AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship Final
Cushendall 1-15 Ballycran 0-10
Sunday November 11
Brendan McTaggart reports from The Athletic Grounds, Armagh
Cushendall sealed their 11th Ulster championship on Sunday afternoon after a gritty performance against a dogged Ballycran side. Eight points separated the sides by the full time whistle with the Ruairi’s opening half putting them in control of the final.
The Antrim champions outfought, out-muscled and out-manoeuvred Ballycran in the opening 30 minutes to hold an eight point lead at the short whistle and while they played into the wind in the second half, they always had an element of control with the St Joseph’s men only getting to within four points at any stage after the restart. The Down champions cause wasn’t helped with their free-takers having an off day – five scoreable frees missed during the second half and while they created goal chances, the Ruairi’s defence were immense. None more so than the luckless Arron Graffin. A leader in every sense of the word, Graffin was outstanding until suffering a bad knee injury. The match was held up for in excess of eight minutes and while Ballycran restarted with the same intensity and vigour they showed from the throw in of the second half, Cushendall were more than a match.
Natty McNaughton’s hurl bends over the helmet of Ballycran’s Paudie Flynn as Fergus McNaughton reaches for the ball during Sunday’s Ulster final in Armagh. Pic by John McIlwaine
Like so often in this years championship when they needed a score, McManus delivered for the Ruairi’s. If he wasn’t at his best from placed ball in the semi-final and final of the Antrim championship, the Cushendall man was back on top form from frees while having the freedom of the Athletic Grounds in a roaming role. McManus was peerless in a man of the match performance.
The Burke brothers in defence, Martin at full back and Paddy along side him. Fearless, tigerish and brilliant while in attack Sean McAfee attempted to replace the irreplaceable. Conor Carson unavailable yet McAfee was more than an able replacement. He had an almighty tussle over the hour with Patrick Hughes and it was the Cushendall man’s 24th minute goal that gave the Ruairi’s the impetus and a match clinching half time lead.
Natty McNaughton, talk of retirement after beating Loughgiel two week’s ago yet he was one of the Ruairi’s outstanding performers once again. A delightful side line from fully 45 yards out in the first half while scoring their opening point of the second at a time when Ballycran threatened to make a comeback and the Ruairi’s were stuttering. Natty has become an essential cog to the Ruairi Og machine.
The Down champions put in a much-improved performance in the second half and while their full back line was immense in the second half with Sean Ennis, Patrick Hughes and Michael Hughes imperious, the size of the task for the Ardsmen in the second half was too great. Conor Woods was sent off for a second yellow card late in the game but his dismissal had little bearing on the game.
Both sides made a nervy start to the final with Scott Nicholson (free) and Neil McManus failing to hit the target in the opening exchanges and while Fergus McCambridge opened the scoring in the fourth minute, Ballycran hit back with a free from Colum McManus with the next attack. Cushendall began to go through the gears though with McManus (two frees) and McNaughton’s terrific side line opening a three point lead for the Ruairi’s.
With McAfee causing huge problems on the edge of the square, Cushendall were always going to pose a goal threat. In the 10th minute McAfee got on the end of a long ball but his first time pull saw the sliotar sail wide from an acute angle. A reprieve for the Down men and while Conor Woods split the posts from a free to get his side firing again, Sean Delargy kept the momentum with Cushendall when he split the posts in the 13th minute.
Man of the match Neil McManus gave another oustanding display to haul his team over the line. Pic by John McIlwaine
Ballycran began to settle into the game and went score for score with the Ruairi’s. Niall Breen and Woods (two) finding the target with McManus (three) answering for Cushendall before McAfee landed the only goal of the game. McNaughton retrieved the sliotar from a ruck before leaving the ‘Cran defence in his wake while scampering down the right. With an eye for goal, his drive was superbly saved by Stephen Keith but McAfee showed his predatory instincts to sweep the sliotar to the back of the net.
A further brace of points from McManus (one ’65) opened an eight point lead for Cushendall by the 29th minute and while Scott Nicholson got the score board ticking again for Ballycran, Cushendall and Paddy Burke had the final say of the half. The Cushendall captain showing his attacking instincts with a fine score on the stroke of half time.
