At their very best in Nowlan Park yesterday, when splendid combination play in attack produced three goals in the first quarter, they looked a class apart from O’Loughlin Gaels. And, while they may have lacked consistency, there was never really any doubt about them qualifying for a third meeting with James Stephens in five years.
The strength of the Shamrocks attack was the difference between the sides. Personified by the excellence of TJ Reid in particular, it was even more praiseworthy in the context of Henry Shefflin having a comparatively quiet game by his standards after playing a leading role in helping to establish an early nine-point lead.
However, it was even more noteworthy that captain Martin Comerford had a frustrating hour among the O’Loughlin Gaels forwards, making a bold bid for a goal in the 20th minute (when he might have got a penalty, instead of a 21-yard free) but over the course of the game he had few chances to make the type of contribution he has so often given in both the club and county colours.
O’Loughlins opened brightly with two points inside five minutes, the second coming from Mark Bergin who was to finish top scorer with 0-8 (all but one from frees). Almost immediately afterwards, Shamrocks had the ball in the net, through the skilful TJ Reid.
A second goal followed in the 12th minute from a move instigated by Henry Shefflin and also featuring Michael Fennelly and Reid before Mark Aylward put the ball in the net.
In less than two minutes, TJ Reid had goaled again and, followed by two quick scores from late replacement David Hoyne, it had the champions leading by 3-3 to 0-3 with three quarters of the game to be played.
Hoyne started (at right half-forward) after Cha Fitzpatrick was ruled out with tonsillitis and it resulted in the move of Colin Fennelly to midfield, where he formed a strong partnership with the influential Michael Fennelly.
Nevertheless, Shamrocks’ performance in the second quarter wasn’t as convincing, partly because O’Loughlin’s tightened up in defence – where county player Brian Hogan was more involved after a slow start – and they also made more progress up front. More importantly, their determined play was finally rewarded with a great goal from full-forward Peter Dowling in the 25th minute. And with Hogan and Mark Kelly adding two late scores, it meant that they were only four points behind at the break, 3-5 to 1-7.
The third quarter was also evenly contested, with O’Loughlin’s unlucky to see Brian Dowling fail from a promising goal chance after six minutes. However, over a 13-minute period they outscored Shamrocks 3-2, before Colin Fennelly got them back on the scoreboard after TJ Reid got into a good goal-scoring position only to be denied by keeper Ollie Blanchfield.
Entering the last five minutes, O’Loughlin’s were not without hope of making a comeback until substitute Brendan Costello got a fourth goal for the holders. That stretched their lead to eight points and effectively closed off the game. Dowling got a second goal, but Shamrocks confirmed their superiority with five points to confidently assure their place in the final.
Scorers for Ballyhale: T.J. Reid 2-4 (0-1f); H. Shefflin 0-4 (0-2f); M. Aylward 1-1; C. Fennelly 0-3; B. Costello 1-0; E. Reid and D. Hoyne 0-2.
Scorers for O’Loughlin Gaels: M. Bergin 0-7 (0-6f); P. Dowling 2-0; P. Kelly 0-2; M. Kelly, B. Hogan and M. Comerford 0-1.
BALLYHALE: J. Connolly; A. Cuddihy, A. Cummins, T. Coogan; P. Shefflin, E. Walsh, B. Aylward; C. Fennelly, M. Fennelly; D. Hoyne, H. Shefflin, M. Aylward; P. Reid, E. Reid, T.J. Reid.
Sub: B. Costello for P. Reid (46).
O’LOUGHLIN GAELS: O. Blanchfield; B. Kelly, A. Kearns, E. Kearns; A. O’Brien, B. Hogan, N. McEvoy; B. Dowling, A. Geoghegan; D. Loughnane, M. Comerford, P. Dowling; P. Kelly, M. Bergin, M. Nolan.
Subs: M. Kelly for Loughnane (28); N. Bergin for McEvoy (40); S. Dowling for Nolan (injured, 53).
Referee: Eamonn Mansfield (Cloneen).