Shefflin saves sinking Shamrocks

ALL SQUARE at Nowlan Park yesterday, with 6,974 spectators seeing favourites Ballyhale Shamrocks level the Kilkenny SHC final deep in injury-time, depriving underdogs James Stephens a famous victory.

Ballyhale’s Henry Shefflin drove over a difficult free on the stroke of time to level matters after a dogged contest which was undermined by atrocious conditions.

Heavy rain for hours preceding the game did little for either side’s skills, and though the Nowlan Park surface stood up reasonably well to the torrent, at various times frees were mis-struck, sliotars stuck in the ground and players lost their footing.

The traditional cliche is that the conditions made a lottery of proceedings, and if by ‘lottery’ you mean ‘a competition where almost everyone loses’, then that’ll serve well here.

The parallel assumption, that poor conditions even matters up for the underdog, perished early in Kilkenny. TJ Reid was involved early and often for favourites Ballyhale, while Henry Shefflin’s touch didn’t rust in wet weather either (apart from a ball that wouldn’t come up for one free, that is.) Starting with the wind, Ballyhale didn’t dawdle, hitting three points in the first six minutes from TJ Reid, Shefflin (free) and Colin Fennelly. Situating the last-named at full-forward, Ballyhale tried to feed him quick ball but couldn’t work a goal chance, being forced to rely on Shefflin’s accuracy from frees to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

After fourteen minutes Shefflin had added another three frees, against Niall Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin (free) for James Stephens: 0-6 to 0-2.

The game might have swung decisively then, with Matthew Ruth breaking clean through on the Ballyhale goal, but ‘keeper Richard Reid made a stunning point-blank save, turning the ball around the post for a 65 which came to nothing.

Eoin Reid then pointed for Ballyhale, while two late Larkin frees edged James Stephens closer, only for TJ Reid to point neatly on the half-time whistle – double scores for Ballyhale, 0-8 to 0-4.

On the resumption it was notable that the incidence of rucks and mauls began to increase as the surface deteriorated, but James Stephens also emerged refreshed to play with the wind. Larkin (two frees) and Eoin McCormack narrowed the gap to the minimum by the 45th minute, with Ballyhale clearly struggling to accommodate the breeze when shooting; they racked up four wides without a score in the first twenty minutes of the second-half.

It might have been even worse: Henry Shefflin pulled up on 46 minutes with what looked like a knee injury, and given his history of cruciate damage, the entire attendance held their breath, but the Kilkenny talisman played on, breaking Ballyhale’s second-half duck with a 51st minute free..

Then James Stephens struck – Eoin Larkin made ground, lost possession, and David Walton crashed home a goal from close range – 1-7 to 0-9.

Shefflin tied it up with a superb long-range free before Larkin again edged James Stephens in front. Ballyhale surged upfield as the game went into injury time, and when they won that last free, almost on their right sideline, Shefflin drove it over for the equaliser, despite the distraction of an opponent who seemed quite close to the dead ball.

Afterwards Ballyhale co-manager Michael Fennelly admitted to being worried at half-time: “We needed eight or 10 points against that breeze and wind and rain and then in the second half the wind took up again in their favour but that’s the game and we’re happy enough to come out of it for another day.”

the last free? “Well Henry being Henry, he never misses,” said Fennelly. “Fair play to him. He took it. He was intimidated but fair play to him, he took it. Fair play.”

“The longer it went on the worse the conditions got,” said James Stephens manager Niall Rigney. “The wind actually picked up in the second half and the ground became very heavy. I don’t know what kind of a game it was to look at, but it was a great contest, a great battle.

“We were a point up going into injury time but these things happen. We’ll chat, go to the pool today, train Wednesday and Friday and come back here to win the championship on Sunday. That’s the target.”

Scorers for Ballyhale: H. Shefflin 0-7 (0-7 fs); TJ Reid 0-2; E. Reid, C. Fennelly 0-1 each.

Scorers for James Stephens: E. Larkin 0-6 (0-5 fs); D. Walton 1-0; E. McCormick, N. Tyrrell 0-1 each.

BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: R. Reid, P. Shefflin, A. Cummins, G. Fennelly, J. Holden, E. Walsh, B. Aylward, J. Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly (c), C. Fennelly, H. Shefflin, TJ Reid, D. Hoyne, E. Reid, C. Walsh.

Subs: M Aylward for Hoyne, 54.

JAMES STEPHENS: D. Brennan, T. Keogh, P. Larkin, J. Comerford, E. Sheehy, J. Tyrrell (c), D. Cody, N. McQuillan, N. Tyrrell, D. McCormack, R. Cody, M. Ruth, E. McCormack, E. Larkin, D. Walton.

Subs: Hayes for Sheehy, 51; G. Whelan for N. Tyrrell, 60.

Referee: M. Flynn (Mooncoin).

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