Na Piarsaigh 3-17 Loughmore Castleiney 2-18
After the final whistle, the Loughmore-Castleiney supporters came out of the stand and gathered on the pitch, there to commiserate and to loudly cheer their players off it.
Well was it earned, too. A higgledy-piggledy old game had only just slipped out of their hands in the dying minutes as sheer weight of numbers eventually told and stamped Na Piarsaigh’s passport for the Munster semi-final.
But the Tipp champions lost not a hair in defeat. They had a man sent off after two minutes. They saw a second walk after 35. Their corner-forward Liam McGrath scored 1-3 but had to be chaired off at the end because he couldn’t walk another step. They faced a stiff wind for the whole of the second half and had to drop the wondrous Noel McGrath back into defence to man the ramparts.
And still, despite it all, they very nearly held out. Gaudy and all as Na Piarsaigh's numerical advantage had been, the Limerick side didn't manage to forge a second-half lead until the 59th minute. When full-forward Kevin Ryan drew a stunning save out of Shane Nolan, the break found its way to David Dempsey – the one Na Piarsaigh player who had consistently worked out how to find space all afternoon.
His finish bought Na Piarsaigh a two-point lead just as the hour ticked by, the first time they’d been in front since the 25th minute.
Loughmore-Castleiney had four minutes to make up the deficit but their pockets were turned inside out by that stage. Save for a long-range Noel McGrath free, they had nothing left to give.
"I don't know what to say to ye," sighed manager Declan Laffan afterwards. "Devastated I suppose is the best way of putting it. I thought we'd hold on until the end but we let the last goal slip.
"I'm struggling to say anything. We'll just knuckle down and get on with it because what's what we'll do. We'll move on, we can't turn back the clock. It's gone. It's devastating but it's gone."
For Na Piarsaigh, it was an escape they’d never have forgiven themselves for failing to make. After David Bourke’s red card on two minutes, they took an age to get to grips with how best to press home their advantage. They played their extra man in the full-back line, despite the strong wind which meant that Loughmore-Castleiney were able to shoot from distance.
At the very least, they ought to have stitched an extra body onto that of Noel McGrath who was having one of the games of his life. He was the best player at both ends of the field, the game’s top scorer despite spending whole swathes of his afternoon tidying up ball in his own half-back line. He scored the Tipp champions’ first two points and later set Liam McGrath up for their first goal in the 27th minute with a brilliant crossfield pass.
That goal ended a tit-for-tat opening spell in which the sides had pretty much cancelled each other out, despite the numerical imbalance. It had the effect of turning on the rockets for Loughmore-Castleiney as Na Piarsaigh collapsed in the period immediately before and after half-time.
Having led by 0-8 to 0-5 in the 22nd minute, they found themselves watching on apparently agog as the Tipp side helped themselves to 2-7 on the spin before the rot stopped in the 34th. It all shook out at a 10-point lead, a shelling that looked certain to have killed off the Limerick champions.
But then two things happened within seconds of each other. Na Piarsaigh immediately got a goal back through Kevin Downes and as his attacking partner Dempsey celebrated, Loughmore-Castleiney corner-back Willie Eviston lashed out with his stick. Referee Cathal McAllister flashed a red.
So a 10-point lead became seven and a one-man advantage became two. Suddenly the mountain didn't look so high. And although Noel McGrath pointed a sideline cut of pure defiance soon after, Na Piarsaigh kept chipping away. Dempsey's first goal reduced the margin to four and they still had 20 minutes still to play around with.
The made inordinately hard work of it but with Shane Dowling pointing frees from distance – one late strike cleared the bar from his own 45 – they got there in the end. They go on to meet Waterford side Passage in a fortnight, although they will have to do without full-back Kieran Breen who saw a red card of his own six minutes from time. As for Loughmore-Castleiney, attention turns to the Tipp football final next weekend and a shot at a scarcely credible double. If heart counts for anything, they'll take some beating.
LOUGHMORE-CASTLEINEY: S Nolan; T Long, D Bourke, L Egan; W Eviston, J Meagher, T King (0-1); C McGrath (0-2), T McGrath; N McGrath (0-9, 0-5 frees, 0-1 sideline cut), D Kennedy, J McGrath (0-1); L McGrath (1-3, 0-2 frees), E Sweeney (0-1), C Hennessy (1-1). Subs: J Campion for Long (59 mins), M Webster for Hennessy (59 mins).
NA PIARSAIGH: P Kennedy; N Buckley, K Breen, M Casey; C King, D Breen (0-1), J O'Brien (0-1); S Dowling (0-5, 0-4 frees), A Dempsey; W O'Donoghue (0-1), K Downes (1-2), D Dempsey (2-1); K Kennedy (0-1), K Ryan (0-2), A Breen (0-1). Subs: P Gleeson (0-2) for Kennedy ( half-time), D Quigley for A Breen (56 mins).
Referee: C McAllister (Cork)