WHATEVER about the quality of the match – and it wasn’t the classic generally forecast – let no-one be in any doubt about the quality of this Ballyhale Shamrocks team, nor their right today to call themselves the best hurling club in Ireland.
What a journey they’ve had; champions for the fourth year in-a-row in the All-Ireland champion county, Kilkenny, champions in Leinster after a hard campaign which resulted in wins over Oulart-The-Ballagh, Ballyboden St Enda’s and Tullamore, then conquerors of the Cork and Munster champions Newtownshandrum in the All-Ireland semi-final, that was hardship enough.
Yesterday, however, they were faced with their biggest test of all, and on the biggest stage.
Good and all as Ballyhale have been for the past four years (club champions in 2007), Portumna have been a team for the ages. All-Ireland champions in three of the past four seasons, on the way to retaining their title last year the brilliant Galway champions absolutely blitzed Ballyhale in the semi-final, five goals blasted past a shell-shocked Shamrocks defence before De La Salle of Waterford were similarly overwhelmed in the final.
They had won their way out of Galway again in 2009, had dismissed Dunloy in the All-Ireland semi-final, and now here they were again, back in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day. This, then, was the final challenge facing Ballyhale yesterday, and what a daunting challenge it was. From the outset, however, they were up for it.
A repeat of last year this was never going to be, as Ballyhale worked their way into an 0-7 to 0-1 lead after 16 minutes. Three of those points came from Henry Shefflin, two from the superb TJ Reid, one each from a rejuvenated Cha Fitzpatrick and full-forward Paddy Reid with Portumna’s only point coming from a free by Joe Canning.
It was a flattering lead, admittedly. Canning had two clear goal opportunities in those opening minutes, the first saved by Ballyhale keeper James Connolly, the second a superb catch in the red zone by Joe, but then bottled up effectively by Aidan Cummins and the superb Alan Cuddihy, he was unable to get off the shot.
That defensive effort was typical of what was going on all over the pitch, with Ballyhale working incredibly hard; any Portumna player who found himself on the ball also found himself surrounded by two or three players in green-and-white, and that determination paid dividends.
Portumna did manage parity for the rest of the half, two points each from Joe Canning and Damien Hayes against two each from Henry and Eoin Reid, leaving it 0-11 to 0-5 at the break. But at this stage Canning had moved to wing-forward; he would still do damage out there, under the puckout especially, but he was now gone from the edge of the square – a definite victory for the inside defence of the Kilkenny champions, and an early indicator of the way this game was going.
The third quarter was ‘The Joe Show’, the only period in the game when Portumna looked like they could pull this one out of the fire. Seven points they scored, to five for Ballyhale, and Joe had six of those, including one free from about ten metres inside his own 65. Then came the pivotal moment.
Six goals we had in this game last year, five of those by Portumna, but all of them well made and well taken; yesterday we had just the one, a scrappy one at that, which probably made it all the more of a heart-break for the reigning champions. Over their great run in recent years, goalkeeper Ivan Canning has made a number of critical saves for Portumna, but his is such a cruel and unforgiving position on the field. A backpass from close range by Aidan O’Donnell didn’t do Ivan any favours, the Ballyhale inside forwards smelled blood and gave chase; Ivan fumbled, David Hoyne pounced and the ball ended in the net. That made it 1-16 to 0-12, less than 15 minutes remaining – given how their defence was performing, Ballyhale just weren’t going to be caught from there, and weren’t.
Joe continued to score points, had one good angled drive saved by Connolly, but Cuddihy, Cummins and late call-up Padraig Holden were superb at the back for the Shamrocks, Paul Shefflin, captain Eamonn Walsh and Bob Aylward formed a strong half-back line – the goal that Portumna so badly needed was never going to come. Close as it might appear from the scoreline, this was a comprehensive win by Ballyhale. As mentioned above, not a classic, not even bordering on exciting, truth be told, but no blame to Ballyhale for that. New champions, worthy champions.
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: H Shefflin 0-8 (0-6 frees); D Hoyne 1-1; TJ Reid 0-3 (0-1 s/l); E Reid 0-3; J Fitzpatrick 0-2; P Reid, M Aylward, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Portumna: J Canning 0-12 (0-6 frees, 0-1 65); D Hayes 0-2; P Smith, A Smith, M Dolphin, 0-1 each.
Subs for Ballyhale Shamrocks: J Holden (M Fennelly inj 41); M Aylward (P Reid 50).
Subs for Portumna: C Ryan (N Hayes 41; blood for McEntee 12/14).
Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork).