All-Ireland champions Loughgiel Shamrocks comfortably secured their seventh Ulster Senior Hurling Championship, sailing past Down champions Portaferry by 19 points at Casement Park.
The Antrim champions were strong favourites but Portaferry provided stout resistance for much of the opening half before a goal from Shay Casey (below) just before the break gave the Shamrocks an eight-point cushion at half-time.
Loughgiel accounted for six of the first eight points after the restart, with Eddie McCloskey in tremendous form, and by the time Liam Watson added a second goal on 48 minutes, manager PJ O’Mullan could start planning a third successive assault on the All-Ireland series.
“It was a good performance, that’s three Ulster titles and we scored 2-25 — it’s very hard to knock that,” said O’Mullan.
“We scored maybe 2-20 from play and only conceded 12 points so no criticisms of the team, they were very good.
“We are All-Ireland champions and we’ve earned the right to go back and defend that title and that’s what we’ll try and do.
“We’ll put every effort into it, we’ll try and repeat what we did last year but hunger is not an issue for these boys.
“We’ve had the bad days here when we thought we would win nothing. We’re winning and we intend to keep winning.”
It was indeed a superb all round performance from O’Mullan’s side although Portaferry’s Paul Braniff opened the scoring after two minutes from a free as the sides went on to share the first eight points.
The superb McCloskey levelled, with Eoghan Sands giving the Down men the lead with a fine effort from play.
On 13 minutes the sides were level for the fourth time when McCloskey cancelled out Braniff’s third, and a further three unanswered points — from Benny McCarry, Casey and Declan Laverty — edged Loughgiel into a 0-7 to 0-4 lead.
On 25 minutes, the gap was just two points as Ciaran Coulter got on the scoresheet for Portaferry but in the five minutes before the break Loughgiel added 1-3 without reply to set the Shamrocks on their way to victory.
The goal, on 29 minutes, saw Casey flick the ball to the net for a 1-11 to 0-7 lead.
Watson added another point before the break and although Nigel Kelly cut the gap to seven just after the restart Loughgiel were in no mood to let their title slip.
Joey Scullion began to express himself in the half forward line — finishing on five points — and when Casey unselfishly offloaded for Watson to finish to the net, Loughgiel held a 2-18 to 0-9 lead.
Braniff and Fergal Rodgers both raised flags but as Loughgiel emptied the bench, the scores kept coming at the other end to secure another bite at the All-Ireland cherry for the north Antrim club.
“I thought if we could have got off to a good start we could have held them but we made too many mistakes in the back line and you can’t give the All-Ireland champions mistakes like that,” said Portaferry manager Noel Sands.
“They are going to put you away and that’s what they did.
“They got a good lead at half time and our heads dropped after that.
“I don’t think they are 20 points better than us, maybe 10 or 12 at the minute, but the way they played they have bared their teeth for the All-Ireland series,” he said.
Loughgiel: DD Quinn; P Gillen, N McGarry, B McAuley (0-1); James Campbell, M Scullion, Johnny Campbell; M McFadden, T McCloskey; L Watson (1-5, 4f), D Laverty (0-2), E McCloskey (0-8); B McCarry (0-3), J Scullion (0-5), S Casey (1-1). Subs: K McGarry for N McGarry, D McKinley for B McCarry, C O’Connell for DD Quinn, D McCloskey for D Laverty, T Coyle for M McFadden.
Portaferry: K Keating; C O’Prey, Barry Coleman, J Trainor; M Conlon, C Coulter (0-1), C O’Neill; A Savage, F Rodgers (0-1); S Murray, J Convery (0-1), A O’Prey; C Mageean, P Braniff (0-7, 6f), E Sands (0-1). Subs: N Kelly (0-1) for C Mageean, P Smyth for Barry Coleman, Brendan Coleman for A O’Prey.
Referee: E Hassan (Derry).