Yesterday, less than 24 hours after their latest title, Ballyhale joint manager Michael Fennelly Snr. was looking ahead to Sunday’s Leinster club championship game against Oulart-the-Ballagh, in Wexford Park.
He said: “It’s on top of us straight away. It is not the ideal situation but we’ll try to get the boys back training tonight and back to normality. It’s a new championship, an important championship to the club, but we need to be careful. Oulart-the-Ballagh have had time to think about this game, and I heard an interview on the radio last week, before our own county final, and it was obvious that they were waiting for us.”
Ballyhale Shamrocks are old hands at the Leinster club championship. In Fennelly’s playing days they won the provincial title four times, and this current side has claimed two provincial crowns, putting the club one behind Birr in the roll of honour. Joint second with Ballyhale are Rathnure, a club with which Michael is familiar, but he admits Oulart-the-Ballagh represents a new challenge.
“I can’t remember ever meeting them before, but we met Rathnure a few times, played them in a challenge a few years ago. We played Buffer’s Alley as well (beaten by Oulart-the-Ballagh in the Wexford final), but I can’t remeber meeting Oulart-the-Ballagh.
” I know they’re a very strong side, they have the Jacobs, Keith Rossiter, Paul Roche, Stephen Doyle and a few others from the county team. They gave Rathnure a hiding in the Wexford championship too, beat them by 19 points, so we knew we’re going to have to be careful.”
That win over Rathnure came in the Wexford quarter-final, but Oulart – coached by former county star Liam Dunne – also had an impressive win over Buffer’s Alley in the final.
Ballyhale too had their struggles in their win over James Stephens on Sunday, before eventually pulling clear in the final few minutes, winning by three points.
“All the talk of the four-in-a-row probably got to us,” admitted Fennelly.
“Everyone saying we were favourites, that we’d walk it, and human nature being with it is, that could have got to the lads. But the bookies odds were a nonsense, 6/1 on, for Ballyhale. “The Village (James Stephens) never gave up, they never threw in the towel and kept battling. Their goal really lifted them and seemed to give them momentum. But that time when Jackie Tyrell went forward and went down, and they didn’t get the free (57th minute), that seemed to upset them and we went back down and got a point, and that broke their momentum.”
In spite of that, however, there was no doubt but that Ballyhale Shamrocks were the better side, with James Stephens keeper Derek Brennan called on to make three outstanding saves, including a diving stop of a Henry Shefflin pile-driver in the final minute.
“That’s true, and our man got nothing to save, but it was the type of game where a goal could have come from anywhere, scrambled in, or deflected off someone. I’ve seen the replay since, and Brennan had to really stretch for Henry’s shot. A point at that stage would have put us four up, with only a minute or so to go, but the goal was on. A lot of people said that the 65 (that resulted) was over the bar anyway, and Henry did dispute it, but when the referee doesn’t intervene you’re only wasting your time.”
If Ballyhale are to beat Oulart, then they’re going to need a little more from Shefflin than they got on Sunday. Six wides from nine shots at the posts, on a day when he was otherwise motoring very well, that’s most un-Henry-like. Still, what with also playing a central role in Kilkenny’s four-in-a-row success, it’s been a long year for the nine-time All Star, and he doesn’t have too many off-days. And when you have the likes of the Reid brothers, Eoin and TJ, stepping up, well, what’s the problem?
“Yeah, TJ is on fire all year and he had a stormer again; Eoin was doubtful beforehand with a damaged tendon on the side of his knee and I thought he was gone just before half-time. But he stuck it out to the finish. We had 1-3 from him, six points from TJ, that’s 1-9 between them – not bad! We’re doing our best to get Paddy (third brother) back to fitness but it’s a struggle for him all the time. He’s on a special diet, he gets weaknesses, dizzy spells – it’s probably a miracle he’s hurling at all. But we’re a small parish, with a small pick, and we need every player we can get.”
They’re going to need their full complement against Oulart, and they’re going to need them all playing well, if they’re to advance to another Leinster final. Given how soon that game is on them, this one is a tall order.