustre free from Darragh Burke was punished by a swift counter-attack, Carson slipping the ball to Paddy McGill who popped the sliotar over the bar to cut the gap to two.
St Thomas’ roared forward again, but found Arron Graffin in inspired form, the centre-back crowning his Lazarene recovery from a knee injury with the kind of outstanding display he produces with frightening regularity.
Neil McManus then turned provider, slipping hand passes first to midfield partner Fergus McCambridge and then to Paddy McGill who finished from a narrow angle on the right flank to see his side level the score for the first time since the 14th minute, and with ten left on the clock.
The response from the Tribesmen was immediate, Darragh Burke hitting his first score of the second half wide on the left-hand side and James Regan converting after a neat Éanna Burke stick pass.
As he did throughout the 2018 season, Neil McManus again drove his side on, firstly sending over a 65, then converting his fourth free of the afternoon to draw level with four minutes remaining, before the Galway men struck the decisive blow.
With the game entering the third minute of added time, Shane Cooney’s long-range free dropped well short of the Cushendall posts, but in their haste to clear, the defence hacked the sliotar towards the wing.
St Thomas’ corner back Davis Sherry retrieved it, and with a quick glance at the posts, delivered the ball between them to the delight of their support in the stand.
From the resultant puck-out, Donal McNaughton found himself in space to the right of the St Thomas’ goal, and running clear of the Galway champions’ defence. With the posts at his mercy, he opted to go low from thirty yards, but his effort was scrambled off the line as the raucous Ruairí Óg support held their heads in their hands.
Cushendall desperately tried to fashion another opportunity but struggled to clear their lines as the game slowed up, and Paud O’Dwyer’s whistle heralded relief and delight among the St Thomas’ ranks and devastation for the defeated Ruairí’s.
The Galway champions’ victory sets up a St Patrick’s Day date with Ballyhale Shamrocks in the All-Ireland Club SHC Final, while Cushendall will regroup for a tilt at the 2019 season.
Ruairí Óg: Eoin Gillan, David Kearney, Martin Burke, Sean Delargy, Eoghan Campbell (0-01), Arron Graffin, Paddy Burke, Fergus McCambridge (1-01), Neil McManus (1-06, 0-04f, 0-02 65m), Donal McNaughton, Eunan McKillop, Ryan McCambridge, Paddy McGill (0-02), Seán McAfee (0-01), Alex Delargy.
Subs: Conor Carson for Ryan McCambridge 30’, Stephen Walsh for Sean Delargy 54’
St Thomas’ HC: Gerald Murray, Cian Mahoney, Cathal Burke, David Sherry (0-01), Donal Cooney, Shane Cooney(0-01f), Fintan Burke, James Regan (0-02), David Burke, Darragh Burke (0-06, 0-04f), Éanna Burke (0-03), Bernard, Brendan Farrell, Conor Cooney (0-01), Kenneth Burke (0-01).
Subs: Damien McGlynn (0-01) for Kenneth Burke 44’, Seán Skehill for Brendan Farrell 58’
Referee: Paud O’Dwyer (Carlow)