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Ballyhale stars’ quality shines bright

CHAMPIONS: Ballyhale Shamrocks captain TJ Reid leads the celebrations after defeating Clara in the Kilkenny SHC final at Nowlan Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach
CHAMPIONS: Ballyhale Shamrocks captain TJ Reid leads the celebrations after defeating Clara in the Kilkenny SHC final at Nowlan Park. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

KILKENNY SHC FINAL:
Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-20 Clara 1-13
Not a vintage Kilkenny final, with the result wrapped up long before the hour was out, but a good day for Ballyhale Shamrocks nonetheless.

The men in white and green collected a 15th county title at the expense of Clara, using the nous of their inter-county stars to ride out a stuttering start.

The 8,612 spectators saw defending champions Clara begin well — they were 1-2 to no score up on three minutes, Chris Bolger finishing neatly for their goal. However, TJ Reid and Mark Aylward responded for Ballyhale before they goaled, Michael Fennelly finding Henry Shefflin with a beautiful pass. Shefflin saw the whites of Clara ’keeper Killian Phelan’s eyes but passed across goal for Mark Aylward to goal.

Ballyhale did the real damage in the second quarter, hitting seven points without reply in a period of complete dominance. Clara’s decision to withdraw players to the middle third backfired, as it allowed opposing defenders to pick out their men with clearances. At the break the men with the shamrock crests were 1-11 to 1-6 ahead and looking good.

Ballyhale manager Colm Bonnar was happy at the break: “To be fair to Clara they worked and created a bit of space inside. But we have quality forwards and the backs were coming to grips with their movement and once we came back into it and went a point ahead I felt we were going to be in the driving seat.

“Sure enough, they bought a man back midway through the first half and that helped us because it drew us onto them and we finished with four or five points in the first half to keep that advantage at half-time.”

A second half of tit for tat scoring suited Ballyhale. Though Keith Hogan’s frees and Chris Bolger’s industry cut their lead to three on 48 minutes, TJ Reid was able to make it a five-point game with two points entering the last ten minutes.

Clara needed a goal in the second half to pressurise their opponents, but a streetwise Ballyhale full-back line made sure they never got a clear-cut chance, and when Reid – who else – hit over a long-range free on 54 minutes it was a six-point lead. The winners’ last point was a good indication of their quality, a fine crossfield pass fielded by Colin Fennelly, who blasted over from distance.

“We knew Clara were a very well drilled outfit and they were going to try and open us up with space and keep the midfielders deep,” said Colm Bonnar.

“But a lot of it comes naturally to these (Ballyhale) forwards they are thinking so far ahead that they are a play or two ahead the whole time and the lads have great vision and the thing was keep taking the scores when we had opportunities.

“We missed a few in the first half and could have been seven or eight up but I knew we were in the right frame of mind. Clara were going to come at us in the second half but I just think our backs were probably after a bit of criticism, people felt they mightn’t be able for the young Clara forwards but you saw today there’s loads of road in these lads and Michael Fennelly at centre-back and Joey Holden at full-back were a big help.”

It’s fair to say there was a subplot to the main narrative yesterday in Kilkenny. It wasn’t a referendum on the quality of fare in the championship — though observers felt that that needed a lift after two disappointing semi-finals – so much as an informal plebiscite on whether one of the Ballyhale players is likely to declare for Kilkenny again next season.

Henry Shefflin’s movement and performance yesterday was an issue of significance that went beyond parochial loyalties. In the first half there were trademark runs from the big forward, in the sense that they occurred appearing on the radar. Twice he ghosted in behind the Clara defence, first creating Mark Aylward’s goal, and then hitting a point himself. There was another superb intervention, a sweet ground stroke out to Conor Walsh, which revealed the vision is certainly intact.

The legs? Ballyhale rotated their forwards effectively, and Shefflin spent little time in the centre-forward position he was named in: he dawdled near the square for a good portion of the hour, coming out late on to challenge for position and get a fair rap across the knuckles for his trouble. The competitor still lives, though, as Shefflin picked up a yellow card seconds later for a shoulder dished out in retribution.

Only a fool would write off a competitor like that, or discard a player with his array of weapons, and clearly Brian Cody is not a fool. Shamrocks’ impending voyage in the provincial club championships clearly defers the need for a Shefflin call on his future, though the non-appearance of his autobiography, flagged for this time of year, suggests, ever so gingerly, he may go again in 2015.

The Kilkenny senior manager will be happy with the form shown by TJ Reid and the Fennelly brothers in any case, but on yesterday’s evidence would it be such a bad call to reach out to ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick one more time?

Scorers for Ballyhale: TJ Reid 0-10 (0-4 fs, 0-1 65); M. Aylward 1-1; C. Fennelly 0-3; E. Reid, H. Shefflin, J. Fitzpatrick 0-2 each.

Scores for Clara: K. Hogan 0-5 (fs), C. Bolger 1-2; C. O’Shea (0-1 sl) 0-2; K. Phelan (f), N. Prendergast, A. Murphy, L. Ryan 0-1 each.

BALLYHALE: R. Reid, A. Cuddihy, J. Holden, T. Coogan, P. Shefflin, M. Fennelly, C. Walsh, B. Aylward, D. Hoyne, J. Fitzpatrick, H. Shefflin, TJ Reid (C), E. Reid, C. Fennelly, M. Aylward.

Subs: B. Cody for M. Aylward, 57.

CLARA: K. Phelan, D. Nolan, S. O’Shea (c), S. Prendergast, N. Prendergast, T. Ryan, D. Langton, L. Ryan, J. Langton, C. O’Shea, K. Hogan, Liam Ryan, C. Bolger, A. Murphy, J. Nolan.

Subs: C. Prendergast for A. Murphy, 44; P. Nolan for L. Ryan, 56; D. Prendergast for C. O’Shea, 59.

Referee: G. Quilty (Slieverue).