Chríost Rí Portlaoise 3-10
Loreto Clonmel 2-10
By Pat Delaney
JOHN Locke’s Park in the heart of Kilkenny hurling country has witnessed many small-ball thrillers but on Saturday those lucky enough to be present witnessed one of the most amazing games of ladies football played at any grade with the outcome still in the balance after 63 minutes.
Here were two schools, that had seen highs and lows over the last few years, both laced with players that have provincial medals galore at junior and senior level but not one All-Ireland between them.
Clonmel had the experience of contesting last year’s decider so they had slightly more experience and surely a fierce hunger to avoid two defeats in a row. Chríost Rí were ‘C’ all-Ireland winners six years ago but with five Leinsters had never won an All-Ireland semi-final until they overcame the Connacht champions earlier in March.
Conditions were perfect for football in Callan on Saturday afternoon as a large crowd descended on this hurling homestead and from the throw-in the Munster champions showed their experience with a wide in the first minute.
But in the second minute they opened the scoring from centre forward Kellyann Hogan. Two minutes later she was the provider for Caoimhe Mulcahy who, although small in stature, looked lively and she made it two with only four minutes played.
Already the Portlaoise management were looking worried and when Ava Fennessey made it three in the eighth minute it looked like the Tipperary girls were about to run riot. It might have been a three pointer but for the Portlaoise keeper, Aoife Conlon-Hyland getting her finger tips to the rasper.
Then after Clonmel missed a few chances they began to look vulnerable and the Portlaoise keeper made the first of her many fine saves. Erone Fitzpatrick was wide on her first foray but with 12 minutes on the clock Orla Hennessey soloed down field to land a great point.
Now Portlaoise came more into the game and forced a 45. Then in the 16th minute a great move involving Emma Lawlor ended with Erone Fitzpatrick slamming the ball past the Clonmel keeper. Against the run of play Portlaoise were in front.
Clonmel showed their class with two superb points from Anna Carey and Aine Fitzgerald to regain the lead with 21 minutes on the clock.
Then controversy when Portlaoise were denied a blatant free and instead the referee awarded a free to Clonmel. That free almost yielded a goal but again Aoife Conlon-Hyland denied a certain score.
Back came Chríost Rí with two excellent points, first Ciara Byrne set up Emma Lawlor and a minute later Ciara Byrne repeated, this time finding Isabelle O’Toole to edge Portlaoise back in front.
Clonmel drew level with a great point four minutes before the break, Ava Fennessey for once escaping the clutches of Rebecca Reddin to slot over her side’s sixth point.
The two sides missed chances to regain the lead and it looked as if they would go to the break all square. However there was to be a huge moment in this enthralling contest when three minutes into time added on the ball broke under the stand in favour of the Leinster champions. Orla Hennessey, who had opened the Chríost Rí account in the 12th minute, now went on a solo run from 50 metres out.
Clonmel obviously waited for her to offload to the Chríost Rí forwards but instead she stayed going and with the confidence of a veteran let fly and along the ground. The ball caught the keeper out on her left side and suddenly Chríost Rí were three clear. This was a huge blow for Clonmel having led by three after 11 minutes now found themselves three in arrears.
John Scully must have been pleased but knew that Clonmel would come back even hungrier on the restart. When play resumed Portlaoise club player Julia Cahill had replaced Zoe Keegan and within two minutes Emma Lawlor set up Orla Hennessey for her third score and the Leinster champions led by four.
Clonmel responded with a brace of points but in between the Portlaoise denied them a goal.
Ten minutes into the new half Erone Fitzpatrick slotted a point but that was after Chríost Rí had been awarded a penalty and agonisingly Emma Lawlor saw her effort glance off the right hand upright. In the scramble to clear their lines the Clonmel defence were penalised and the captain made no mistake.
This was a let off for Clonmel and Aine Fitzgerald pointed to leave just two between the teams nearing the end of the third quarter.
