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Shamrocks in seventh heaven

ANOTHER Leinster final, another trophy for Kilkenny.

Yes, it was business as usual at O’Connor Park yesterday with Ballyhale Shamrocks retaining their provincial title and setting up an All-Ireland semi-final with Newtownshandrum next year.

Tullamore fought the good fight but the Shamrocks could afford to hit 15 wides, drop a few other efforts short and still win by eight points, which is a fair reflection of the gap between the sides.

This was the Shamrocks’ seventh title and they now lie beside Birr at the head of the honours table in Leinster. Unlike Birr however, Ballyhale’s best years may still be ahead of them.

They started as unbackable favourites here but soon found that Tullamore, as was the case during their first successful county championship campaign in 45 years, had paid little heed to the odds.

Ger Treacy got the scoreboard ticking after just 42 seconds and Tullamore had shown enough composed, intelligent and possession hurling in that short spell to suggest that the contest would not be as cut and dried as predicted. Ballyhale’s response was typical Kilkenny.

From James Connolly’s puckout, the ball was transferred at pace through the middle and, lo and behold, the Tullamore defence parted for Patrick Reid like the Red Sea had once done for Moses.

Damian Fox’s brilliant, diving save averted disaster but the 48-year old custodian could only look on as seven of the next eight points flew over his head and dissected his posts.

Henry Shefflin was the tormentor-in-chief with three of his side’s first seven but one was contentious with the umpires standing firm in their conviction despite getting the third degree from the referee.

Tullamore weren’t helping themselves with some dogged defending being undermined by loose balls into attack that only multiplied the workload and guaranteed their hard work was undone with the concession of scores.

Player/manager Kevin Martin was seeing little ball in at full-forward but he impressed with the few opportunities that came his way. One first-time flick from a Shane Kelly lob into the area required the intervention of the keeper.

Another goalmouth scramble minutes later also failed to yield a goal that, even at that early stage, looked essential if Tullamore were to harbour continued hopes of producing a major upset.

Their main dangerman, Shane Dooley, decided to wander closer to the action rather than wait in vain for an intermittent supply in the corner and he profited with two points from dead balls which kept the chasers in the hunt.

Eoin Reid replied with a point against the run of play five minutes before the pause which didn’t arrive until after the game’s first goal and a mini-melee underneath the main stand which had a high tackle on Shefflin as its root cause.
Though a number of players arrived making shapes, Cha Fitzpatrick was the main culprit and his swipe at Jody Duffy’s hips with the hurley should have earned him a half day for his troubles.

Instead, both he and the unfortunate Duffy saw yellow but the referee never even sought the opinion of the linesmen who was yards from the incident.

The goal came soon after and it was a sickener for the Offaly side. Fox seemed to have everything under control after collecting a long ball inside his penalty area but his clearance was diverted into the net by Patrick Reid’s block.

Dooley still had time to tip over another free but it was his tackle seconds later on David Hoyne which prompted another bout of handbags. Six points separated them at that point but it wasn’t long before the gap was eleven.

That third quarter was where the game was truly won and lost and even the presence of an extra man in midfield for Tullamore – Ger Treacy – failed to stem the flow. Only another Fox save from Shefflin kept things interesting.

With a quarter still to play, the lead had stretched to a full dozen and Ballyhale started to empty their bench in the understandable belief that the fight had been drained from the underdogs.

To Tullamore’s credit, it wasn’t.

Shamrocks wouldn’t score again until the death and a modicum of uncertainty was injected into the day when Dooley scrambled a goal after Ger Treacey’s long ball in had caused panic in the Kilkenny area.

From there on it was almost all Tullamore, aside from one shot from TJ Reid which the in-demand Fox turned onto the post, but the home side never really threatened to pull a result out of the bag.

Francis Kerrigan missed an open goal with 14 minutes to go that would have left only four points between them but, try though they might, they never managed the second goal which their comeback so badly needed.

Shefflin popped over the last score from a free and, given the year he and Kilkenny hurling have enjoyed, there was a certain amount of symmetry in that. Newtown await their attentions in the New Year.

Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: H Shefflin 0-6 (2f, 2 ‘65’s), P Reid 1-0, E Reid 0-3, TJ Reid 0-2, M Fennelly 0-2, D Hoyne 0-2 C Fennelly 0-1.

Scorers for Tullamore: S Dooley 1-5 (0-3f), J Keane 0-1, G Treacy 0-1, F Kerrigan 0-1.

BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: J Connolly; A Cuddihy, A Cummins, P Holden; P Shefflin, E Walsh, B Aylward; J Fitzpatrick, M Fennelly; TJ Reid, H Shefflin, C Fennelly; E Reid, P Reid, D Hoyne.

Subs: B Costello for C Fennelly (50), M Aylward for P Reid (50), K Nolan for Holden (52), T Coogan for TJ Reid (59).

TULLAMORE: D Fox; A Martin, C Bane, S Egan; N Mannion, B Dagg, H Treacy; J Keane, S Kelly; E Finnerty, J Duffy, G Treacy; F Kerrigan, K Martin, S Dooley.

Subs: S Martin for H Treacey (50), D Herlihy for Mannion (51), J Rouse for Kerrigan (59).

Referee: J Owens (Wexford).