UNBACKABLE favourites before a sliotar was pucked this season, Fr O’Neill’s came up with a winning formula in the second half when the pressure was greatest at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday.
Trailing 1-11 to 0-9 at the break, the East Cork side kept their composure on the restart, worked possession to marquee forwards Declan Dalton and Billy Dunne, and by the 50th minute had clipped over seven unanswered points to lead 0-16 to 1-11. They didn’t chase goals, though twice Dunne came close, and tightened up considerably in the middle third to hoover up all the breaks.
They managed another four points in the last 10 minutes, though they still had to survive a dramatic injury-time salvo of 1-1 from Courcey Rovers. It was a gutsy effort from Courceys, but O’Neill’s weren’t to be denied.
Moving Ger Millerick out to the half-back line was key, with sweeper Daniel Harrington ensuring Courceys’ scoring chances against the wind were rare. There are five Millericks in the team, Ger, Mike, Tomás, Joe, and John, and they contributed a massive haul of 0-8 here.
Courceys had been clinical in the opening period — Olan Crowley, DJ Twomey and Richard Sweetnam all nailing magnificent points, while Fergus Lordan had Dalton locked down but they couldn’t maintain that momentum. Dalton kept working hard, and was a major figure in the second half.
Sean Twomey is Courceys’ best-known player, an All-Ireland winner at U17 and U20 and a regular on the senior panel in recent years. His tally of 6-3 this season was boosted by a lethal four-goal tally in the semi-final, but he’s often as influential for his club as a ball-winner and creator as a scorer.
That was the case in the first half, where his heft at the edge of the square led to Ronan Nyhan’s goal. More importantly, he was keeping Ger Millerick occupied.
Seán Guiheen, three-time county champion with Na Piarsaigh, had an impressive coaching resume with his home club, St Catherine’s and Blarney before landing in Ballinspittle and Ballinadee. His tactics were highly effective to push the underdogs ahead at half time.
Credit to Fr O’Neill’s joint-managers Bryan Sweeney and Dave Colbert and coach Niall O’Halloran for their adjustments to tilt the balance. Former star player Billy Murphy is over their strength and conditioning, and their power and pace was critical when it mattered.
O’Neill’s have been one of the most consistent hurling clubs of the modern era. Since emerging from Junior A in 2005 and picking up an All-Ireland title in Croke Park along the way, they were county champions in various grades in 2007, ’16, and ’19, and runners-up in 2011, ’20, and ’21.
Landing the Premier 1 U21 crown against Midleton in 2018 inspired by Dalton, Millerick, Dunne, and Jason Hankard, showed they had the calibre of hurler to compete with the elite teams.
Now they step up to the top tier of Cork club hurling for the first time.
They were undermined in last season’s loss to Kanturk by injuries to Ger Mellerick and Dalton, while the previous year they were left to rue their failure to protect an eight-point half-time lead against Charleville.
They shipped blows in this game, not least conceding that first-half goal, but never wavered, the previous disappointments standing to them.
Man of the Match Dunne had 5-10 coming in, his pace and directness so hard to contain. He added another 0-4 in the Páirc, helped by a quality supply in space in the second half.
It was very much a team effort though, and O’Neill’s beat top teams this season: Courceys (twice), Bride Rovers, Blarney, and local rivals Killeagh.