A FIVE-POINT win for Ballyhale Shamrocks in this low-scoring Kilkenny SHC final in Nowlan Park yesterday, a hat-trick of titles completed — but it wasn’t comfortable.
With only minutes remaining in normal time there was just one score in it, 2-9 to 0-12, and James Stephens, who had dominated the second half, were pressing hard.
The ball broke to Eoin Larkin, 20 metres out.
"If you wanted it to fall to anyone, it would be Larks," said James Stephens’ centre-back and man-of-the-match Jackie Tyrell, "But their full-back just got in, got the block on it — one of those things." That was Eamonn Walsh, and his late heroics at one end of the field was just the inspiration Ballyhale needed to drive on and secure their place in history.
Having managed just two points in the second-half to that juncture and with their title on the line, the champions then managed two points in two minutes. The first came from a huge Henry Shefflin free, from his own 50m line ("Well, I hadn’t struck a ball for half an hour, so I had plenty of energy to hit it," he said later, an acknowledgement also of the outstanding display of his immediate marker, Jackie Tyrell); the second insurance point was a truly magnificent solo effort by midfielder Michael Fennelly.
Starting into a stiff breeze, in reasonable conditions, Ballyhale were comfortably holding their own. Then, in the 11th minute with the sides level on 0-2 apiece, the first goal came. Peter Barry, experienced defender with both club and county, had been named at wing-forward for James Stephens, but in a tactical move that didn’t come off, he was operating as an auxiliary half-back.
He hit a lot of ball, right enough, but with the Shamrocks also operating with an extra defender, every clearance from the Village half-back line was being returned with a little interest. From one such ball Henry Shefflin combined with Brendan Costelloe and Patrick Reid and Patricks’ brother Eoin goaled from close range.
James Stephens recovered and held their own for the next 10 minutes but then suffered the ultimately fatal body-blow. A long puckout by James Connolly was well contested by David Hoyne on the right wing and broke through to Patrick Reid in the right corner. In the side because of the absence through injury of Colin Fennelly, the oldest of the Reids goaled with aplomb.
At 2-5 to 0-4, Ballyhale were now in the driving seat and maintained that advantage to the break, at which time they led 2-7 to 0-6.
That would have seen Ballyhale comfortably home against most sides, but James Stephens, driven on by the inspirational Tyrell, rallied in the second half.
As the Ballyhale scores dried up (just two points to show for the first 29 minutes, from TJ Reid, and a Cha Fitzpatrick sideline) James Stephens began to eat into that seven-point lead. Two Donncha Cody points, along with a brace from substitute David Walton (justified his introduction, but at the expense of Brian McEvoy? That was the wrong call) and one each from Eoin Larkin and Matthew Ruth had it back to three, and looking dodgy for Ballyhale.
Enter the King, then Michael Fennelly’s virtuoso point. Valiant effort from James Stephens, and none more so than full-forward Phil Larkin, playing against doctor’s orders after an injury in the quarter-final win over Graigue-Ballycallan only a few weeks ago.
Credit to the champions, however, and where normally the kudos have gone to their high-powered forward line, in this instance it was the defence doing the business, limiting the input of hurler-of-the-year Eoin Larkin very effectively, denying James Stephens the goal they so badly needed.
A long season for several of them however — are they showing wear and tear?
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: E. Reid 1-2; P. Reid 1-0; H. Shefflin 0-3; TJ Reid 0-2; J. Fitzpatrick 0-2 (0-1 s/l); D. Hoyne, M. Fennelly, 0-1 each.
Scorers for James Stephens: E. Larkin 0-4 (all frees); D. Cody 0-2 (0-1 free, 0-1 65); D. Walton 0-2; G. Whelan, P. Larkin, M. Ruth, D. McCormack, 0-1 each.
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: J. Connolly; P. Shefflin, E. Walsh, P. Holden; M. Dermody, A. Cummins, B. Aylward (c); J. Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly; D. Hoyne, H. Shefflin, TJ Reid; P. Reid, E. Reid, B. Costelloe.
Subs: M. Aylward (Costelloe 45); G. Fennelly (Dermody 49).
JAMES STEPHENS: F. Cantwell; T. Keogh, J. Moran, N. McQuillan; J. Tyrrell (c), D. Cody, S. Campion; R. Hayes, D. McCormack; B. McEvoy, E. Larkin, P. Barry; M. Ruth, P. Larkin, G. Whelan.
Subs: D. Walton (McEvoy 29); J. Murray (Whelan 49); E. McCormack (Ruth 58).
Referee: E. Mansfield (Cloneen/Railyard).