THE Kilkenny SHC final certainly didn’t live up to its top billing before 8,000 spectators at Nowlan Park yesterday.
Yes, conditions underfoot were difficult, and the strong wind and heavy showers didn’t make things any easier; throw in the fact that Shamrocks were going for four-in-a-row, and that James Stephens were the team they had dethroned back in 2006, and you had the extra pressure that came with that.
Even when you put all of that together, however, it still doesn’t account for the poverty of play yesterday between two teams that are, inarguably, the two best in Kilkenny club hurling.
The opening half was particularly ponderous, a mere 10 points scored as Ballyhale led at the break by two, 0-6 to 0-4. The strong-running Reid brothers were the main men for the champions in this period, full-forward Eoin with three points, TJ with two from the left wing, all from play. James Stephens, meanwhile, couldn’t manage a single point from play from any of their six forwards in this half.
Team captain Eoin Larkin had two from placed balls and from 20m inside his own half wing-back Donncha Cody pointed another free, with centre-back Jackie Tyrell getting their lone point from play. Given that James Stephens had played with the wind in that half, the signs were ominous.
Within a minute of the restart Ballyhale had extended their lead, a long-range point from Cha Fitzpatrick after a pass from TJ Reid, which should have been the signal for the feared landslide (Shamrocks were huge odds-on favourites). Instead we had a fightback, and two points from captain Larkin (now stationed at centre-forward, where he would cause serious problems for the rest of this game), with another from midfielder Niall Tyrell, and the game was tied, 0-7 apiece after 37 minutes.
Again Ballyhale hit the front, and this time more decisively, a five-point lead courtesy of points from TJ Reid (man-of-the-match) and Henry Shefflin, then a goal by Eoin Reid, slightly deflecting a high centre from Mark Aylward.
This looked like it was going to be the vital score and now, surely, 1-9 to 0-7, quarter of an hour remaining in which to strut their stuff, Shamrocks would put the pedal to the metal, accelerate away. Again, however, the Village struck back. It began with Eoin Larkin, who won superb possession around the 65m line but lost his stick in the process; didn’t matter, Eoin’s handpass found David Walton, who in turn found Brian McEvoy and the former Kilkenny star placed wing-forward Eoin McCormack for a close-range shot to the net. That score didn’t just lift James Stephens, it lifted the whole tenor of this final, and finally, both teams contributing handsomely, we saw some real quality. Twice in the next ten minutes the teams were level, the second occasion on the 57th minute, 1-11 apiece, before Ballyhale finally did what they had threatened to do on a couple of previous occasions, pulled away in those closing minutes with points from each of their three half-forwards, Henry, TJ and Colin Fennelly.
James Stephens did have cause for complaint with a few decisions that didn’t go their way in those final minutes, but they can have no complaint about the result. Ballyhale were patently the better side, and were it not for three outstanding saves from James Stephens’ keeper Derek Brennan -two in the second half, including a flying stop of top-corner shot from Henry Shefflin – this would have been a far more emphatic win.
A fine win then for the Shamrocks, and a second four-in-a-row achieved within a few weeks by Henry Shefflin, who, though his radar was off on this day, still managed to shade his battle with county team-mate Jackie Tyrell.
“It’s a bit surreal, really,” he said, “Great to do it with the county but it’s special to do it with the club. It was hard work, but we expected that; the Village are a great team, tough, and the match was made tougher by the conditions.
“We’re delighted now with this – there was a lot of pressure to do the four-in-a-row, the first team from the club to do it. We’ve had great teams previously, the Fennellys, for us to do this now puts us up there with them – it’s a great achievement.”
Ballyhale’s agenda now is to prepare the team for next Sunday’s Leinster club encounter with Wexford champions Oulart-the-Ballagh, in Wexford.
In the meantime, however, this is one to savour and joint manager Mick Fennelly said : “We knew this would be a two-team game, and that’s the way it was – the bookies odds were ridiculous. We’ll have to give the lads their heads tonight, it’s been a long year and they’ve trained hard.
” Our side never did the four-in-a-row but they’ve done it, a great achievement for a small village. We haven’t looked at Oulart yet, but we’ll celebrate this, enjoy it, then motor on again.”
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: TJ Reid 0-6; E. Reid 1-3; H. Shefflin 0-3 (all frees); J. Fitzpatrick, C. Fennelly, 0-1 each.
James Stephens: E. Larkin 0-5 (all frees); E. McCormack 1-0; D. Walton 0-2; M. Ruth, N. Tyrell, J. Tyrell, D. Cody (free), 0-1 each.
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: J. Connolly; A. Cuddihy, A. Cummins, T. Coogan; P. Shefflin, E. Walsh (c), B. Aylward; J. Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly; C. Fennelly, H. Shefflin, TJ Reid; D. Hoyne, E. Reid, M. Aylward.
Subs: B. Costello (M. Aylward 51); P. Holden (Cuddihy 59).
JAMES STEPHENS: D Brennan; N McQuillan, P Larkin, T Keogh; D Cody, J Tyrell, E Sheehy; I McCormack, N Tyrell; D McCormack, G Whelan, E Larkin (capt); J Murray, M Ruth, S Brennan.
Subs: B McEvoy (S Brennan 30); D Walton (Murray 43); S Campion (D McCormack 47).
Referee: P. Dunphy (Carigeen).
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