St Thomas’ bounced back in 2018

St Thomas’s 2-13 Liam Mellows 1-0

St Thomas’ won their Galway county title last November when the Kilchreest-Peterswell based side saw off the challenge of reigning champions Liam Mellows in the final with a bit to spare

The Kevin Lally managed side oozed class and confidence as they marked the club’s 50th anniversary by powering to their third Galway crown in seven years, and their second in just three.

Speaking after the game Galway county captain David Burke, who was a key figure in his team’s win, said “It’s fantastic for a small rural club and especially this year. We put in a massive effort and it paid off,”

It was Burke’s brother Darragh who took the man-of-the-match award after a superb individual display which saw him score 1-7, 1-5 of which came from play.

Two other Burke brothers also did well, with Cathal solid in the full-back line while Eanna picked off three points from the half-forward line in the first half.

Fintan Burke, Shane Cooney and David Sherry were ultra-reliable in a defence which smothered every Liam Mellows’ initiative at source. The 2013 All Ireland champions were totally dominant at the back and held Liam Mellows scoreless from play until five minutes into the second half.

St. Thomas’ laid down an early marker when they raced into a four-point lead after six minutes, and though Liam Mellows battled back with three pointed frees from Adrian Morrissey, it was evident Morrissey and his colleagues would get little change from a watertight St Thomas’ defence.

The winners made a vital breakthrough in the 15th minute when centre-forward Darragh Burke pounced for a goal after a fumble by Liam Mellows goalkeeper, Kenneth Walsh. Burke was in flying form and by half-time, he had scored 1-4 (1-3 from play) to help his side to a seven-point lead, 1-10 to 0-6.

The second half saw more St Thomas’ dominance as their relentless pursuit for victory drove them on. The made doubly sure of the win in the 45th minute when team captain, Conor Cooney drove in their second goal, and from then on it was just a matter of how much they were going to win by.

Scorers: St. Thomas: Darragh Burke 1-7 (2f), C Cooney 1-1, E Burke 0-3, David Burke, J Regan 0-1 each.

Liam Mellows: A Morrissey 0-6 (6f), K Lee, C Hynes, T Haran, J Forde 0-1 each.

St. Thomas’: G Murray; C Mahoney, C Burke, D Sherry; D Cooney, S Cooney, F Burke; J Regan, E Burke ; Darragh Burke, David Burke, B Burke; B Farrell, C Cooney, D McGlynn.

Subs: K Burke for McGlynn (40), C Kelly for  B Burke (43), S Skehill for D Cooney (59), M Caulfield for Farrell (59), D Finnerty for E Burke (62).

Liam Mellows:  K Walsh; C Reilly, S Morrissey, M Hughes; M Conneely, D Collins, B Leen; J Hastings, K Lee;; C Kavanagh, C Hynes, A Callanan; A Morrissey, T Haran, J Forde.

Subs: R Elwood for Callanan (39), J Forde for Morrissey (39), S Barrett for Fallon (42), C Elwood for Lee (52).

Ref – L Gordon (Killimor)

St Thomas’ Conor Cooney

Semi-final: St Thomas’ 2-19 Sarsfields 0-20

In their semi-final St Thomas saw off 2015 champions Sarsfields by 2-19 to 0-20. The last score of the game came from a Brendan Farrell goal for St Thomas in injury-time as he clinched their five-point victory over the team who Ruairi Og met in their last All Ireland semi-final.

Sarsfields provided much stiffer opposition, but an early Darragh Burke goal provided St Thomas with a boost.  However it was Sarsfields who were in front by 0-12 to 1-8 by half time. St Thomas grew in stature as the second half progressed to go in front 1-15 to 0-17 with ten minutes remaining and outscored their opponents by 1-4 to 0-3 thereafter to claim victory.

Quarter final: St Thomas’ 1-23 Clarinbridge 2-19

The toughest game of the campaign for St Thomas’ in the quarter final when it took extra time before edging past the challenge of Clarinbridge on a scoreline of 1-23 to 2-19. In an incredible game of hurling it looked like they would take a goal lead into the break, only for Clarinbridge to grab a goal late in the half to send them in level on 1-8 to 0-11.

