Birr's best too hot for Castletown
Sometimes it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Birr are the distillation of all that is best and worst about Offaly hurling. In other words when they are bothered to be good they are very good indeed. And when they are not? Check the files on the county team. Yesterday on a bleak afternoon in Nowlan Park it was Castletown's misfortune to meet Birr just after a half-time break in which the Offaly men had located the best of themselves. Birr came out and they were bothered and they were very good and they were unbeatable. A stridently-contested first half gave way to the numbing inevitability of a second half in which Birr were in top gear for about 15 minutes and cruising thereafter.
Pity. Only a point had separated the sides as they went down the tunnel for their half-time tea. Watching Castletown with their larding of Cuddys (nine on pitch and bench, 10 if you include trainer Paddy) fight their way through the first half there were moments when the romance of a surprise win seemed possible.
Yet that was only the stuff of daydream. The annexing of Birr's third Leinster title in five years was always on the cards. Even when they aren't in the form for hustling for the ball Birr have enough class in all areas of the field to survive. Three Whelehans, a couple of Pilkingtons and Hannifys and no evident weak spots make them the most formidable of challenges at this level.
Birr came back out yesterday for the second half and in the gathering gloom turned in a splendid performance.
Those of us in the press box who were wondering how we would cope with the illegibility of the numbers on the Castletown jerseys as the light worsened needn't have worried. The Laois champions didn't score during the last half hour.
Ominously, Birr have better days than this in them. They relied greatly yesterday on the customary excellence of Brian Whelehan at centre back. As journalists once again take up the task of picking the GAA All Stars this week Whelehan's brilliance was a timely reminder of the last great crime committed by the GAA branch of the fourth estate. He did everything a centre half should. Staunching every leak, making every distribution wisely.
There were moments when the full back line behind him looked shaky but as the game wore on Joe Errity spread reassurance, and towards the end Castletown found themselves running into a maze full of cul-de-sacs.
It would be easier to work out the wording of a universally popular abortion amendment than to figure out where everyone was playing yesterday. Birr started five outfield players in their selected positions. Castletown, only marginally the more slavish to convention, started six.
Whatever the effect of the shuffling was supposed to be the benefits accrued first to Birr as they scored the first three points, five of the first six points and created a couple of good goal chances before the break, the best of which fell to Declan Pilkington.
Gary Cahill began especially well, steadying himself with a score from a free and adding three points from play before the break. He was among those in the Birr forward line benefiting most from the distribution of the half back line and the midfield influence of Johnny Pilkington.
Castletown played hard, but when the energy levels subsided a little, the class of Birr's hurling became too much for them. On the odd occasion when they threatened the goal they desperately needed, good tidying-up work was performed by Errity.
Birr, on the other hand, always looked capable of bursting free from the chains of winter hurling. They had a couple of good goal chances before the break and Liam Power had an excellent opportunity in the second half.
Castletown were spared those humiliations, but Birr escaped town yesterday without every really leaving the comfort zone.
Birr: B Mullins; S Whelehan, J Errity, B Hennessy; Barry Whelehan, Brian Whelehan, Niall Claffey; J Pilkington, C Hanniffy (0-1); P Carroll (0-1), C McGlone, G Cahill (0-4, one free); L Power (0-1), D Hannify (0-2), D Pilkington (0-2). Sub: O O'Neill for L Power (50 mins).
Castletown: J Lyons; M Phelan, John Cuddy, T Phelan; R Delaney, Paul Cuddy, John O'Sullivan; Cyril Cuddy (0-1), E Kirwan; David Cuddy (0-2), Michael Butler, F O'Sullivan (0- 1); Patrick Phelan (0-1), Padraig Cuddy, Matty Cuddy. Sub: M O'Sullivan for P Cuddy (41 mins).
Referee: P Neary (Kilkenny).