Battling Cushendall eclipsed at Croker Na Piarsaigh in hurling final
Cushendall 2-14 Na Piarsaigh 2-25
Gone in 30 seconds. That could be a neat synopsis of this All-Ireland club hurling final.
The pre-match signs had pointed to Ruairi Óg, Cushendall needing to hit the ground running. But Na Piarsaigh manager Shane O'Neill brought something different to the party as his side ran out 2-25 to 2-14 winners at Croke Park.
He brought in Adrian Breen - originally listed among the substitutes - from the start. Cushendall didn't seem to notice that he was on the pitch as David Dempsey spotted an unmarked Breen charging through the middle.
He feathered a pass, which Breen failed to gather cleanly. However, he recovered to produce a bobbling ground stroke beyond Cushendall goalkeeper Eoin Gillan. Only 30 seconds had elapsed.
Cushendall bravely tried to stick to their task and there were some ferocious passages of play, but their Limerick opponents were vastly superior. Hitting four frees and one from play in the first-half, Shane Dowling opened up a chasm.
The second goal was an example of Na Piarsaigh's ruthless attitude. Sean McAfee had a reasonable penalty shout turned down and the ball was moved to Cathal King, who was able to outpace Neil McManus.
He sent the ball onto Kevin Downes, who held off Ryan McCambridge to punch home.
Although the Antrim champions had reeled in huge deficits against St John's and Ballycastle in previous rounds, they were up against a side over and above what they had dealt with before.
Their cause wasn't exactly helped by how Na Piarsaigh dealt with Neil McManus either. King was happy to pick up an early yellow card for a high challenge, and a further heavy collision forced McManus off the pitch for a blood substitution, re-appearing shortly afterwards with bandages around his face.
Cushendall manager John Killop said afterwards: "I don't know if there were nerves at the start. It took us 20 minutes to get going and you can't afford that.
"They are a good side, you can't take it away from them."
For his part, Na Piarsaigh manager Shane O'Neill was wary of Cushendall's ability to launch a comeback. He stated: "Cushendall are known as a second-half team so we were on alert. We got a few points but then they got a goal and a few points which brought them back into it."
O'Neill was also able to draw on his side's semi-final defeat to Loughgiel Shamrocks in 2012 as a means to remind his players that Antrim teams can be dangerous.
He added: "Some of the boys thought that was the most physical match they had played so there was no way we were going to get ambushed. We were fully focused on our performance."
There were 16 points between the sides when a Shane McNaughton free was pounced on by McManus for the first Cushendall goal and from that point on, their fight increased.
That said, the game became increasingly ragged and Na Piarsaigh had Downes, Peter Casey and David Breen on song.
Without doubt, the goal of the game belonged to substitute Karl McKeegan. The 37-year-old collected a perfectly-flighted McManus delivery and fired it into the net.
McKillop insisted that man of the match Breen's inclusion did not take him by surprise. He added: "I watched them against Tipp and I saw their physicality.
"But that's the way it is - there is nothing we can do about it now."
This was a chastening day for Antrim hurling, but the age profile of the Cushendall side suggests that they could be back at this level in the future.
CUSHENDALL: E Gillan; R McCambridge, M Burke, A Graffin; D Kearney, E Campbell 0-1, S Delargy; S McNaughton 0-4, A Delargy 0-1; C Carson 0-1, N McManus 1-7, 7f, S McAfee; P McGill, D McNaughton, C McNaughton.
Subs: S Walsh for Delargy (33m), McKeegan 1-0 for D McNaughton (37m), A McNaughton for C McNaughton (43m), E McKillop for Graffin (55m), E Laverty for McGill (57m)
Yellow cards: Campbell (10m)
NA PIARSAIGH: P Kennedy; M Casey, K Breen, K Kennedy; M Foley, R Lynch 0-1, 1f, C King; A Dempsey 0-4, W O'Donoghue 0-1; S Dowling -0-7, 4f, D Breen 0-2, A Breen 1-4; K Downes 1-2, D Dempsey, P Casey 0-3
Subs: K Ryan for D Breen (54m), P Gleeson 0-1, '65' for O'Donoghue (56m)
Yellow cards: King (11m), Casey (29m), Dowling (40m)
Referee: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork)