Twenty minutes into the semi-final in Nowlan Park yesterday, current young hurler-of-the-year James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick was in trouble. Having just suffered a hard pull — on the ball, let it be said — he went down clutching his foot and was stretchered off, to an ovation from the large attendance.
With hurler-of-the-year Henry Shefflin already sidelined, this comes as a second body-blow to Ballyhale.
“On first examination, the doctor thinks it’s his metatarsal,” said team manager Maurice Aylward: “He’s gone to the hospital now to have it X-rayed. We’re being hit hard, that’s three gone now — Henry, Cha and our wing-back, Keith Nolan.”
Yesterday was about character, about defying the odds for Ballyhale. James Stephens, remember, themselves All-Ireland champions just a couple of years ago, came to Nowlan Park yesterday with realistic ambitions of regaining all those crowns.
Defensively especially, they looked strong, Donncha Cody, Martin Phelan and Joe Mernagh a rugged unit at the back, full of hurling, with Philly Larkin anchoring a half-back line that featured Jackie Tyrell and Peter Barry on the wings, both of them former Kilkenny captains.
Ballyhale Shamrocks were always going to have to battle for scores. Surprising then that they should open a big early lead, 0-8 to 0-1 at the time of Cha’s injury, young TJ Reid doing an excellent job in taking over Henry’s free-taking duties (he finished seven from seven from placed balls).
During this early period of Ballyhale dominance, Cha was very much to the fore, a prominent force in midfield, but it was their own defence that was most impressive. Paul Shefflin, Eamonn Walsh and Padraig Holden were outstanding at the back, gave the James Stephens inside line neither time nor space, while Aidan Cummins at centre-back had the measure of his inter-county colleague Eoin Larkin, thereby blunting the most dangerous James Stephens scoring threat.
After Cha’s injury, however, the Village finally began to show their wares, and points from wing-forward Matthew Ruth, after a fine solo, a hat-trick from placed balls by Larkin, had them within a score of Shamrocks just before the break, 0-8 to 0-5.
TJ Reid added a point for Ballyhale, James Stephens came close to a goal but were thwarted by the courage of Shamrocks keeper James Connolly (he suffered a blood injury in the process and was temporarily replaced), leaving it 0-9 to 0-5 at the break.
Battle resumed with Ballyhale again taking the initiative, points from corner-forward Eoin Reid (he finished with three, all well taken), and midfielder Michael Fennelly putting them five in front.
They fought their corner, the men from the Village, but they were finding it tough going up front against a fired-up Shamrocks defence. The points came, but they came slowly and they came hard-earned.
Eoin Larkin got three in the second half but all were from frees, a couple of uncharacteristic misses thrown in. Corner-forward David Walton managed a brace. At the other end, progress was almost equally slow, the Reid brothers doing most damage here as Shamrocks extended their lead to seven points in the 50th minute, 0-17 to 0-11. Stephens fought back to within four with still five minutes to go, but that was it.
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: TJ Reid 0-9 (0-6 frees 0-1 65); E. Reid 0-3; B. Costelloe 0-2; M. Aylward, E. Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly, 0-1 each.
James Stephens: E. Larkin 0-6 (0-5 frees 0-1 65); M. Ruth 0-2; D. Walton 0-2; G. Whelan, J. Tyrell, E. McCormack, 0-1 each.
J. Connolly; P. Shefflin, E. Walsh, P. Holden; M. Dermody, A. Cummins, B. Aylward; J. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly; B. Costelloe, TJ Reid, E. Fitzpatrick; P. Reid, M. Aylward, E. Reid. Subs: C. Fennelly (Cha Fitzpatrick inj. 21); D. Hoyne (M. Aylward 44); G. Fennelly (Dermody 59). Blood sub: MP Drennan (Connolly 30+5/30)
F. Cantwell (c); J. Mernagh, M. Phelan, D. Cody; J. Tyrell, P. Larkin, P. Barry; E. McCormack, P. O’Brien; M. Ruth, E. Larkin, G. Whelan; S. Brennan, R. Hayes, D. Walton. Subs: D. McCormack (Brennan 30); S. Egan (Hayes 36).
D. Connolly (Mooncoin).