Derby with a clash of styles and wider implications

Ballyhale Shamrocks manager Andy Moloney. Pictures: Ramsey Cardy

Is today’s All-Ireland semi-final between Ballygunner and Ballyhale Shamrocks as close as this occasion gets to a derby match?

Andy Moloney agrees: “Was there ever only 20 miles between the two clubs at this stage? Everyone knows each other, from challenge matches and so on. Besides, a lot of them went to WIT and hurled with each other.”

Moloney is uniquely positioned. He soldiered with Ballygunner between 2001 and 2011, winning a Munster title in 2001 and four senior titles in total. There were also two Munster titles with Waterford in 2002 and 2004. “We won the County in 2011, my last season,” he recalls. “Actually it was Na Piarsaigh who beat us in Munster.”

His nine-year-old son hurls in Ballygunner’s juvenile section. A fatherly laugh, indulgent and quietly pleased: “He is keen. Michael thinks he should be out there in Semple Stadium, playing in this match.”

The WIT factor proved crucial. Andy Moloney captained back-to-back Fitzgibbon Cup success in 1999 and 2000. Central to those teams was a Finance and Investment student from Ballyhale, Henry Shefflin. Moloney and himself shared a house, becoming tightest of friends.

Those memories elicit a broad smile: “We enjoyed ourselves, and won more hurling games than we lost. At that time, Brian Cody was able to leave off Kilkenny’s Fitzgibbon crew to their college entirely. The Fitzgibbon contingent at the moment aren’t as lucky.”

He continues: “There is this idea that Henry came into WIT an average hurler and left an All-Star. That was always hogwash. He was already a fine hurler. Even at 19, he was the best freetaker I’d ever seen. He could change his freetaking style, depending on the conditions. With a wet ball, power is not as dependable.

“I suppose that Henry, now that he is manager, is bringing the same level of dedication to improving the group as he did to improving himself as a player. He is very bright and never talks down to anyone. I wondered about the decision at the time to Deirdre, his wife, because taking on managing your own crowd is a tough one.

“But you’d have to say he’s made a right fist of it so far.”

Moloney hurled minor and U21 with his native Tipperary. Then he became the first Cahir clubman to make senior. Following serious eye injury in a league match against Limerick in 2000, he decided on a switch to Ballygunner.

“There was a big input from the club in WIT,” he notes. “Shay Fitzpatrick, who is still Ballygunner’s physical trainer, was brilliant with us in college. It felt the natural move. Work wise, I thought I needed to be in a city, and Waterford was the only city I knew.”

Not that changing county felt straightforward: “It was a difficult decision, and I spoke to the parents at home in Poulmucka about it. I’m a Tipp man. But the decision, once it was made, was made, and there were some great days with Ballygunner.”

Thanks to that early connection, Moloney took on management of Ballyhale Shamrocks in 2014. “Henry got in touch at the time,” he reflects. “To be honest, Colm Bonnar and myself jumped at the chance. We just admired what Ballyhale stood for.”

Clara were defeated in 2014’s senior final. Momentum surged all the way to 12-point victory over Kilmallock on March 17, 2015. Moloney sketches the background: “The team that won that All-Ireland was a much different group from the current one. I reckon nine of that starting team were 30 or more. So you were always going to need fresh talent before challenging again at this level.

“We blooded youngsters over the following three seasons, when Ballyhale weren’t far away in Kilkenny. Henry came in, fair play to him, and made full use of the players who were involved in winning a minor A title and two U21 A titles.”

Club stalwart Frank Holohan picks up on this facet: “I think the younger lads benefited a fierce amount from the Leinster campaign. Before the county final with Bennettsbridge, we were all wondering about the new additions. Was it a year too soon for them? But they got the job done, and contributed well.”

He elaborates: “The young lads’ input went up a few notches over the two Leinster matches. Dean Mason on the goal, Evan Shefflin at wing back, Rónan Corcoran at midfield, Adrian Mullen, Brian Cody and Eoin Cody in attack… I think the Reids [TJ and Eoin] and Colin are playing with more freedom because of this back up.”

Henry Shefflin with Moloney celebrating Ballyhale’s All-Ireland final win in 2015.

