CLARE can scarcely believe the upturn in their hurling fortunes in less than six months. Last September the county won the All-Ireland title and yesterday Sixmilebridge added the All-Ireland club championship following their comprehensive win over Dunloy at Croke Park.
But spare a thought for Dunloy. Antrim too have had their bleak time in hurling and for a time yesterday they seemed on the brink of victory.
As in many of their other games, however, Sixmilebridge finished very strongly and as the Dunloy defence lost its composure the goals followed.
A disastrous start by Dunloy, which saw their full back line exposed in the first minute, might have broken the heart of a lesser team. But Dunloy shook off their shock in admirable style and by the 16th minute they had taken the lead with four points without reply.
The pace of the match at that stage was punishing to say the least. Dunloy drove the ball 9ff the ground at every opportunity and they harried Sixmilebridge, never giving them time to settle on the ball in the way they like.
But with the teams level after 20 minutes Sixmilebridge struck for their second goal. Danny Chaplin had driven in the first goal and this time his brother David struck as Dunloy's defence was again punished for hesitancy.
Before Dunloy could regroup, however, a third goal rocked them back on their heels when Noel Earley dropped a wicked ball into the goalmouth and Danny Chaplin nudged it into the path of Gerry McInerney who smashed it home to leave the score at 3-1 to 0-4.
David Chaplin and Gerry McInerney stretched the Claremen's lead to eight points before Dunloy struck back with a goal from Tony McGrath after a mazy run by Alastair Elliot. So all was not lost for Dunloy when half-time arrived with six points between the sides - 3-4 to 1-4.
A fine save by Dave Fitzgerald, the first of at least three, held Dunloy at bay in the opening flurry of the second half but Dunloy threw down the gauntlet in the filth minute when Colm McGuckian opened up the Clare defence and Alastair Elliot wriggled his way in for a goal.
A minute later Frankie McMullan cut the lead to just two points and Dunloy looked as though they might do it.
However, Sixmilebridge kept their nerve and although Dunloy forced them back on defence with some fine first-time hurling, their defence stood firm and by the 14th minute the score stood at 3- 5 to 2-6 for the Clare side.
Sadly, Dunloy failed to score in the last quarter of the match and as they tired Sixmilebridge seemed to get a new lease of life and goals by David Chaplin and Declan McInerney knocked the spirit out of the Antrim side entirely.
Their defence was brilliantly marshalled by Michael O'Halloran, Kevin McInerney and John O'Connell with David Fitzgerald having a fine game in goal. In midfield John Chaplin and Noel Earley probably shaded it over Frankie McMullan and Colm McGuckian.
The Chaplins, the McInerneys and Martin Conlon were most prominent and Niall Gilligan can be proud of a haul of three points in a 15-minute stint.
Dunloy were well served throughout the field with Seamus McMullan, Gary O'Kane and Sean Mullan making up a sound half back line.