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Shamrocks reign supreme as King Henry punishes Gaels

Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-22 O’Loughlin Gaels 2-11
WITH so many of the right ingredients in place — old dogs against young pups, marquee names on both teams, perfect weather, excellent sod for the time of year — yesterday’s Kilkenny SHC decider could have been a final for the ages. It wasn’t.

No fault of the new champions because — front to back — this is an impressive Ballyhale Shamrocks side, and yesterday they played probably their best overall game of this year (the magnificent quarter-final win over Carrickshock notwithstanding).

O’Loughlin Gaels, outstanding champions in 2001 and 2003, fell far below their own high standards, and were completely outgunned by a far more fluid, fired-up, talented team.

The Gaels flattered to deceive early on, even going so far as to take the lead in the 13th minute courtesy of Martin Comerford’s second goal, which put them 2-1 to 0-6 ahead. Even at that stage, however, six scores to three in favour of Shamrocks, the writing was on the wall.

Henry Shefflin has so often carried this club on his broad shoulders; these days he doesn’t need to. Yesterday he was again on song, in those early exchanges particularly, and four of those first six Shamrocks points were his (including two from inside his own half); the difference now is that he has help, and lots of it, and it starts at the back.

With his occasional sorties out from goal, keeper James Connolly can put the heart crossways on the Shamrocks supporters, and he should have dealt much better with the high centre for the first O’Loughlin’s goal.

Outside him, Henry’s brother Paul and Padraig Holden are two excellent modern hurling corner-backs and were on top from the throw-in. Between them, full back Eamonn Walsh had something of a nightmare start, and his failure to keep his feet gifted Martin Comerford his second goal (like his first, it was superbly taken).

Thereafter though, Eamonn limited the ever-dangerous Kilkenny star.

That one-point lead, then, was short-lived, Henry tying it up with a pointed free in the 14th minute, before Shamrocks showed they too carried a big punch. Their goal started with some good outfield work by keeper Connolly, carried on through the silken Cha Fitzpatrick in midfield and was set up with an excellent delivery by Paddy Reid. The finish was sublime. Judging everything to perfection, young corner forward Mark Aylward waited until exactly the right moment before making the merest contact with the ball and deflecting it into the net.

After that score, Shamrocks never looked back. “Once we got into our stride we were by far the better team,” said manager Maurice Aylward.

“In the second half we had a sticky period, couldn’t get that one point we needed, but once we did it settled us down, and we were by far the better team.”

It was 1-14 to 2-4 at the break and really, it was all over. The sticky patch Maurice referred to came between the 40th minute and the 53rd, when O’Loughlin’s enjoyed their best period, coming within five points.

It wasn’t so much that the city team were dominating, however, though radical surgery at the break seemed to work when three subs were introduced (Brian Kelly, Mark Bergin and Nigel Skehan), all of whom did well, while midfielders Alan Geoghegan and Mark Kelly also stepped up their game. It was a case of winning-post nerves beginning to hit Shamrocks, to paralyse.

Maurice Aylward: “O’Loughlin’s are a hard team to put away. A little bit of panic was bound to set in, but we had warned the lads we weren’t going to control the game for the full 60 minutes. The time we weren’t in control was the time to knuckle down. That was exactly what happened.”

The first point they needed came, fittingly, from Cha, the second came from 19-year-old TJ Reid, the third from his older brother Paddy, two of three talented brothers on the side.

Fittingly, the final two points came from the cultured blade of Henry.

O’Loughlin’s tried hard, but Martin Comerford was more or less on his own up front, too easily closed down after that early spurt, while team captain Andy got no change from Aidan Cummins.

For Ballyhale Shamrocks it was a return to glory. Between 1978 and 1991 they won nine county senior championships, three club All-Irelands. Since then, nothing.

Good times beckon again.

Scorers: Ballyhale Shamrocks: H. Shefflin 0-10 (0-6 frees); M. Aylward 1-2; TJ Reid 0-3; J. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick 0-3; P. Reid 0-2; M. Fennelly, A. Cummins, 0-1 each. O’Loughlin Gaels: M. Comerford 2-0; N. Nolan 0-5 (0-3 frees); M. Bergin 0-2; N. Skehan 0-2 (frees); A. Geoghegan, B. Dowling, 0-1 each.

BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: J. Connolly; P. Shefflin, E. Walsh, P. Holden; K. Nolan, A. Cummins, B. Aylward; J. Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly; E. Fitzpatrick, H. Shefflin, TJ Reid; P. Reid, E. Reid, M. Aylward.

Subs: B. Kelly (Murphy 30); M. Bergin (Lawlor 30); N. Skehan (Kelly 30); A. Kearns (McEvoy 36); C. Furlong (J. Comerford 54).

O’LOUGHLIN GAELS: K. Cleere; B. Murphy, B. Hogan, P. Dowling; S. Dowling, A. O’Brien, N. McEvoy; A. Geoghegan, M. Kelly; J. Lawlor, A. Comerford, M. Nolan; J. Comerford, M. Comerford, B. Dowling.

Subs: D. Hoyne (Fitzpatrick 44).

Referee: D. O’Sullivan (John Lockes).