A Conor Cooney goal just after the restart put them back in front and by the midway stage of the second half they had pulled 1-15 to 1-10 clear. However a Clarinbridge goal in the 53rd minute lifted their spirits and they fought back to bring a thrilling game to extra time. By half time in extra time Clarinbridge had edge 2-17 to 1-19 in front, but St Thomas finished with a flourish and outscored their opponents by 4 points to 2 in the second period to book their place in the semi-final.

Rocky Balboa has never seen Cushendall win an All Ireland semi-final

Saffron Gael contributor Colum Thompson looks back on the Ruairi’s 2016 win and feels they are in with a big shout this time around too

“Except for my kid being born, this is the greatest night in the history of my life!” said Rocky Balboa after winning the world heavyweight title in a rematch against Apollo Creed in the movie Rocky 2. No disrespect to The Italian Stallion, or my children for that matter, but Mr. Balboa has obviously never known the joy of watching his club defy the odds, rip up the form book and produce a performance for the ages winning an All Ireland Club Hurling Semi Final.

I was lucky enough to have experienced that feeling of utter ecstasy three years ago in Navan when my club Ruairi Og Cushendall absolutely dominated Galway champions Sarsfields. After a lifetime of trying we had finally broken the glass ceiling that had thwarted progress on nine separate occasions and we had qualified for an All Ireland Club Final. Yes we were well beaten in the final but it was still a remarkable achievement, a step further than ever before.

Colum Thompson was in the crowd when his beloved Ruairis beat Sarsfield in the 2016 semi-final in Navan. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

 We should enjoy our day in the sun, we’ll always have those memories from February 2016. Hurling people in traditional strongholds like Galway, Tipperary and Cork wouldn’t give us a snowballs chance in hell of repeating the dose this time round. “Ye Antrim boys keep the game going up there…” and the rest of the usual bullshit, scratch the surface and there is little or no respect. Our victory over Sarsfields was lucky (yeah 3-12 to 1-6, lucky). Ger Loughnane thought we were ordinary and we beat a very poor Sarsfields team, good enough to win a Galway title ahead of Portumna, St. Thomas, Gort, Athenry and Liam Mellows but still a poor team in Loughnane’s eyes. The bookies have us as 6-1 outsiders in a two horse race, we’ll go to Parnell Park and have a day out, ham sandwiches, a few pints and go back up the road. For the likes of Ruairi Og lightening doesn’t strike twice…

Or does it? Of the 15 who took the field three years ago 14 remain. And I’ll make the argument that we are a better team now. The likes of David Kearney, Ryan McCambridge, Eoghan Campbell and Alex Delargy have matured into battle hardened, proven championship performers. It also must be remembered that during the 2016 campaign Paddy Burke was missing through injury, fast forward three years and he captains our club magnificently and is a regular with Antrim as well. “They say time and tide waits for no man…” try telling that to Sean Delargy and Donal McNaughton, veterans yes but playing as well as they have ever played. Critical cogs in the Ruairi Og machine. “Arron Graffin An Injury Doubt For Semi Final After Horror Injury” was the headline in the Belfast Telegraph the Monday after Ruairi Og’s convincing Ulster Final win over Ballycran in early November. An injury doubt maybe to someone that doesn’t know Arron Graffin. If anyone can recover from that injury and take their place on the team it’s Ruairi Og’s defensive rock. If Graffin is the general then commander in chief is Neil McManus. His contribution to Cushendall’s success this year is utterly immeasurable, almost indescribable. And that man Paddy McGill, a maverick, the sort of player that can see things others can’t. And what full back fancies an hour competing for possession with Conor Carson or Sean McAfee? That physical size and strength is perhaps our greatest weapon. The deeper into winter, the heavier the ground and the tougher the conditions the better Cushendall perform. It doesn’t get much tougher than Parnell Park in February.

Neill McManus got Cushendall off to a flying start with a goal from a penalty in the third minute of their win over Sarsfields. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

   So what of our opponents? St. Thomas of Galway. All Ireland Champions in 2013 beating Loughgiel along the way. Galway Champions 2012, 2016 and 2018. We know all about the Burkes and Conor Cooney. We know how impressive it is to win three of the last six Galway titles and we know that history is on their side. They are a well drilled, experienced outfit who must be respected but unbeatable? Nobody is unbeatable. In previous years going to an All Ireland semi-final has been more in hope than in expectation, David standing in Goliath’s shadow, but not this year. The hype and carnival atmosphere these occasions used to bring isn’t evident but a cool, calm, calculated determination has enveloped the village. Winning a semi-final is no longer an impossible dream. It’ll take our best performance since that unforgettable day in Navan three years ago. But if you are in Dublin this Saturday keep an eye out for lightening.

Miracle man Graffin hoping for double celebration

AIB All-Ireland Semi-Final Preview

Cushendall vs St Thomas (Galway)

By Brendan McTaggart

They say lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice.  Technically it didn’t, but it wasn’t a kick in the arse off it.  Cushendall and Antrim defender Arron Graffin could make a claim to be the unluckiest man to ever have lifted a hurl.  To recover from one major knee injury is remarkable, twice is super-human.  Three times and you start to wonder is the man human at all yet Graff is in with a shot of making the starting 15 against St Thomas’ on Saturday.

Cushendall team manager Eamon Gillan told us: “We thought he wouldn’t hurl, I now think he will.  He had half an hour in a match last week and there’s been no ill effects.  We’re very hopeful he’ll make it.  He’s willing to do whatever it takes and he’s been training away.  I’d be more than hopeful that he’ll start so long as he keeps well between now and the match.”

Unbelievable news given its just three months since Graffin was sat on the Athletic Grounds pitch with a dislocated knee.  There’s no doubt about it, the tenacious Cushendall defender has shown incredible mental strength and he told us about his rehab since the Ballycran match: “It’s been going well.  It was a disaster when it happened as it happened on my good knee but now I don’t have a good knee.

“I was distraught more than anything when it happened.  Disappointment and then the noise, I was wondering what was going on you know but after a couple of weeks, we went on honeymoon.  We came back before Christmas and I’ve been doing great work with Ally McKeown (physio).  He would know a lot of my injury history too so he knows the craic and calls a spade a spade.”

Despite the successful rehabilitation, Graffin isn’t taking a starting spot in the semi-final for granted but has looked for the positives and has learned from previous set backs: “I’ve been going well but I think the game might be coming too soon but I’m back training, I’m back on the pitch and I just hope I can do enough to edge myself into a starting spot.  To be fair there’s a lot of boys out there who don’t want to give me a spot, there’s good competition for places so we’ll see how it goes.

“I know what needs to be done, it’s like déjà vu.  I’ve done it before and I know I can do it and get back to a certain level.  That does make it easier.  Even young Christy (McNaughton) – he done his knee badly last year in a similar injury.  I’ve been helping him and he’s been helping me to try and get back.

“Injuries are weird.  Initially you can feel sorry for yourself but you need to snap out of that very quickly.  If you hurt your knee, there’s plenty of other stuff you can do, upper body stuff and that.

“Injuries can test your character more than anything.  Frustrating and the older you are then the longer it can take to recover but these things are sent to test you mentally more than anything.”

Rehab is always a frustrating time for any player.  In the run up to an All-Ireland semi final then it’s excruciating.  A process that shouldn’t be time limited becomes a race.  The temptation to push beyond your limits becomes greater and Graffin told us he’s had to take stock on a few occasions: “Off course.  The lads have had some great challenge games and I’ve been on the side line looking to get in among it.  You have to release you’re not ready.  You have to keep with the rehab and go through the processes.  You want to think you’re ready but you have to rein yourself back in.

“There’s good people around us here.  Ally and the management know what they’re at as well.  They have helped me especially to get my mind right and edge my way into getting to where I need to be.

“I’m back on the pitch and I’m back training but it’s getting to that level that’s coming up.  It’s going to be a serious, serious challenge for us.”

The 2019 season will be Graffin’s 14th in a Cushendall senior shirt.  The Ruairi’s defender said it’s getting tougher as the years go on but joked: “The mind is willing but I don’t know whether this 30 year old body is good to go.  It’s tough getting up in the morning sometimes.  You have to wonder what Sean Delargy and Natty are feeling like.”

Graffins first semi-final at this stage came against Galway opposition, Loughrey in 2006 but he reminisced further on these occasions when adding: “The match against De La Salle doesn’t feel like that long ago, it was 10 years ago.  Ryan McCambridge and Paddy Burke and those boys ten years ago were 13 or 14.  It’s crazy but that’s the way it is.” 

