Ballyhale Shamrocks 0-21 Kilcormac-Killoughey 1-14
Can Kilkenny hurling supporters really take another retirement? It was a thought that lingered throughout a rumbustious second half in Portlaoise that contained a bit of everything; silk, steel, quality and calamity.
Ironically, the player whose name was on everyone’s lips with that giant retirement question mark hanging over his head, Henry Shefflin, was the one who ultimately engineered victory. Perhaps realising that a muddy field in December was no platform to bow out upon, the 10-time All-Ireland medallist got better as the game grew older and tipped the balance in Ballyhale’s favour with some extra-time heroics.
So, the will he, won’t he saga regarding arguably the game’s greatest player’s future will rumble on until early February at least, when the new Leinster champions play the Galway winners in the AIB All-Ireland club semi-finals.
Had Ballyhale not somehow pulled this win out of the fire, the feeling is that Shefflin may have called it quits shortly before his 36th birthday, bringing to six the number of post-All-Ireland retirements.
In truth, his team should have lost. Kilcormac-Killoughey were the better side over the hour but simply shot too many bad wides when the game hung in the balance.
Unfortunately for Ciaran Slevin, he was the man who hit most of them, drilling four placed balls in a row wide during a second-half that they bossed.
Credit to the team’s talisman, he still gave a strong display, shooting two particularly important points from play. But he will inevitably be tormented by those misses, which meant the 2012 winners only led by a point after 54 minutes.
Ballyhale would grind out extra-time and essentially dominate the two periods of 10 minutes.
Aside from the retirement question, Shefflin role on the day deserves attention. He threatened to be the hero turned villain in a breathless finale in normal time. Firstly, he nailed the 58th minute point that put Ballyhale one clear, but then he twice conceded possession with high risk passes across his half-forward line, one of which led to Slevin drilling over the equaliser from a free.
Relatively quiet up to then, Shefflin’s full focus appeared to be commanded by the drama and he scored two points in extra-time as well as setting up another one for James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick.
That was more like the Shefflin of old, his improved form mirroring the team’s rising standard.
It wasn’t, of course, all about Shefflin. His club and county colleague, TJ Reid, scored 10 important points.
At full-back, another county man, Joey Holden marked danger man Dan Currams and did well though Currams did sneak a 35th minute goal.
Having trailed 0-6 to 0-7 at half-time, that was the strike that gave Kilcormac-Killoughey the sense this could be their day.
The game’s only goal owed more to perspiration than inspiration. James Gorman and Peter Geraghty were both denied from close range before captain Currams followed up.
Both sides would reel off four-point bursts without reply after that as the game increased in intensity.
But it wasn’t vintage stuff, far from it. Ballyhale’s performance in the county final was several notches above this. Yesterday, they scored just seven points from play in regulation time. And no goals.
Poor Brian Cody (the Ballyhale teenager of the famous namesake) will spend his Christmas being ribbed about an open goal he missed in the first-half of extra-time. Colin Fennelly was over-eager at times too and it was no surprise he switched forward positions with Shefflin searching for any spark.
Danny Owens’ Kilcormac-Killoughey deserve huge credit.
But for the missed chances — 10 wides in the 60 minutes, six in the second-half — they surely would have won. As for extra-time, they weren’t helped by the loss of full-back Ger Healion with a calf injury at the end of normal time.
Ballyhale introduced Ronan Corcoran, an All-Ireland minor final star for Kilkenny, and he opened the scoring in extra-time. Three more Ballyhale points in a row followed, including one from Shefflin which was celebrated with a raised, clenched fist.
Shefflin’s final score drew a similar reaction when he split the posts from way out on the right wing early in the second-half of extra-time. There were a couple of converted frees from Slevin at the death but Kilcormac-Killoughey needed another goal. It never arrived and they left with that most nagging feeling, that they really should have won this game.
It wasn’t one moment, more a growing feeling of unease as Kilcormac Killoughey’s Ciarán Slevin drilled several placed balls wide midway through the second-half. They weren’t all easy but he should have scored several of them.
Talk of the town
It was hard to avoid the Henry Shefflin question in Portlaoise. Will he or won’t he retire? Everyone wants an answer though the man himself is clearly content to keep hurling away. In the last 40 minutes or so, he was excellent.
Did that just happen?
Ballyhale didn’t make any fuss of it — they didn’t seem to even know — but they are now officially the top team in Leinster. Their eighth provincial title puts them one ahead of Birr in the roll of honour.
Best on show
Joey Holden (Kilkenny). The young county player has filled a problem position since moving to full-back for Ballyhale. He leaked 1-1 to Dan Currams but did well generally on arguably Kilcormac-Killoughey’s best player.
The Ballyhale brains trust of Andy Moloney and Colm Bonnar moved TJ Reid to midfield for extra-time. .
The man in black
Bar a couple of debatable frees, Paud O’Dwyer handled the game well . He gave two yellows to either team.
Ballyhale will play the winners of the Galway final, Portumna or Gort, in the AIB All-Ireland semi-finals on February 7. Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: TJ Reid (0-10, seven frees one 65), Henry Shefflin (0-4), Mark Aylward and James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick (0-2 each), Conor Walsh, Eoin Reid and Ronan Corcoran (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kilcormac-Killoughey: Ciaran Slevin (0-7, five frees), Dan Currams (1-1), Cillian Kiely (one free) and James Gorman (0-2 each), Conor Mahon and Damien Kilmartin (0-1 each).
Subs for Ballyhale: B Cody for Hoyne (h/t), A Cummins for B Aylward (56), R Corcoran for Walsh (58). M Dermody for P Shefflin (76), P Reid for M Aylward (78), K Mullen for C Fennelly (82).
Subs for Kilcormac-Killoughey: T Geraghty for Kilmartin (46). D Murray for G Healion (e/t), S Guinan for Gorman (h/t e/t), E Grogan for Kiely (74), J Grogan for McConville (80).
Referee: P O’Dwyer (Carlow).
Ballyhale Shamrocks: R Reid; K Nolan, J Holden, A Cuddihy; P Shefflin, M Fennelly, B Aylward; D Hoyne, C Walsh; J ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, C Fennelly, TJ Reid; E Reid, H Shefflin, M Aylward. Kilcormac-Killoughey: C Slevin; C Mahon, G Healion, A McConville; K Grogan, P Healion, B Leonard; D Kilmartin, K Leonard; C Slevin, C Mahon, C Kiely; J Gorman, D Currams, P Geraghty.