Super Stephens find extra gear

JAMES STEPHENS collected the Kilkenny SHC title at a damp Nowlan Park yesterday, where 8,742 spectators saw an entertaining replay after last week’s draw disputed by two fully committed sides – sometimes too committed, as evidenced by the second-half sendings off of Jackie Tyrrell, captain of the new champions, and Ballyhale’s Colin Fennelly.

The dismissals proved a turning point, as the city side drove into the game irresistibly when their skipper got the line and won comfortably in the end.

Conditions were wet and slippery, but not a patch on last week’s monsoon, and both sides were far crisper in their play.

Ballyhale were sharp and efficient early on, managing three points in the first six minutes (David Hoyne, TJ Reid and a Henry Shefflin free). For James Stephens Eoin Larkin showed his class with two fine frees to cut the deficit to the minimum.

One of the highlights of the first half was the sideshow on the James Stephens 45-metre line: Michael Fennelly was moved from midfield to centre-forward soon after the start, clearly to curb the influence of Jackie Tyrrell at centre-back for James Stephens, and their impersonation of two rutting stags was hugely entertaining.

Eoin Reid, Hoyne and Conor Walsh swapped Ballyhale points with Niall Tyrrell (two) and Larkin to leave it 6-5 in Shamrocks’ favour at the end of the first quarter.

A Shefflin 65 and points from TJ and Eoin Reid gave Ballyhale some daylight, with James Stephens struggling to pass Joseph Holden and Eamonn Walsh in the Ballyhale half-back line.

Larkin – who else – kept the city side in touch with another free, but as the clock went into injury time, Ballyhale were three ahead and looking comfortable.

Then Larkin won the ball on the 21-metre line – the Kilkenny star shipped some punishment as he bore down on goal, but he kept his focus and finished clinically. When the same man trotted out to the halfway line for a free on the stroke of half-time, he edged James Stephens one ahead with the resulting point, 1-7 to 0-9.

The game took its decisive twist on 35 minutes. James Stephens had just won a relieving free but a row broke out before it could be taken, and when the dust settled Tyrrell and Fennelly had been sent off.

Though Ballyhale hit three points soon afterwards through Shefflin, Larkin kept James Stephens in touch, and then came a three-point burst from the city side – David McCormick, Matthew Ruth and an inspirational effort from Tommy Keogh to put them four ahead.

Shefflin kept Ballyhale ticking over, but Larkin (free) and Niall Tyrrell kept the gap open until Ballyhale’s last throw of the dice on 54 minutes. Shefflin went for goal from a 21-metre free but Niall McQuillan put it over the bar for a point, and from then on it was a procession for James Stephens, as they ended with three consecutive points – Larkin, McCormick and finally a Larkin free – to make it an eight-point win.

“Back in the seventies and eighties, I don’t know what that was like,” said Jackie Tyrrell at the final whistle.

“But for me this is streets ahead of my other ones — it’s my third title. We knew that if we pulled it out of the bag today that it’d be the greatest victory, and there’s huge credit to Niall (Rigney) and the backroom for preparing the team so well.

“We did little or nothing during the week, but the key to the whole thing was a meeting in the club last Sunday week after the drawn game. Emotions were high in teh dressing-room but we met that night at 7 o’clock and said, ‘look, that’s done, we’ll move on’.

“We had a puck-around on Wednesday and met on Saturday – there wasn’t much point in doing hard training this week, but lads were so focused for last week that it was just a question of keeping that going.

“At the end I thought we wanted it more than Shamrocks, you could see that in the body language and the tackles – I think we won the breaking ball on a count of 25-11 by half-time, so that speaks volumes – that we wanted it more than them.”

Scorers for Ballyhale: H. Shefflin 0-8 (0-4 fs, 0-1 65); E. Reid and TJ Reid 0-2 each; D. Hoyne, C. Fennelly and C. Walsh 0-1 each.

Scorers for James Stephens: E. Larkin 1-11 (0-8 each); N. Tyrrell 0-3; D. McCormick and M. Ruth 0-2 each; T. Keogh and J. McGrath 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: A. Cuddihy for P. Shefflin HT; M. Aylward for C. Walsh, 38; P. Reid for D. Hoyne, 53.

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: R. Hayes for R. Cody, 46; J. McGrath for E. McCormack, 48.

Referee: E. Mansfield (Cloneen).

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