On the prospect of hurling against St Thomas’, Graffin added: “We’ve seen St Thomas’ in action before against Loughgiel a few years ago and they won an All-Ireland title.  It will be a big test but I hope my body gets to the level where I can push for selection.

“Hurling at this time of year is different.  You look at the Munster championship and the balls are zipping but at this time of year it’s about who wants it most and the pitches aren’t as good.  It’s about determination, grit and fight.  Putting your body on the line.

“We are a team who can make it hard for ourselves and some have written us off but we always come back and do enough to get over the line.

“I personally haven’t looked at them.  They have a mountain of Burke’s, I think there’s five or six of them.  David Burke was captain of Galway and Conor Cooney’s an All-Star.  They’ve a great amount of talent all over the pitch and it’s a bit challenge for us but we’re relishing it and one we’re looking forward to.”

Saturday represents Cushendall’s first opportunity for their own personal redemption.  Defeat against Na Pairsaigh on the biggest club day of the calendar hurt and Graffin said they want to do themselves justice at this stage: “We’re doing everything we can.  It would be great to get back to Croke Park on St Paddy’s Day as we have a couple of wrongs to put right. 

“We’d love to get back.  Three years ago it didn’t happen for us and everything for Na Pairsaigh went over the bar.  Looking back the game was probably over at half time but in that moment we thought we could get back.  It would be great to get back and give ourselves another chance but St Thomas is a massive task to get over to start with.

“We feel like we have serious players within our squad.  Boys like Neil McManus would get on any team in the country and he’s in our pack.  We feel if we work hard then anything can happen but it’s all on the day.  There’s no second chances.”

Graffin’s wife Sara-Louise has already booked her date in Croke Park this year, scoring a goal for Clonduff camog’s as they defeated Galway side Craughwell in the Intermediate All-Ireland championship semi-final.  The Cushendall man is looking to emulate his better half on Saturday but also hoping for an anniversary gift: “It’s been an enjoyable journey (the championship) for us and hopefully the 9th February will be a good day.  It’s my wedding anniversary that day as well, hopefully it will be a double celebration.”

McManus: “We wouldn’t have been in an Ulster final if it wasn’t for Carson”

By Brendan McTaggart

On the big occasion, you need your big players to stand and be counted.  Neil McManus did that and more for the Ruairi’s on Sunday afternoon.  A herculean performance from the Cushendall talisman and another man of the match performance.  It is no exaggeration to say he covered every blade of grass on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds while he was back to his best from placed ball.  A perfect record from frees in a peerless performance from McManus.  After two human performances from placed ball, he was outstanding when his team needed it most.  Another heroic 60 plus minutes of hurling to help guide the Ruairi’s to their 11th provincial crown.

As the sun set and night fell on a cold Sunday evening in Armagh, McManus was still signing autographs from young admirers while being lined up for interviews.  There’s no such thing as sliding into the changing rooms when you put in a performance like he did for his side.  When I spoke with him, McManus was full of admiration for the Down champions: “I said it earlier this week.  We’re very lucky that Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry play in our league.  We knew exactly what we were coming up against there today.  They have some smashing hurlers and they have a serious will to win.  They go to battle every time they come onto the field and it was tough, tough stuff out there today.

“We probably got the run of the green out there.  They dropped a lot of ball in around our net and one flick here and it could have been different but we worked so, so hard.”

The work rate, intensity and desire from Cushendall along with the brilliance of McManus helped Cushendall to the winning line.  The Cushendall man said on his sides spirit: “We take huge inspiration from the likes of Donal McNaughton, Sean Delargy and Eunan McKillop.  Those guys have a lot of miles on the clock for our club but they’re as fresh as fresh can be.”

Seven of McManus’ nine points came from placed ball.  A 100% record on the big occasion.  After an indifferent time over frees in the last three matches, McManus said it took a nudge from the Ruairi’s management to reinstate his unflappable confidence: “I work on my frees all the time.  I hardly missed won all year up until the last couple of matches but the management put faith in me.  The last day I was begging Paddy McGill to come and hit them but they said I was the free taker and stood by me.  The belief they showed in me helped.  We’re very strong and very together.”

