CHRISTY RING CUP SEMI-FINAL ROUND-UP
By Daire Walsh
Down and Kildare will face off in next weekend’s Christy Ring Cup decider, following their respective semi-final victories over Offaly and Roscommon on Saturday afternoon.
With the sides inseparable at 90 plus minutes of intense hurling at Pairc Esler, Newry, it took a penalty shootout (the first of its kind in inter-county hurling) to determine the outcome of Down’s showdown with Offaly. In the end, it was the Mourne outfit who held their nerve to claim a 3-2 win in these series of 21 metre duels.
Earlier, Eoghan Cahill had bolstered his seasonal tally for Offaly with a 0-10 haul. Oisin MacManus and Paul Sheehan had amassed a combined 11 points from placed balls, each of them pivotal in keeping Down within reach of their opponents.
This comes as a hammer blow for Offaly, who had been hoping for an immediate return to the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2021. For Down, there is now a chance to make amends for last year’s final reversal to Meath.
When Offaly faced Down in an All-Ireland semi-final back in 1995, the Faithful were reigning Liam McCarthy Cup champions. Their fortunes have slipped in recent years but, following a Round 2B success over Derry in the same venue, there was some momentum behind their challenge.
Cillian Kiely got Michael Fennelly’s outfit up and running with a third-minute point, only for Eoghan Sands to shake the net at the opposite end. Cahill’s 0-17 haul against Derry was one of the highlight’s of the competition to date and he remained the most potent scoring threat.
Having converted a 30 metre free in response to Eoghan Sands’ goal, he subsequently levelled proceedings with a point from play. While Pearse Og McCrickard squeezed Down back in front, they received a sucker punch in the ninth-minute of the action.
Capitalising on sharp build-up play by Oisin Kelly and Cathal Gath, full-forward Shane Kinsella bagged a superb three-pointer. This was a set-back for the Mourne men, but their response was an emphatic one.
McCrickard, Eoghan Sands and dead-ball specialist MacManus (’65’) split the uprights to move them one point clear in time for a water break. There was little to separate the sides throughout the opening period, with the lead changing hands on a number of occasions.
Cahill and Kinsella raised white flags to move Offaly back into the driving seat, before the reliable MacManus swung the pendulum in Down’s favour.
Whatever MacManus could muster inside the Offaly half, Cahill was able to match it at the opposite end. Another two-point salvo from the Birr ace gave the visitors a minor foothold on the tie.
Once more Down issue a strong rebuttal through Daithi Sands and MacManus as the first half drew to a close. However, Offaly dug deep to eventually lead 1-9 to 1-8 at the break.
A Peter Geraghty point was followed by Cahill’s sixth of the game and while it was a slender cushion, the Leinster men were grateful to have something to build on.
After Cahill cancelled out another MacManus free early in the second half, Shane Kinsella added another point from play. Down breathed a massive sigh of relief when a Cahill penalty rebounded off the post on 45 minutes but with the resilient Cahill (two) and David King finding the range, Offaly were four to the good (1-14 to 1-10) heading towards the third-quarter mark.
MacManus (two) and Donal Hughes then responded for Down to leave one point between the sides. Even though Offaly settled through Kiely, their northern opponents were simply relentless.
Sheehan and Eoghan Sands pointed to wipe out the Offaly lead, though this was restored by Cahill with just six minutes of normal time to play.
The way the game had gone up to this stage, it seemed destined that extra-time was going to be required. This was indeed how it panned out, with Barry Trainor adding his name to the scoresheet.
Even when Offaly developed a mini surge through Kiely and Thomas Geraghty in the additional periods, Sheehan and Conor Woods were on hand to halt their momentum. Still, Adrian Hynes raised white flags either side of another from Sheehan to give Offaly a 1-20 to 1-19 buffer on 80 minutes.
Yet this was Down’s cue to throw a spanner into the works – Daithi Sands edging them in front during a vital juncture. When Sheehan added another successful free in response to a Hynes effort, the Ulster side suddenly had a two-point advantage with just four minutes to play.
However, Offaly were not prepared to give up on a final place without a fight. Liam Langton hit two in succession – the second a stoppage-time strike – to force the first shootout in the history at the elite level of the small ball code.
It looked to be heading in the Faithful’s favour when Cahill and Treacy scored to put the visiting team in front. Down dug deep under enormous pressure, though, as three successful finishes – and some wayward Offaly efforts – finally sealed their final spot.
Matters were much more straightforward for Kildare at St Conleth’s Park, Newbridge as the Lilywhites were comprehensive 3-24 to 1-9 victors at the expense of Roscommon.
Jack Sheridan (2-6) and Brian Byrne led the way up front, while James Burke also finished with 1-2 to his name.
In a relatively even start to the contest, Roscommon sharpshooter Cathal Dolan registered points either side of a Byrne effort. Kildare did knock over back-to-back scores through Sheridan and Kevin Whelan, before Niall Kilroy levelled matters on 13 minutes.
Further swapped point ensured the sides remained inseparable at the first half water break (0-4 apiece). A Conor Mulry point edged the Rossies into the ascendancy on the stroke of 20 minutes and they looked set to push on and remain in the hunt for a final spot.
Instead, the Lilywhites assumed control of the second-quarter in clinical style. After Byrne restored parity, the hosts embarked on a powerful scoring blitz.
Sheridan, Conor Dowling and Byrne (two) added four unanswered points in as many minutes, preceding a Burke goal on the half-hour mark. The confidence of David Herity’s side was now sky high and with Sheridan contributing a brace of placed-ball scores, Kildare brought a convincing 1-11 to 0-5 cushion into the interval.
Roscommon were struggling to deal with the pace and power of their opponents and needed a strong start to the second period to keep themselves in the reckoning. This failed to materialise, however, and Kildare effectively placed the outcome beyond with another devastating attacking surge.
After Byrne had raised another white flag, the in-form Sheridan converted a 38th minute penalty. He quickly added a second goal and when his Naas colleague Burke pointed off a later move, Kildare were all of 18 points clear (3-14 to 0-5).
Roscommon finally interrupted this scoring sequence, but it only offered them a temporary respite. Burke (two), Niall O Muineachain, Sheridan and Paul Divilly all found the target and although Roscommon claimed a goal in the closing moments, Kildare finished the action in style.
Byrne, O Muineachain, Divilly and Shane Ryan fired over consecutive points and, on this form, it will take a massive effort to stop them securing a second Christy Ring title in just three seasons.