Dunloy, Ballymena

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Cushendall Too Strong For Wasteful Ballycran

Ruairí Óg 1-15 St Joseph's Ballycran 0-10

A first-half goal from Sean McAfee set Cushendall on their way to an eleventh Ulster Club Hurling title, as 0-09 from an imperious Neil McManus punished St Joseph's wasteful second-half shooting.

The half-time lead of eight points proved insurmountable and remained the gap at the end of the match, and despite not scoring for over twelve minutes of the second half, a late burst from the Ruairí Óg men polished the score line accordingly.

With Conor Carson unavailable due to job commitments, having started his cadetship with Aer Lingus, Sean McAfee took up his berth with Stephen Walsh coming into the back line for Francis McCurry for the Cushendall side.

Early wides from Neil McManus and Scott Nicholson opened the game in nervous fashion, but centre-forward Fergus McCambridge got the Ruairí Óg scoreboard clicking in the third minute, latching on to a loose ball and guiding it between the uprights, before a Colum McManus free immediately restored parity.

Neil McManus, who struggled from placed balls in Ballycastle a fortnight ago, was in no such form this afternoon and slotted an early free from the left flank after Phelim Savage was adjudged to over carry the ball, before a monster of a sideline from Donal McNaughton opened up a two-point lead for Ruairí Óg.

The Ballycran goal was almost breached when Sean McAfee showed great strength to hold off his man, catch the ball and fire off a shot into the side netting, but McManus punished St Joseph's moments later from yet another free on his own 65m line.

A Conor Woods free briefly stemmed the Ruairí Óg tide, but the experienced Sean Delargy then capitalised on a loose Ballycran pass to point, only to see the Down champions immediately respond through Niall Breen.

A further brace of scores from McManus, the second a superb effort on the run through the middle, preceded another excellent score from Conor Woods, the 'Cran centre forward taking the ball at pace, sidestepping his man and floating over the bar.

Another McManus free opened the lead to three points once again, before a strong run from Donal McNaughton down the right hand side opened up the Ballycran rearguard. McNaughton unleashed a thunderbolt that was superbly saved by Stephen Keith, only for Sean McAfee to follow up and tap home.

Scott Nicholson hit back for Ballycran, but a further brace from McManus and a score from Paddy Burke saw the Glens side go in leading by eight points with the aid of a stiff breeze.

Scott Nicholson got the second half scoring underway for the Down side, collecting a loose ball between the 65m lines and firing between the posts, before a Colum McManus free reduced the gap further to six points.

The next few minutes were dominated by intense exchanges, Ballycran looking to force the issue and Cushendall looking to quell the comeback, and it took the Antrim champions until the 42nd minute to raise a white flag, Donal McNaughton breaking through to split the uprights.

The game was then marred by a serious injury to the excellent Arron Graffin, and lengthy treatment to the Cushendall defender resulted in twelve minutes of injury time being played at the end of the match.

On the resumption, James Coyle caught the ball and raced clear of his man to point, reducing the gap to six once again, but a series of missed frees saw the Ballycran challenge visibly deflate, before McManus got them moving again with a free from an acute angle.

St Joseph's almost forced a green flag to put them within touching distance of their Antrim Division 1 rivals, but despite a high ball being parried out by Eoin Gillan into the danger area, quick reactions from David Kearney saw him scramble it to the safety of the end line.

Neil McManus settled his side with a neat free wide on the right with the game entering its 64th minute, and Cushendall were able to spend the remaining minutes coasting home, another McManus free and an Eoghan Campbell point restoring the eight-point gap they had crafted in the opening half.

Ballycran had Conor Woods red-carded in the dying moments, the centre-forward receiving his second yellow for a foul on Neil McManus, but it was the Down men's wastefulness when they had some momentum in the second half that saw them finish second-best.

Ruairí Óg look set to meet the Connacht champions as they bid to return to the All-Ireland final stage they occupied in 2016.

Ruairí Óg: Eoin Gillan, David Kearney, Martin Burke, Paddy Burke (0-01), Sean Delargy (0-01), Arron Graffin, Stephen Walsh, Eoghan Campbell (0-01), Neil McManus (0-02, 0-07f), Sean McAfee (1-00), Fergus McCambridge (0-01), Ryan McCambridge, Alex Delargy, Donal McNaughton (0-02), Paddy McGill.

Subs: Eunan McKillop for Fergus McCambridge 42, Francis McCurry for Arron Graffin 51, Cormac McClafferty for Paddy McGill 57, Niall McCormack for Sean McAfee 64, Emmett Laverty for Donal McNaughton 72.

St Joseph's: Stephen Keith, Michael Hughes, Patrick Hughes, Sean Ennis, Michael Taylor, Paudie Flynn, Brett Nicholson, Scott Nicholson (0-03), Phelim Savage, Cormac McAllister, Conor Woods (0-01, 0-02f), Liam Savage, Niall Breen (0-01), Colum McManus (0-03f), James Coyle.

Subs: Andrew Bell for Sean Ennis (Blood Sub, reversed) 27, Christopher Egan for Niall Breen 30, Gerard Hughes for Cormac McAllister 30, Paul McSkimmons for James Coyle 68, Andrew Bell for Michael Taylor 69.

Referee: James Connors (Dún na nGall)

Granagh Roof Trusses Man of the Match: Neil McManus (Ruairí Óg)

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