With Conor Carson missing out on the Ruairi’s victory with a burgeoning career as a pilot in its infancy, McManus paid tribute to the Cushendall forward: “Sean (McAfee) took his chance.  He’s very strong physically and he took the goal well but my heart goes out to Conor Carson.  We wouldn’t have been in an Ulster final if it wasn’t for Carson.  He’s been immense.  He’s big but he’s so athletic as well.  He carried us in the St John’s game and he done the same in the county final as well.  He would have relished that today and we’re all thinking about him.”

The match itself was marred with the injury to Arron Graffin.  McManus is a life long friend of the Ruairi’s star defender, adding: “Arron Graffin epitomises anything and everything you would want a young player to see.  He doesn’t give in.  He plays like that in training.  He’s horrendous to be marking in training so you can only imagine what he would be like for an Ulster final but he’ll be back.  You can’t write Arron Graffin off.”

Another winter of preparing for a tilt at the All-Ireland lays ahead with the Ruairi’s waiting on the outcome of the Galway final between St Thomas’ and Liam Mellows.  Essentially, Cushendall are 60 minutes away from Croke Park and St Patrick’s day.  It sounds easy when it’s broken down like that but for now, McManus said they’ll enjoy being Ulster champions once again: “This means everything to everybody, it really, really does.  It’s a short winter when you’re preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final and this will be no different.”EA7I1555

“They were rewarded for their hard work” Kearney

By Brendan McTaggart

Having sealed a record 11th provincial title, Cushendall players, management and supports were awash with a mix of relief and ecstasy. Playing with the wind in the first half they dominated Ballycran and thoroughly deserved their eight point half time lead. The Ruairi’s refused to let Ballycran have any momentum in the opening 30 minutes and while the second half was always going to be a different proposition, the experience and knowhow within the Cushendall set up was always going to be a telling factor.

What no-one could have foreseen beforehand though was the off day the Down champions would have from placed ball. Three different takers in the second half with the normally accurate Colum McManus and Conor Woods misfiring along with Scott Nicholson. Five chances came and gone in a dogged second half but Ballycran took too long to impose themselves on the game. The pressure told in the second half and they found the Cushendall defence were in no mood to give them an inch.

When we spoke with the Rauiri’s coach Ciaran Kearney, he told us: “The second half wasn’t pretty but we were happy with the first half. I think there was six or eight in it at half time then eight in the end. It was dogged and maybe if they had a free taker. If they had a free taker on form today it might have been different but Neil (McManus) was bang on today.

“Again what a super performance from him. The lads were dogged in a physical game, bordering on one or two things that I wouldn’t have been overly fussed on but the boys kept their composure. Even at the end they were trying to get us dragged into something in the square at the end there but the lads knew to keep their cool but listen, we’re delighted.”

Sean McAfee’s first half goal was a huge factor on the outcome of the game. It helped the Ruairi’s build a substantial half time lead and Kearney told us he felt McAfee was the correct choice to replace Conor Carson: “Conor Carson was a massive loss for us today. We knew early in the week he wasn’t able to come and we went with Sean McAfee, that like for like threat that has worked for us in the last couple of weeks. Sean went in and got his goal and it was great. I thought he was getting pulled and dragged left right and centre, how he didn’t get frees, I’ll never know but the lads kept their composure.”

The team work and determination shown from the Ruairi’s in the second half helped them to repel the expected Ballycran second half charge. They dropped deeper to starve the Down forwards of room with Sean Delargy, Alex Delargy and Natty McNaughton all coming deep at different times. Kearney reserved praise for another of the Ruairi’s stars: “In the second half after the break, we got one or two points from play. Neil, Natty and Eoghan Campbell and that kind of took us home.

“I thought our full back line were brilliant. Very solid considering they were playing a team that scored four goals against Slaughtneil.

“You saw what Ryan McCambridge done in the last 15 minutes there. That’s what he’s capable off and that’s what we’ve been at him to do. He was fantastic.

“We didn’t look past Ballycran. This talk of Cushendall being the team you want to get in an Ulster final, this Cushendall team of 2018 is a different animal. They’ve proved that this year and I’m so delighted.

“They’re getting their rewards for their hard work all year and we’ll enjoy this for a night or two but we’ll knuckle down and see what follows.”

Cushendall now progress to an All-Ireland semi-final with the winners of St Thomas’ and Liam Mellows from Galway in February.RainbowThere was gold at the end of the Ruairi Og rainbow. Pic by John McIlwaine