Mount Sion ... 0-12 Sixmilebridge ... 0-10: The rain lashed off the corrugated roofing like handfuls of rice. The wind whipped in viciously from the Killinan End. We came to Thurles in expection of seeing Mount Sion perform, again, as less than the sum of their parts. To see a sturdy Sixmilebridge side pull out another title. As an afternoon out, the Munster club hurling final promised little. Tom Humphries reports from SempleStadium
Yet against the odds they conjured up a thriller, an absorbing game played in conditions that would have Arctic explorers looking for get-out clauses. Mount Sion, drubbed by yesterday's opposition at this stage three years ago, pulled an unlikely win out of the tempest.
How unlikely was it? From six previous provincial final appearances Mount Sion had won just one title, back in 1981. The talk during the week was of Claremen being fired up by the unsavoury wash from this year's All-Ireland championship and the mystery of Gerry Quinn's broken hand. Not likely at all.
Given the freakish, malevolent aspect of the elements the game assumed the form of a cricket match and when Mount Sion, having had the wind and rain at their backs, declared at half-time with just a five-point cushion we felt they were done for. Sixmilebridge have proved themselves masters of these tricky winter engagements. Five points was a trifle.
Yet, significantly, in amassing their first-half total the Waterford men had exhibited the class of thoroughbreds in some parts of the pitch. The game at this level is supposed to be about balance, about just being as strong as your weakest link but it helps when you have players of the calibre of Ken McGrath and Michael White dabbling in the forwards.
McGrath, in particular, was sublime yesterday. He scored nine points of his side's total but more than that he worked and toiled on the uphill climbs; he came back and did the heavy lifting at midfield and still when the magic was demanded of him he could produce.
Early on there was a sense of desperation about the Mount Sion play and McGrath and White were instrumental in converting that into something more useful. Knowing that they needed a good total on the board by half-time the Waterford side were attempting to score goals from close-in frees as early as the 15th minute.
By then McGrath had struck a wondrous point from a pressured position out on the right wing and within minutes he had matched it with a better one from the left sideline. White was pulling early and sweet on any ball that got to the full-forward line and reliance on the same basic principles should have been enough for his team-mates. Instead they tried to take too much out of the ball and got bogged down again and again.
Mount Sion's last score of the opening half captured the key elements perfectly. Sixmilebridge had a sideline cut in their own half. Well taken, the ball reached the top of its arc and then blew 10 yards back towards the Sixmilebridge goal. Ken McGrath intercepted, fed White perceptively and White swished the ball over the bar with a stingy economy of movement.
After the break Mount Sion got the little morale-boost they needed when McGrath scored the first point of the second half. By now they were without their injured talisman Tony Browne and were facing a half hour on the rack. McGrath's free bought them time and space and when McGrath and Barry Browne followed up with a couple of wides one wondered if Mount Sion could just eke out enough possession to survive.
As so often with Clare teams, the forwards weren't quite up to the task. Niall Gilligan was well manacled by Anthony Kirwan, managing just one point from play. Around him there was a lot of huffing and puffing but very little creativity. Little by little the Clare side hauled Mount Sion in but they seemed unwilling to do it all the hard way, hoping again and again for a quick goal or two to kill the game. It never came.
With eight minutes of normal time left Sixmilebridge drew level with a Christy Chaplin point. Ten points apiece and there must have been a temptation in some parts of the crowd just then to bolt for the gates and escape the elements and beat the traffic. The game had one good twist left, though.
With four minutes left Alan Mulready fouled Ken McGrath out on the left wing. Mulready, on a yellow card already, got an early walk and McGrath spliced the posts with the free.
Mount Sion were a point ahead again. We started speaking about replays and Christmas. Then Ken McGrath struck again. Sixmilebridge were funnelling forward, increasingly shapeless. A ball broke in from the right wing and McGrath, unescorted, scooped it up and deposited it over the bar.
Four minutes of generally unwanted injury time followed. Mount Sion grinned. Mount Sion bore it. On a day when no hurling should have been played they produced the goods.
MOUNT SION: I O'Regan; J O'Meara, A Kirwan, B Flannery; J Cleere, T Browne, B Greene; E McGrath, R McGrath; M Frisby, K McGrath (0-9, four frees), E Kelly; M White (0-3), S Ryan, J Meaney. Subs: K O'Neill for T Browne (9 mins), B Browne for Meaney (half-time), K Stafford for O'Neill (51 mins), M O'Regan for Ryan (52 mins), P Fanning for Frisby (68 mins).
SIXMILEBRIDGE: D Fitzgerald; W Kennedy, P Hayes, T Keogh; A Mulready, J Chaplin, C Walsh; M Culbert, C Chaplin (0-2); B Culbert, J Reddan, S Fitzpatrick (0-1); A Chaplin, N Gilligan (0-5, four frees), C Crowe (0-1). Subs: P Fitzpatrick (0-1) for Walsh (17 mins), C O'Meara for M Culbert (52 mins), D Murphy for Reddan (60 mins).
Referee: W Barrett (Tipperary).