Holohan discerns a certain rhyme with the club’s wider history: “Our team won our third and last All-Ireland against Ballybrown in 1990. More or less our last hurrah. The combined age of the 1990 full back line, Michael Fennelly, Wattie Phelan and myself, was a nice bit over a hundred! So we weren’t there for speed.

“We had Tommy Shefflin, who’s training the current team, at midfield. Tommy was maybe 19 and lightning fast. Brendan Mason was top of the left, and got some vital scores against Ballybrown, and 18 at the time. You had Jimmy Lawler at centre-forward, 21 years of age.

“The older lads in 1990 were a bit older than TJ [Reid] and young Michael [Fennelly] are now. But they’re going for their fourth All-Ireland, which says it all. We needed our young lads back then, for freshness and energy, same as they’ve drawn on their young lads this season.”

This man could hardly be better placed to comment. A native of Knocktopher, a village in the parish of Ballyhale, Holohan was among the club’s first strong cohort. He started on all 12 of the championship sides that took nine senior titles and three club All-Irelands between 1978 and 1991. Into the bargain, having won an U21 All-Ireland with Kilkenny in 1977, Holohan captained the county to NHL and Leinster Final success in 1986.

Later on, as an army officer, he settled in Limerick. This decision led to close involvement with Na Piarsaigh, whose senior team he managed at several junctures and where he is currently coaching officer. 1994 saw Holohan lead the University of Limerick to Fitzgibbon Cup success.

He turns wry: “Ironically enough, Fergal Hartley, now Ballygunner’s manager, was centrefield on that Fitzgibbon team. Fergal was a fabulous hurler.”

All in all, this émigré knows Munster club hurling in intimate terms. As he details: “From a Na Piarsaigh perspective, the recent Munster Final defeat to Ballygunner was very disappointing. But that’s to take nothing away from the winners’ excellence. At this stage, we know a lot about Ballygunner, and the main thing we know is how good they are.

“They’ve won five in a row in Waterford, which speaks for itself.”

Holohan detects a certain clash of styles: “Ballygunner bring their half-forward-line way out the field. Most of the time, two are left in the full-forward-line. They hold their shape in defence, three in the full-back-line and three across the 45 at half-back.

“Ballygunner don’t go with a sweeper exactly, but they do like to have extra bodies out and about, so that Philip Mahony at centre-back can drop back at any point, with someone dropping into the hole in front of him, tightening everything up.”

He summarises: “Ballyhale probably face two conundrums. Not just how they disrupt Ballygunner working the ball out short but also how they avoid leaving a lot of space around the full-forwards, because Ballygunner mix it up and like to hit in early balls as well. No doubt Henry [Shefflin] and his selectors will have a plan.”

Andy Moloney likewise savours this evening’s prospect in tactical terms. “Fergal Hartley has done a brilliant job for Ballygunner,” he stresses. “Fergal, as manager, has probably brought a bit more balance between their short-passing running game and the need to attack. They seem to have a maturity this season, digging out those wins in Munster against Midleton and Ballyea, before turning over Na Piarsaigh.”

Will this meeting, with Ballygunner so dominant in Waterford, carry implications at inter-county level? Moloney nods: “It could do. The Waterford hurling public are appreciative of what was achieved over the last few years, but I get the impression they’d like to throw off the shackles, have more of a balance between defence and attack.

“Derek McGrath did a tremendous stint. Winning a league final and making the All-Ireland final is massive in the context of Waterford’s overall history. But I heard Derek on television recently talking about ‘going for it cautiously’ when a team was behind at half-time. I think there are times in hurling when caution works against you.”

Moloney understands that verities are being questioned: “I don’t want to sound old school or archaic. Fair enough, everything moves on. But hurling doesn’t need to be reinvented. Out on the field, Ballyhale Shamrocks have always tried to keep it simple, working the ball to the man in the best position. It’s an approach that has served them extremely well.”

His spell as manager left a profound impression: “They are the most successful hurling club in Ireland. That’s a fact. Yet, there’s nowhere in the parish you can go and see pictures of all the teams that won all those titles. That amazes me, but it doesn’t amaze me.

“The thing about Ballyhale is that it’s never about what they’ve won. It’s always about what they want to win.”

Moloney is sure of one element: “Saturday is part of the same process.”

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