Carlow’s St Mullins stay on the adventure trail in climactic finale

James Doyle's two injury-time points see off Rathdowney after absorbing semi-final

St Mullins (Carlow) 2-17 Rathdowney-Errill (Laois)1-19

Another brilliant afternoon for Carlow hurling – literally, as the winter sun dazzled down on Netwatch Cullen Park. And by the end, St Mullins had just about nudged a first provincial final place in the AIB Leinster club championship after an engrossing semi-final, which saw Rathdowney-Errill leading as the match went to injury-time.

They had caught up in the last 10 minutes, levelling twice and when replacement Shane Madden flighted over the lead point, 1-19 to 2-15, the Laois champions had destiny in their own hands.

It was fitting that it was James Doyle who conjured up the vital scores to propel St Mullins to the winning post. Losing little in the comparison with his vaunted team-mate Marty Kavanagh, who was again exceptional, Doyle first made a spectacular catch before hitting the equaliser and as time ran down to the last grains, he flicked the ball over an opponent's head and drove the winner.


The bare facts of that narrative are a little misleading in that the Carlow champions looked the better side throughout the second half, during which they turned around Rathdowney’s early advantage. They resumed the half with a blitz in the first three minutes to outscore their opponents by 0-4 to 0-1 to lead by two, an advantage they more or less preserved until the dramatic closing stages.

Credit Rathdowney with their dogged refusal to fall off the challenge. Led up front by Mark Kavanagh, who shot 0-12 including four from play, they positioned themselves to hit the front with just minutes left, but the winners had the composure and class to find the necessary response.

The battle of the Kavanaghs was an intriguing sub-plot and ended in parity on the scoring front, albeit Mark had fewer wides. But his Carlow counterpart scored a vital goal in the 25th minute, just as Rathdowney had gone four ahead.

St Mullins always had a menacing potential. Their forwards – especially the inside line – were stronger in the air and it was only the need to bring James Doyle to centrefield that robbed the team of his ball-winning closer to goal, where their opponents were tight and assured when the ball came in low.

St Mullins started better, hung on when the Laois side made their move with a typical solo and goal from captain Paddy Purcell – Paddy Boland replying in kind within seconds – and then turned the screw when they had got on top after the break.

It was a lively affair and Rathdowney goalkeeper Damien Madden was called on to make two super saves to prevent goals – otherwise the winners wouldn't have been relying on Doyle's late deliverance.

“I was still very confident in the boys’ ability to dog out a score,” said manager Niall O’Donnell when asked about the fraught finale. “We always felt that we could win this game but we always knew it would come down to those last few minutes and the boys have great character, they’ve shown it all year in any of our games really.

“There was four minutes of injury-time gone in the county semi-final and we were three points down and we still dug it down. These have great character, they fight to the very end and they do it through pure hurling. It’s great to be involved with them, it’s great to watch them and we’re proud of them.”

Of course there was a sombre subtext. The memorable elimination of recent All-Ireland champions Cuala in the quarter-final couldn't really be celebrated at the time, as selector Micheál Ryan had been taken seriously unwell during the match. He is now stable and in a Dublin hospital – able to talk to them at half-time – and that lent an air of double jubilation to the scenes at the end of Sunday's semi-final.

“Yeah, the Cuala match was, for various reasons it was an extraordinary match,” said O’Donnell, “and when it finished so poorly for us in terms of Micheál taking ill, really I knew we’d be right today once we got word that Micheál was recovering and we worked on the boys. Essentially we worked more on just getting their heads right than anything physically or tactically.”

O'Donnell's Rathdowney-Errill counterpart John Delaney was generous in his assessment but not inclined to accept any plámás. It was put to him that 1-19 would win most matches at this time of the year.

“It doesn’t if you concede 2-17, simple as that.”

For St Mullins there is a daunting task ahead. Ballyhale Shamrocks are the All-Ireland champions and O’Donnell reflected that, although under-strength they had lost an intermediate league match by 34 points in Kilkenny against Piltown but pledged that the Leinster final would be different.

"They put the game to bed inside five minutes," he said of Ballyhale's no-nonsense dismissal of St Martin's from Wexford at the weekend, "so we'll hope to stay with them as long as we can and we won't be found wanting for effort on the day."

ST MULLINS: K Kehoe; J Doran, P Doyle, G Bennett; O Boland, G Coady, C Kavanagh; M Walsh, J Kavanagh; S Murphy (0-2), Marty Kavanagh (capt) (1-9, eight frees), P Walsh; J O'Neill (0-1), P Boland (1-0), J Doyle (0-5).

Subs: P Connors for P Walsh (42 mins).

RATHDOWNEY-ERRILL: D Madden; J Corrigan, B Campion, J Purcell; J Fitzpatrick, J Kelly (0-1), E Killeen; J Keane, P Purcell (capt) (1-1); J Ryan (0-1), Mark Kavanagh (0-12, seven frees, one 65), S Dollard; P McCane (0-1), R King (0-2), B McGinley.

Subs: K O'Dea for Keane (42 mins), R Bowe for McGinley (46 mins), S Madden (0-1) for Dollard (46 mins).

Referee: S Cleere (Kilkenny).

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times