Saggart cling on in thriller

Ballysaggart's Stephen Bennett takes on Kickhams Creggan's Paddy Codd during last Saturday's epic All-Ireland Junior Hurling Final in Croke Park. 								| Photos: Sean Byrne

Ballysaggart's Stephen Bennett takes on Kickhams Creggan's Paddy Codd during last Saturday's epic All-Ireland Junior Hurling Final in Croke Park. | Photos: Sean Byrne

Over 80 pulsating minutes, Ballysaggart and Kickhams Creggan registered 40 scores between them in an absorbing and utterly compelling All-Ireland Junior Hurling Final. It’s an encounter that will be recalled fondly for years such was its sensational narrative.

A first half which ended with Ballysaggart nine points to the good against a Creggan side who had played very well despite those arrears suggested that even then it was far from a done deal for the men from West Waterford.

And that prophecy came to pass during a second half in which the Ulster champions outgunned Saggart by 2-7 to 0-4, but only drawing level in the dying seconds via a Conor McCann free.

In extra time, with Creggan three points to the good, Ballysaggart needed something special with only 30 seconds left on the clock, and my goodness did they get it, as Shane Bennett completed his hat-trick in stunning style.

Thanks to his magnificent overhead flick, and it’s worth pointing out that Bennett scored a similar goal in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Calry/St Joseph’s, the Ballysaggart number 10 kept his team’s epic campaign alive.

And given the adversity they faced for so much of the previous 50 minutes in particular, as given Creggan attacked and attacked and attacked like an angry tide, that Saggart secured a replay underlined just how ballsy an outfit they are.

As they’ve done more often that not in this epic Championship season, Ballysaggart took the lead after 23 seconds through Stephen Bennett, only for Conor McCann to reply at the other end just 31 seconds later.

Indeed, the match’s opening 54 seconds provided a portent for a thriller whose contents Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

Bennett and McCann traded scores in the second and third minutes before Stephen Bennett delightfully released corner-back Daniel Devine who bisected the uprights superbly. Oran McCann mustered an immediate reply for Creggan before Stephen Bennett’s free crept under goalkeeper Brendan Prenter for the first of the match’s seven goals.

As the sky darkened and the heavens opened, and despite Creggan attacking with menace in the respective guises of Kevin Rice and Conor McCann (who added two points in the 11th and 13th minutes), Ballysaggart goaled again in the 18th minute.

At the second time of asking, Shane Bennett slid the ball beyond Prenter to send the Waterford and Munster champions four points ahead as the game’s pace remained joyously unrelenting.

Six minutes later, Stephen Bennett killed a Matty Meagher puck-out dead on his hurl, before fading the sliothar between the Hill 16 uprights, a score which once again reminded us of this young man’s burgeoning talent. Two more Bennett frees send Saggart seven clear by the 28th minute before Kevin Rice reduced the arrears just shy of the half-hour.

Remarkably, another goal came Saggart’s way before the break, as Stephen Bennett’s deep free flew into the net having taken a slight touch off a Creggan shoulder en route to the net. Despite not having it all their own way, far from it, especially in midfield, Ballysaggart led by nine points, and the job, or so it appeared, was half done.

But Creggan Kickhams, full of running, and not short of hurling style (to think the hurling wing of their club was only founded nine years ago), returned to the fray like men possessed, and dominated the second half.

Despite Stephen Bennett opening the scoring after the break, Creggan soon got into their stride, and had Saggart well and truly on the ropes for most of the second half.

Either side of two Oran McCann points, 16-year-old Conor Small goaled for Creggan before Stephen Bennett’s 42nd minute free provided some respite for the Deisemen, who by then still led by two goals.

But without full-back Kieran Fennessy, who had to be replaced due to injury early in the second half, Ballysaggart’s defensive cohesion loosened somewhat, and Creggan capitalised on his absence.

Another Oran McCann free, followed by a superb point by corner forward Conor McCann cut their arrears to four points, after which midfielder Sam Maguire (sent off in extra time) missed a sitter from six yards.

A 47th minute point, again off the hurl of the excellent Oran McCann, left just a goal between the sides, as Creggan’s energy levels showed no signs of waning.

With Shane Bennett deployed to a deeper role, and how well he did ‘i lár na páirce’, Saggart lost some of their attacking menace, and their collective energy reserves appeared to be emptying.

But Stephen Bennett’s 49th minute free put them four points clear, as their fantastic support did all they could to lift their heroes.

Creggan were still full of menace and when Conor Small was impeded yards from goal, referee Christy Browne had no option but to outstretch his arms and award a 50th minute penalty. Up stepped Conor McCann and he did the needful to leave just a point between the sides.

Ronan Walsh released Stephen Bennett for another Saggart point in the 53rd minute only for Creggan substitute Matthew Nelson to cancel that out from the very next attack. Both Bennett and McCann missed frees they’d been scoring for fun a half-hour previously as the match edged towards its conclusion, with Ballysaggart firmly on the back foot.

And with only 30 seconds left on the clock, somewhat inevitably, Kickhams Creggan tied up a pulsating encounter thanks to a Conor McCann point. Extra time beckoned.

One suspected Saggart benefited from the break more than Creggan did such had been their second half superiority, and while Oran McCann edged them in front via a free, Ballysaggart had clearly regrouped mentally and physically.

In the ninth minute of the first period of extra time, Shane Bennett’s long-distance effort was diverted into the net by Brendan Prenter to put Saggart a point ahead. But back came Creggan, as points from Oran and Conor McCann gave them a one-point lead before the change of ends.

And they began the second period the brighter, as substitute James Carey and Ruairi McCann both found their range to send the men from Antrim a goal clear.

Saggart wing-forward Kenneth Cashel, one of this team’s unheralded lieutenants, chipped in with a vital 73rd minute point before Kevin Rice did likewise at the opposite end 60 seconds later. And when he added two more in the 76th and 77th minutes, it looked like curtains for Ballysaggart, by which time players on both sides were cramping up.

But there’s no more dangerous lead in Gaelic games than three points, and in what was the last throw of the dice, Shane Bennett provided a most stunning finish; a fitting conclusion to a breathless 80 minutes of high-octane drama.

Ballysaggart: Matty Meagher; Bobby Ryan, Kieran Fennessy, Daniel Devine; Barry Murphy, Eugene O’Brien, Cailean O’Gorman; Christy Murphy, Kieran Bennett; Shane Bennett, Darren Meagher, Kenneth Cashel; Ronan Walsh, Stephen Bennett, Tom Bennett.

Scorers: Stephen Bennett (2-7; 2-5f), Shane Bennett (3-0), Kenneth Cashel (0-2), Ronan Walsh, Kieran Bennett and Daniel Devine (0-1 each).

Substitutes: Michael Kearney for Fennessy (34 mins), Stephen Hale for Kearney (66), Shane Meagher for Tom Bennett (70) and Cathal Fitzgerald for Devine (78).

Kickhams Creggan: Brendan Prenter; Declan McCann, Aidan Maguire, Donal Carey; Brendan Maguire, Thomas McCann, Martin Johnston; Sam Maguire, Aidan McKeown; Kevin Rice, Oran McCann, Ruairi McCann; Conor Small, James Dougan, Conor McCann.

Substitutes: James Carey for Dougan (27 mins) and Matthew Nelson for D McCann (36).

Scorers: Conor McCann (1-6; 1-0 pen, 0-2f), Oran McCann (0-8; 0-5f), K Rice (0-4; 0-1f), Conor Small (1-0), Ruairi McCann (0-2; 0-1f) and James Carey (0-1).

Referee: Christy Browne (Galway).

Dermot Keyes.

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