AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling Championship Semi-Final
Naomh Éanna vs Tullaroan (Kilkenny)
Venue: Parnell Park, Dublin – Thrown in: 1:30pm
By Brendan McTaggart
Before the Ulster final against Eoghan Ruadh, Naomh Éanna manager Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton called for his side to ‘ruin christmas’. The Cushendall and Antrim legend got his wish. Just. Christmas was cancelled on the Hightown Road as Sambo and his management team prepare Naomh Éanna for an assault on the All-Ireland. Standing in their way? Kilkenny and Leinster champions, Tullaroan. A team steeped in history within Kilkenny and a team vying to regain their place among Kilkenny’s elite.
20 times champions of Kilkenny, Tullaroan hold the record within their county for senior championship successes although the last of those came in 1994. They ended years of heartbreak by defeating Thomastown in the county final and helped by former Cat and one of the most decorated hurlers of all time. One Tommy Walsh. He may be in the twighlight of his career, but Walsh is a living legend. A man who has nine All-Ireland medals and just as many All Star awards, yet Tullaroan’s win back in November was his first taste of success at club level. Walsh and his side swept all before them in Leinster and come into Saturday’s game as favourites for not only the semi-final but for the All-Ireland crown itself.
Naomh Éanna for their part are in new ground with the wee ball but not as such for the club. 2019 began for the Hightown Road side with an All-Ireland semi-final against An Spideál in Páirc Tailteann, Trim and a Joe Maskey wonder goal helping them to reach Intermediate final with the big ball. With a handful of the hurling panel involved 12 months ago, the occasion will not faze Naomh Éanna.
In Antrim, they started with a bang before stuttering over the line. Against Clooney Gaels in the opening round they lived up to their favourites tag and were relentless for the full 60 minutes. It was the complete performance that just underlined their status as favourites for the Antrim crown. Tougher tasks lay ahead in Creggan and strong performance against Glenariffe set up a titanic tussle against Carey in the county final. Two goals from Philly Curran and 1-9 from John McGoldrick helped to edge Naomh Éanna past the Balyvoy men but they were hanging on for dear life in the face on an onslaught at the death.
The Ulster opener against Banagher wasn’t one for the purists. The path to provincial glory rarely runs smooth and for long periods in a trodden Owenbeg surface in the worse conditions imaginable, it looked like their Ulster odyssey was going to end before it started. It was a gargantuan battle where spaces was at a premium and scores were scarce. The mother of all battles and despite trailing by three points at the short whistle and not scoring for 18 minutes in the second half, Philly Curran’s major and Ruairi Donaghy’s injury time point sealed their passage to the semi-final where Bredagh lay in wait.
Played in bitingly cold conditions in Hannahstown, Naomh Éanna struggled for fluency but got the job done. They were push to the pin of their collar by the Down champions and it took extra time but special performances from Ryan Bogue and an injury time point from substitute Cormac Jennings and the Hightown Road side had an Ulster final in their sights.
Having played and beaten Eoghan Ruadh twice already in the 2019 season, many had Naomh Éanna’s name already on the trophy. During a pulsating match of 80 minutes that included extra time, Naomh Éanna had to comeback from the brink. Twice. The epitome of a roller coaster ride and it took penalties to decide who would wear the Ulster intermediate crown. The image of Martin Curran standing with arms wide and waiting on his team mates to celebrate as he incredibly saved all the Tyrone side’s attempts is the abiding memory from the final.
That’s how they got to here. They’ve shown brilliance, courage, savage attitude and incredible desire at differing times through Antrim and Ulster. They will need all that and more on Saturday. Not since Rossa defeated Cappoquin of Waterford in the semi-final on their way to climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand five years ago has an Antrim team won at this stage.
Records are made to be broken though and Naomh Éanna have been making their own this year. It will take a braver man than I to bet against them on Saturday.
Route to Parnell…..
Preliminary Round vs Clooney Gaels 1-28 to 1-8
Quarter-Final vs Creggan 0-13 to 0-11
Semi-Final vs Glenariffe 3-19 to 2-10
Final vs Carey 3-14 to 1-17
Quarter-Final vs Banagher (Derry) 1-10 to 0-12
Semi-Final vs Bredagh (Down) 0-18 to 0-16 (aet)
Final vs Eoghan Ruadh (Tyrone) 2-20 to 2-20 (aet) won 1-0 on penalties