With a sizeable wind, eight points was far from insurmountable. Cushendall held the aces going into the second half but Ballycran would have been confident of reeling the Antrim champions in. A brace of points from Nicholson and Colum McManus (free) reduced the Cushendall lead to six points after five minutes of the second half before Ballycran had a sniff of a goal chance. A long range free from Scott Nicholson dropped short and with the Cushendall defence failing to deal with the dropping sliotar, James Coyle pounced only to see his first timed pull sail wide.
Ballycran were looking more dangerous after the restart but three wides in the opening five minutes, two from placed ball proved to be damaging. Cushendall opened their account for the second half with Natty McNaughton firing over an instinctive score to lift the Ruairi’s spirits in the crowd in the 43rd minute. Those Ruairi roars in the large crowd in attendance at the Athletic Grounds turned to gasps moments later with the sight of Arron Graffin requiring immediate medical attention. The game was stopped for over eight minutes as the Cushendall man received a standing ovation from all in attendance at the Athletic Grounds while leaving the field on a stretcher.
He may have ended on the losing team but Phelim Savage’s burgeoning reputation lost nothing today as the youngster gave another polished display. Pic by John McIlwaine
James Coyle fired over for the first score after the restart to reduce the Cushendall lead to six points once again but Ballycran’s radar had left them from placed ball once again. Colum McManus this time failing to hit the target from 45 yards. The Ardsmen continued to push and created another goal chance in the 58th minute. Scott Nicholson’s effort dropped short and caused mayhem in the Cushendall defence. They initially couldn’t clear the sliotar and with Colum McManus and Niall Breen close by, Pa Burke cleared the danger yet it was more free agony from the resulting ’65 for Ballycran with Scott Nicholson failing to find the target.
Cushendall were defending deeper and deeper as the game went to the death with any attacks fleeting at best. Graffin’s replacement, Francis McCurry was heavily involved as Cushendall repelled the constant wave of Ballycran pressure and while Colum McManus landed a free in the first minute of the 12 additional to be added, it was going to take a monumental effort for the Down men to get salvage their Ulster title hopes.
Cushendall and McManus eased the would be nerves of the Ruairi faithful with a brace of long range frees before a classy score from Eoghan Campbell added gloss to the score line for their side. Ballycran’s Conor Woods saw red for a second bookable offence deep in injury time and while they continued to press, Ballycran found the Ruairi’s defence impenetrable on the day.
It wasn’t a classic performance from the Ruairi’s but they got the job done. A long winter lays ahead and another tilt at the All-Ireland awaits. For now, the Four Seasons Cup makes its way to Páirc Mhuire for 2018. Cushendall 2018 Ulster champions.
Sean McAfee celebrates after scoring Cushendall’s goal. Pic by John McIlwaine
Cushendall: Eoin Gillan; David Kearney, Martin Burke, Paddy Burke; Sean Delargy, Arron Graffin, Stephen Walsh; Eoghan Campbell, Neil McManus; Sean McAfee, Fergus McCambridge; Ryan McCambridge; Alex Delargy, Donal McNaughton, Paddy McGill.
Subs: Eunan McKillop for F McCambridge (42); Francis McCurry for A Graffin (51); Cormac McClafferty for P McGill (57); Niall McCormick for S McAfee (60+4); Emmet Laverty for D McNaughton (60+11)
Scorers: Neil McManus 0-9 (6 f’s, 1’65); Sean McAfee 1-00; Donal McNaughton 0-2; Sean Delargy 0-1; Paddy Burke 0-1; Eoghan Campbell 0-1; Fergus McCambridge 0-1.
Ballycran: Stephen Keith; Michael Hughes, Patrick Hughes, Sean Ennis; Michael Taylor, Paudie Flynn, Brett Nicholson; Scott Nicholson, Phelim Savage; Cormac McAllister, Conor Woods, Liam Savage; Niall Breen, Colum McManus, James Coyle.
Subs: Andrew Bell for S Ennis (Blood sub – 26, reversed 30); Christopher Egan for N Breen (HT); Gerard Hughes for C McAllister (HT); Paul McSkimmons for J Coyle (60+8); Andrew Bell for M Taylor (60+9)
Scorers: Conor Woods 0-3 (1 f); Colum McManus 0-3 (3 f’s); Scott Nicholson 0-2; Niall Breen 0-1; James Coyle 0-1.
Referee: James Connors (Donegal)