WHATEVER about the holders ‘leaving it behind them’, as manager Pat Joe Whelahan suggested afterwards, the relative ease with which Ballyhale Shamrocks built up an eight points lead in the first-half undoubtedly inspired their sixth AIB Leinster Club hurling title win in Nowlan Park yesterday.
It was to sustain them in the face of a sustained Birr challenge which gained a steady momentum from powerful play from midfielders Gary Hanniffy and Barry Whelahan and others and which might have proved successful if they hadn’t to wait until six minutes from the final whistle for their only goal.
That came from Brian Whelahan, clearly limited by the knee injury he picked up against Ballyboden, but still able to make a valid contribution in the second-half after moving from the centre to full-forward. The killing part for the Offaly champions was that seven minutes earlier they were deprived of a great goal opportunity when Shamrocks’ corner-back Padraig Holden deflected a close-in shot from Paul O’Meara. It marked a serious turning point in the game.
Taking the lead immediately following the throw-in, Shamrocks had the ball in the net after only four minutes when TJ Reid broke smartly from the right wing after two Birr defenders went for the ball. And, realising he was on his own, he calmly took his goal after shortening his grip. And, after Brian Whelahan had scored Birr’s only point from play in the 9th minute, Shamrocks quickly stretched their advantage. Mark Aylward and Shefflin (free) added points before Eoin Reid got their second goal.
That came in the 16th minute when keeper Brian Mullins easily stopped a shot from Shefflin which wasn’t hit with much power and Reid was in position to score off the ground from the rebound.
Even before opening up a nine point advantage at that stage, it was clear the Kilkenny side were operating at a higher level. They enjoyed a clear dominance in defence, particularly at half-back, with Aidan Cummins comfortable against Brian Whelahan and, in Michael Fennelly, they had the dominant player at midfield. Further forward they regularly threatened, with brothers TJ and Eoin Reid very much to the forefront at left-half and full-forward, respectively, and once he settled Shefflin gave typical leadership, operating at right half-forward.
In the circumstances, under-achieving Birr were grateful for the unerring striking of Simon Whelahan, who got all but one of their six first-half points from frees. In general play he was quite active without achieving much and the same applied to both corner-forwards Sean Ryan (who made a bold bid to get a goal in the 29th minute) and Brian Lonergan. At the break it was 2-8 to 0-6.
The improvement from Birr was evident from an early stage in the second-half and it was arguably most noticeable in the way their defence tightened up, with team captain Rory Hanniffy more involved after switching wings to mark Shefflin and John Paul O’Meara also to the forefront in the right corner. And central defenders Niall Claffey and Paul Cleary were more formidable.
The net effect was that Shamrocks were limited to three points over the course of the third quarter (and only two more for the rest of the game) while Birr created much more openings up front, helped enormously by the influence of Barry Whelahan and more especially Gary Hanniffy. Additionally, the introduction of Stephen Brown (only recently returned from the US) helped to boost an attack in which Dylan Hayden was also seen to better effect and Brian Whelahan had more of an input after moving to the edge of the square.
The game was nearing its most competitive phase when Paul O’Meara was denied that certain goal in the 49th minute and, while Simon Whelahan again contributed from placed balls, Birr also wasted several other chances of points because of their concentration on trying to create goal opportunities.
When, eventually, they did succeed – with Brian Whelahan easily finishing an opening created by Ryan (resulting from Garry Hanniffy winning a vital ball at midfield), the margin was down to a more manageable five points. However, apart from the fact that time was on their side, Shamrocks still had enough in reserve to ensure a deserved victory – which pits them against reigning All-Ireland champions Portumna in late February.
Meath referee Fergus Smith was a bit lax in penalising players for over-carrying and was often slow to blow for fouls, but overall, he did a fairly good job.
Scorers for Shamrocks:H. Shefflin 0-7 (0-5 frees); TJ Reid and E. Reid 1-1 each; M. Aylward 0-2; C. Fennelly and M. Fennelly 0-1 each.
Scorers for Birr: S. Whelahan 0-7 (frees); Brian Whelahan 1-1; P. O’Meara 0-2; D. Hayden 0-1.
SHAMROCKS: J. Connolly; P. Shefflin, E. Walsh, P. Holden; M. Dermody, A. Cummins, B. Aylward (capt.); J. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly; H. Shefflin, C. Fennelly, TJ Reid; P. Reid, E. Reed, M. Aylward.
BIRR: B. Mullins; J.P. O’Meara, N. Claffey, M. Verney; R. Hanniffy (capt.), P. Cleary, B. Watkins; G. Hanniffy, Barry Whelahan; D. Hayden, Brian Whelahan, S. Whelahan; S. Ryan, P. O’Meara, B. Lonergan.
Subs: P. Molloy for Watkins (36th minute); S. Brown for Lonergan (39th).
Referee: F Smith (Meath).