*Clonlara’s David Fitzgerald. Photograph: Sport Action Photography
In a dogged tie that could have realistically swung in either direction, it was Clonlara who provided the greater composure coming down the final straight to edge the opening spoils in Sixmilebridge on Friday evening.
Clare Senior Hurling Championship Round 1
Venue: O’Garney Park, Sixmilebridge
A threadbare attendance in O’Garney Park made for an eerie backdrop to the first adult competitive fare of 2020 but while the effort and intensity couldn’t be faulted, inevitably the overall quality of the tie befitted two ring-rusty sides.
Consequently, consistent freetakers could well prove invaluable in this unique COVID championship as emphasised by Micheál O’Loughlin’s eight point haul (six from frees) including the last three points to secure victory for Clonlara.
And that rally couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as despite leading the way for the majority, Clonlara were finally overtaken entering the final quarter.
An impressive start from Eoin Guilfoyle who bagged a hat-trick of points was complimented by Colin Ryan’s accuracy from placed balls as the Blues found their feet with three in a row to inch in front by 1-13 to 0-15 by the 51st minute.
David Fitzgerald equalised immediately from the puck-out but with the bit between their teeth, Newmarket would repeat that feat in the 54th minute with Colin Ryan’s eighth free of the evening.
Without key forwards John Conlon and Cathal O’Connell through injury, Clonlara craved leadership for their young side that featured six of their Minor A winning side from 2017.
And it was Micheal O’Loughlin that answered the call to arms as he levelled up the contest for the sixth time by the 56th minute before firing over an inspirational point from halfway to regain Clonlara’s slender advantage.
With every possession vital admits four minutes of additional time, eventually a burst from David Fitzgerald earned a free for O’Loughlin to convert from 40 metres with the last puck of a worthy opening bout.
Indeed, with his younger brother Paraic soaring to prominence as a puck-out magnet in the opening period, Micheal O’Loughlin’s steady flow of frees along with braces for Conor Bourke, Ian Galvin and David Fitzgerald saw Clonlara boast nine different scorers over the hour in contrast to just five for the Blues.
Nicky O’Connell and Colm Galvin were also to the fore in the half-back line, with the latter having a major duel with Colin Guilfoyle throughout the first half.
Newmarket can point to four goal opportunities as a source of regret as Stephen Kelly miss-hit an early chance, Colin Ryan flashed one across the goal midway through the second period while John Feehily also had a shot saved by debutant goalkeeper Cillian O’Brien.
However, the Blues were fortunate to get a 30th minute major when Ronan McCormack’s defensive free was flicked on by Stephen Kelly, only to be inadvertently deflected into the net off the helmet of Paul McNamara.
That goal was crucial to keeping Newmarket firmly in contention as despite having a sizeable wind at their backs, they found themselves trailing by four nearing the break at 0-10 to 0-06. Clonlara appeared sharper out of the blocks and along with O’Loughlin’s frees, it was their young guns Conor Bourke (2), Dylan McMahon and Aidan Moriarty that offered the bulk of the early scores.
The always lively Ian Galvin did raid for the last point of the half in injury-time to keep Clonlara in front by 0-11 to 1-06 with the conditions to come but in truth their advantage should have been greater.
The wind wasn’t a major factor however as both sides played better facing into the teeth of the breeze as Eoin Guilfoyle and Colin Ryan regained parity within four minutes of the restart at 0-11 to 1-08.
Ian Galvin and Micheál O’Loughlin gave Clonlara some breathing space once more but by now, the Blues had gathered belief as twice more the Blues reeled in a two point deficit to ensure a grandstand final quarter.
It was anyone’s game but with every player and refereeing decision now magnified to its optimum, extra-time seemed a reality as the clock ticked inexorably towards its conclusion.
Micheál O’Loughlin had other ideas however and would be considerate to his neighbours Sixmilebridge in avoiding the cost of putting on the floodlights when seizing the initiative to score the last three points and put Clonlara into the winners’ pot for a must-win Round 2 in a fortnight’s time.
Scorers for Clonlara: Micheal O’Loughlin (0-8, 6f); Conor Bourke, Ian Galvin, David Fitzgerald (0-2 each); Paraic O’Loughlin, Dylan McMahon, Aidan Moriarty, Cian Moriarty, Oisin O’Brien (0-1 each)
Scorers for Newmarket-on-Fergus: Colin Ryan (0-8f); Eoin Guilfoyle (0-3); Stephen Kelly (1-0); Colin Guilfoyle (0-2); James Liddy (0-1)
1: Cillian O’Brien
20: Garrett Kennedy
2: Paul McNamara
4: Mike White
5: Cillian Fennessy
6: Nicky O’Connell
7: Colm Galvin
8: David Fitzgerald
9: Oisin O’Brien
12: Micheal O’Loughlin
11: Aidan Moriarty
10: Paraic O’Loughlin
13: Ian Galvin
23: Dylan McMahon
15: Conor Bourke
21: Cian Moriarty for P. O”Loughlin (26, Blood Sub)
10: O’Loughlin for McMahon (30)
19: Colm O’Meara for White (42)
24: Jathan McMahon for Bourke (47)
1: Ronan McCormack
2: Páraic McMahon
4: Sean O’Connor
3: Jack Enright
9: David Frost
6: Enda Barrett
5: Frank Melody
7: Stephen Casey
10: Eoin Hayes
18: Colin Guilfoyle
12: Colin Ryan
11: John Feehily
17: Eoin Guilfoyle
21: Stephen Kelly
14: James Liddy
8: Eoin O’Brien for Casey (50)
20: Jack O’Connor for Liddy (60)
Referee: Jarlath Donnellan (Wolfe Tones)