Cork's Jack Leahy challenges Offaly goalkeeper Mark Troy.

Brave Offaly lose out to second-half Cork burst All-Ireland U-20 HC Final

CORK 2-22


by Kevin Egan

Today, Goliath wins.

As is their signature, Offaly emptied their lungs and hearts on a blisteringly hot day in Thurles this afternoon, and for 30 minutes, the dream was still very much alive. Adam Screeney’s magic reduced the Rebels to cynical fouling every time he took possession, the physical exchanges in the middle third of the field were at worst, evenly contested, and possibly even going Offaly’s way.

Certainly, Cork had more scoring threats up front, and that continued to the end, as evidenced by the fact that Offaly produced just five scores from play all afternoon, two of them from Screeney.

But as the crowd of just under 30,000 roared their approval while the two teams went down the tunnel at half-time, with Cork leading by 1-11 to 1-9 having played with the aid of a slight breeze, every cardiac surgeon in the Munster area was still on red alert, as this one looked set to go to the wire.

It didn’t, because Cork delivered a 1-6 burst at the start of the second half that put the game right out of Offaly’s reach.

Team captain Micheál Mullins set the tone when he took possession tight from the throw in and powered down the heart of the Offaly defence before blasting the ball to the net, and over the next ten minutes, Cork turned an intense, blood and thunder contest into as comfortable a victory as any team could possibly hope to experience in an All-Ireland final at any grade.

Six points in a row followed, with key forwards Jack Leahy, William Buckley and Ben Cunningham all on the mark from a variety of angles, the majority of them brought about by their ability to win their own ball and hold off defenders to generate a clean look at the posts.

Unsurprisingly, Offaly’s bravery and indomitability was unmoved, and there was never a time when any tackle, or any run, was made with less than complete and total endeavour. They needed more however, and in this instance, Icarus had flown a bit too close to the sun.

Adam Screeney broke Cork’s run with a free in the 40th minute, but with Cork now dominant in most sectors due to their superior power and physicality, they simply didn’t have the strength to generate the momentum they needed to really bring the crowd back into the game.

Conor Doyle’s goal gave a brief glimpse of hope, but straight away Cork came back down the field and Diarmuid Healy split the uprights with a wonderful point from the right corner of the attack, and that was how the contest continued. Offaly worked incredibly hard to generate chances against a resolute Cork defence and an imperious half-back line, but two or three in a row proved elusive, particularly with Ben Cunningham beginning to find his groove.

The depth of the Cork panel came to the fore as Eoin O’Leary and Adam O’Sullivan put in big shifts of the bench, and while Shane Rigney did fire in a late goal for the Faithful County, it was far too late to put any real pressure on the rampant Rebels.

It was all so different from the first half, when the hurling was physical, intense, and of the highest quality. Cork got a huge early boost when Diarmuid Healy pounced on a loose ball and clinically found the bottom corner with a perfectly placed daisy cutter of a shot, but the real star of the show was Screeney, who was everything that Offaly supporters have come to hope and to expect.

Believe the hype, as the phrase goes, as the Kilcormac-Killoughey star once again sprinkled his fairy dust on the occasion – despite what can most kindly be described as an orchestrated and somewhat cynical effort by the Cork defence to clip his wings by any means necessary.

A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd with every ball that was sent in his general direction, and with good reason. He picked off two glorious points of his own, won a string of frees that he converted, and set up the attack that saw Cormac Egan hit with a frontal challenge by Shane Kingston, leading to Dan Ravenhill’s perfect penalty to retake the lead.

Kingston was extremely fortunate to escape a straight red card , while in general, Cork got a lot more leeway on the persistent fouling front than might have been the case with other referees.

Ravenhill’s punishment of that foul was immaculate, but clearly Egan was not himself after the hit, and on a day when Charlie Mitchell and Conor Doyle didn’t have the consistent impact that the county has come to expect, that meant yet more responsibility on the shoulders of Screeney and Ravenhill.

As the half wore on, Cork did a better job of covering off the space and restricting the supply of ball into the full-forward line, and the signs were ominous for Offaly as Cork fired four points in a row to build a 1-11 to 1-9 interval lead, and that was after a half in which Offaly hadn’t shot a wide, and their only missed scoring chance was Cormac Egan’s goal effort following another wonderful assists from Screeney, which ultimately yielded a score from the subsequent 65.

Still, as the roars echoed around the ground at half-time, and with a slight breeze set to favour the midlanders in the second half, it felt like this one was still in the balance.

The script was about to change dramatically, as Cork were on the cusp of bringing Offaly’s worst fears to life.

SCORERS - Cork: Ben Cunningham 0-9 (5f), Jack Leahy and William Buckley 0-4 each, Micheál Mullins and Diarmuid Healy 1-1 each, David Cremin, Tadhg O’Connell and Adam O’Sullivan 0-1 each. Offaly: Adam Screeney 0-9 (7f), Dan Ravenhill 1-4 (1-0pen, 0-2f, 0-1 65), Conor Doyle and Shane Rigney 1-0 each.

CORK: Brion Saunderson; Mark Howell, Shane Kingston, Darragh O’Sullivan; James Dwyer, Ben O’Connor, Micheál Mullins; Tadhg O’Connell, Eoin Downey; Diarmuid Healy, William Buckley, Ben Cunningham; Ross O’Sullivan, David Cremin, Jack Leahy. Subs: Eoin O’Leary for O’Sullivan (45), Adam O’Sullivan for Cremin (48), Colin Walsh for Leahy (55), Brian Keating for O’Connell (57), Ciarán Doolin for Dwyer (57).

OFFALY: Mark Troy; Patrick Taaffe, James Mahon, Brecon Kavanagh; Luke Watkins, Sam Bourke, Ter Guinan; Colin Spain, Cathal King; Dan Bourke, Cormac Egan, Conor Doyle; Dan Ravenhill, Charlie Mitchell, Adam Screeney. Subs: Shane Rigney for Egan (half-time), Barry Egan for Mitchell (39), Rúairí Kelly for Taaffe (39), Joe Hoctor for King (45), Ailbe Watkins for Spain (53).

REFEREE: Chris Mooney (Dublin).