BY NIALL SHERRY
An exciting Q/F awaits against holders Ballyhale
Bennettsbridge were crowned league champions on Sunday, following a 3-point win over Clara at Nowlan Park. Building upon recent success at both junior and intermediate level, this was the Bridges first senior silverware since 1971 – some 50 years ago.
Playing against the wind in the first half, both sides appeared to be sounding each other out, as they traded scores. Neither side able to build any clear momentum or gain dominance in any area of the pitch.
It would Clara that opened the scoring with a lovely point from Matthew Kenny. Bennettsbridge responded with a free from the very accurate Nicky Cleere. The bridge nudged in front thanks to a fine point from Liam Blanchfield. Clara then hit two in a row to edge ahead. The joy of going ahead was tempered by a nasty looking hamstring injury to former county star Lester Ryan, which forced him from the action.
Clara keeper Kevin Nolan then made a fine save from Liam Blanchfield to prevent a certain goal. Despite playing with the wind, The Waterford influence on the Bennettsbridge team was clear to see as they were playing a short strong-running game. This resulted in the odd ‘heart-in-mouth’ moment for the Bridge defence as Clara pressed high to try and force the opposition into mistakes near their own goal.
At the first water break, Clara led 0-6 to 0-5, the only cloud, the injury to key man Lester Ryan.
Nicky Cleere notched his 3rd score of the day before Liam Ryan edged Clara ahead.
The sides would draw level on seven occasions during a tense first half but it was the ever-reliable Cleere that would get the final score of the first period to leave Bennettsbridge 0-10 to 0-9 ahead at the short whistle.
The second half began with Clara on the attack, going in search of the equalising score. Their first couple of attempts failed to raise a flag, as the game started to spark. It would be that man Nicky Cleere that registered the first score of the second period following yet another indiscretion by the Clara defence. Following Clara’s fourth wide of the half, Bennettsbridge struck again following nice play which finished with Willie Murphy pointing.
Proceedings livened up when Bill Carrigan and Liam Blanchfield continued their niggly contest from the first half. The referee consulted with his linesman and this resulted in both players receiving a yellow card. Willie Murphy got his second score of the game shortly after the ‘handbags’, only for Liam Ryan to respond for Clara. No. 19 Willie Murphy then hit his 3rd point of the day following some lovely individual play, to leave the Bridge 0-14 to 0-11 ahead. Again, Clara responded with Liam Ryan hitting his 2nd and 3rd score of the day to leave just one between the sides at the second water break.
When play resumed, Liam Blanchfield hit a nice point to put two between the sides again. The gap was back to the minimum following a lovely long-range point from Clara’s Jack Langton. That man Willie Murphy was everywhere, supporting, assisting and scoring – another cracking point to edge his side further ahead.
Clara, playing with the strong wind at their backs were racking up the wides – 14, the same number of points they had managed. Great play from the Blanchfield’s saw the ball reach Willie Murphy who yet again found the target to leave the Bridge leading 0-17 to 0-14. Their ability to be more economical with scoring was very evident, with no wides in the second period. Matthew Kenny reduced the deficit to two, before man of the match Willie Murphy hit another lovely score. The icing on the cake was the Bridge’s final point which came on the back of some lovely hurling and saw Jason Cleere raise the white flag.
Following roughly 8 minutes of injury team, the referee blew the final whistle and Bennettsbridge were deservedly crowned St Canices Credit Union League Champions for 2021 on a score line of 0-19 to 0-16.
>> SHERRY SAYS………..
It may have only been the league title, but judging by the demeanor of the Bennettsbridge management team, they really wanted this win. Messer’s Dooley, Shanahan & Maher were animated throughout the contest, and certainly provided an exciting side-show to the hurling action!
Let’s start with the beaten finalists Clara. Their wide count was certainly almost greater than their scoring total. This would normally spell defeat, and in Nowlan Park last Sunday it did. Having said that, Clara didn’t appear to despondent at the final whistle. One would imagine that their attentions had already turned to championship action next weekend. Losing the influential Lester Ryan certainly didn’t help their chances against the Bridge, but more worryingly Lester’s expression on the sideline indicated that his season may be over.
Turning to Bennettsbridge. A fantastic result for the club. 1971 is a long time ago. A first senior title in 50 years testimony to all the work done over the last decade or so. In Nicky Cleere, they possess one of the most reliable and accurate dead ball specialists in Kilkenny club hurling. Ably supported on the scoring charts by man-of-the-match, Willie Murphy (0-5) and county player Liam Blanchfield (0-4), the Bridge were far more economical with their scores.
Don’t forget, there are still 2-3 starting players to come back into their side, that will certainly boost their attacking prowess next weekend. Ballyhale will be aware of the threat, having seen it at close quarters during their league defeat recently. Should the Bridge come up trumps next weekend, I hope the cameras catch Dan Shanahan’s reaction on the sideline!