De La Salle 2-18 (24) Passage 3-12 (21)

De La Salle took the first step on what they hope will be a journey to Croke Park next March – let’s be honest, it’s got to be on their minds – with a routine win over luckless Passage in Walsh Park.

The challengers faced into a stiff wind in the first half, one so strong that at one stage a puckout from Passage goalie Eddie Lynch dropped on his own 45. Passage seemed to cope well with this imposition though, two points from frees from Eoin Kelly opening the scoring. Perversely De La Salle were making a hash of the wind, numerous balls into the corner trickling out wide. When Paudi Nevin did manage to get around the back he got too close to the endline and his shot across the goal was saved with the follow-up from John Mullane going wide. He finally got De La Salle off the mark with a free and a Jake Dillon point after the aforementioned tornado held up the puckout levelled matter in the 1oth minute.

You’d have thought it would be only so long before De La Salle got the measure of the wind so Passage were going to have to make the most of their chances, and Eoin Kelly did with their first goal, gathering the ball and shooting with what seemed just be the intention of hitting the target (© Alan Hansen), a poorly-struck bobbler than John Coady in the De La Salle goal made a complete hash of to give Passage  three precious points. It was as good as it got for Passage in the half though. Some loitering on a sideline ball by a Passage back caused the ref to throw the ball in and Jake Dillon punished such silliness with a point and a couple of frees from Mullane soon levelled matters.

De La Salle were beginning to find their range, dropping the ball into the half-forward line and letting them run on to it rather than putting it over the heads of the full-forward line. Successive points from Nevin and John Keane followed this template, then Nevin galloped onto an air-shot from a Passage back to create an opening only to be dragged down. Passage took their collective eye off the ball which allowed Mullane to take a short free to Dillon who smashed the ball to the net and suddenly the lead was out to five.

It was a moment that would come to mind a few minutes later when, having swapped points to leave the score at 1-8 to 1-3, Eoin Kelly drew a foul in a point-scoring area. Kelly, who had spent the half closer to the midfield than the full-forward line, tried to emulate De La Salle with a tapped-free to Owen Connors but they were more prepared for it and the shot was deflected out for a 65 which was gallingly hit wide. Kelly got a free not long afterwards to ease the pain but the need to score a goal was misplaced – any score would be useful in those conditions. De La Salle, on the other hand, must have been aware that four points wouldn’t be much of a cushion so were eager for another goal. Eoin Madigan nearly got in for one but was too close to the endline and couldn’t find his way between the goalie and the near post, although Bryan Phelan notched the subsequent 65. Then a sideline ball from near the halfway line went all the way through to Mullane who teed up an onrushing Dillon to hammer the ball home. And what a hammer blow it was. The lead had doubled from four to eight in injury time in the first half.

I wrote recently about the panic that comes when you find yourself a couple of goals down at half-time and Passage must have had that sinking feeling when an early free stretched the lead to three goals. A fine score over-his-shoulder by Stephen Mason was matched by one from Killian Fitzgerald on the run to keep the gap at nine. As the rain began to spit down Kevin Moran was exactly the man to have in such difficult conditions and John Mullane was now loitering in the midfield as Kelly had done in the first half for Passage to win some clean possession for De La Salle. A couple of quick Passage points hinted at a comeback but they put themselves right on the back foot again when a poor sideline cut – Passage were particularly shocking in this department all day – from Jason Roche was rammed back into the danger area with interest. Passage managed to scramble the ball out for a 65 and Phelan did the needful. When Passage did get a sideline cut right Eoin Kelly proceeded to smack a nothing ball into the forward line. He did strike a massive free from wat out but ultimately would cut a frustrated and occasionally frustrating figure for the entire second half.

Passage couldn’t unsettle De La Salle, mostly thanks to the doughty Moran. A point from Thomas Connors was matched by a free from Mullane and there were a couple of instances of Passage players throwing the ball away as they sensed the match ebbing away from them. They finally got a break when Thomas Connors slipped his marker in the middle and raced towards goal. The professional foul was committed but Eoin Kelly has previous in these situations and you knew he had only thing in mind. He thumped the ball high to the net and the gap was down to five with seven minutes to go. A cheap free awarded to Mullane settled any nerves De La Salle might have had, and when Patrick Walsh felt the need to go for a goal when most of the De La Salle team was between him and the net you knew Passage were clutching at straws.

There was time for Kelly to overhit another ball wide and for Dillon to score after a swashbuckling sashay through the Passage defence to put the tin hat on it. A goal scored after a long distance free dropped in by Joe Upton (I think – the person behind me said “well done, Joe” so I’ll run with that) went all the way to the net was purely academic as it obvious to everyone that this was the last puck of the game. I’d like to shy away from statements about how Ballyhale/Clarinbridge/Tippecanoe and Tyler too won’t be losing any sleep over that result, but it’s unavoidable. Twelve wides testified to De La Salle’s struggles to get to grips with the conditions and Passage were powder-puff in attack. Still, they won it pulling up and with Lismore out of the race things are looking a little easier for them in Waterford.

De La Salle scorers: Jake Dillon (2-3), John Mullane (0-5f), Bryan Phelan (0-3, 0-2 65, 0-1f), Paudi Nevin (0-2), John Keane (0-2), Eddie Barrett (0-1), Killian Fitzgerald (0-1), Eoin Madigan (0-1)

Passage scorers: Eoin Kelly (2-4, 1-4f), Owen Connors (0-6, 0-3f, 0-1 65), Joseph Upton (1-0), Stephen Mason (0-1), Thomas Connors (0-1)