Portlaoise were now enjoying a good spell of dominance and when Erone Fitzpatrick was surrounded she off loaded to the junior captain Sarah Larkin. She saw a gap in the defence and from 30 metres out slid the ball low to the keeper’s left and the green flag was waving.
Fifteen minutes remained and from the kick out Clonmel centre forward picked out Caoimhe Mulcahy who had been threatening all day. This time she gave the Portlaoise net minder no chance the margin was back to two with 12 minutes remaining.
Chríost Rí responded but Emma Lawlor saw a great effort drift wide. Then sub Julia Cahill went on a solo and split the posts. Two minutes later Jenny Murphy did likewise to the delight of the big Portlaoise following.
When Emma Lawlor split the posts in the 54th minute the scoreboard read 3-9 to 1-9 and Portlaoise looking home but not dry.
From the kick out Clonmel raced down field and after the full forward kicked a wide they won a free kick. They launched another attack, this time the full forward picked out substitute Allis O’Meara who was alone on the edge of the square. She pumped the ball high into the net and three minutes remained.
The tension was mounting in the stand as Clonmel had the momentum but it was the Emo girl Emma Lawlor who won possession. From 40 metres she kicked a superb point to leave four separating the sides with two minutes of normal time remaining.
Clonmel had not gone away and raced down field. This time centre forward and captain Anna Carey lofted over her fourth point and now just one score was needed to force extra time but the clocks were showing 63 minutes played.
Hearts were in mouths but the referee awarded a free out to Portlaoise. However, Clonmel still had one more opportunity when a high ball in from the captain hung dangerously in the goalmouth – would Chríost Rí concede a penalty or would Clonmel get a goal.
Credit to the defence they just ensured no gaps appeared and no fouls were committed and the final whistle sounded to the delight of the Portlaoise team and supporters and to the disbelief and tears of the Tipperary girls for the second year in a row.
There is no doubting the honours rest where they belong but they had to fight hard and over the hour, despite a barren opening quarter, Chríost Rí were deserving winners.
In saying they had a barren first quarter it should be pointed out that their defence were superb in that crucial segment and they maintained it throughout the contest. Having lived on scraps the team produced a great final quarter scoring a goal and five points.
This team has been on the road for a long time but next year many of their top players will be plying their trade elsewhere so it was a wonderful way to end their post primary career.
After the game Laois woman and President of the LGFA Marie Hickey had the proud task of presenting the All-Ireland trophy to Erone Fitzpatrick and the Ballylinan lady was loud in her praise of two magnificent football teams.
SCOIL CHRÍOST RÍ: Aoife Conlon-Hyland (Portlaoise); Niamh Crowley (St Paul’s), Rebecca Reddin, Sarah Fleming (Portlaoise); Ciara Byrne (Portlaoise), Zoe Keegan (St Paul’s), Lisa Keane (The Heath); Isabelle O’Toole (0-1 St Paul’s), Sarah Larkin (1-0 Timahoe); Erone Fitzpatrick (1-1, 0-1f Park/Ratheniska), Jenny Murphy (0-1 Timahoe), Emma Lawlor (0-4 St Paul’s); Shauna Dooley (Portlaoise), Alice Dunne (Timahoe), Orla Hennessey (1-2 Timahoe).
Sub: Julia Cahill (0-1) for Keegan (h/t)
LORETO CLONMEL: Eimerar McKeown; Sadbh Hallinan, Veerle Van Der Wal, Gretta Nugent; Niamh Larkin, Brigita Valuntaite, Anna Morris; Kellyann Hogan (0-1), Brid McMaugh; Aine Fitzgerald (0-2), Anna Carey (0-3), Eimear Quirke; Caoimhe Mulcahy (1-1), Ava Fennessy (0-3, 0-2fs), Saoirse Keating.
Sub: Allis O’Meara (1-0) for S Keating (43m)
Referee: Jonathan Murphy (Carlow)