I was expecting Ballyhale to win, but I was looking forward to a battle. I expected the Limerick outfit to get in the faces of the favourites and make them earn their win by cutting down the space and time the Shamrock stars had on the ball.
But, it was the other way round. Shamrocks’ forwards and midfielders tackled quickly, forcing the men in green to strike the ball a little quicker than they wanted. The Kilmallock half backs didn’t get the time to pick out colleagues further upfield with accurate passes due to the pressure being applied.
As a result a lot of the deliveries were poorly directed.
The Ballyhale corner-backs, Keith Nolan and Alan Cuddihy, with the impressive Joey Holden in the centre, swept up a lot of ball and set up counter attacks as they moved the ball smartly out of defence.
Kilmallock had based their wins in Munster on a very high work rate and long-range point scoring but they were unable to replicate this winning formula in Croke Park.
This was down to the superior class of their opponents and some shortcomings of their own, particularly in the long-range shooting department.
Ballyhale had no such shortcomings. In the first-half they won the battle for the middle third and this provided a winning platform.
The general stats for the first-half tell the story of the game. Both sides had equal amounts of possession, but, crucially, there was a big difference on the scoreboard. Ballyhale had scored 1-7 (1-5 from play) to Kilmallock’s 0-4. Midfielder Paudie O’Brien struck a superb point for the Limerick side from long-range in the first minute but their next point from play was on 24 with two frees from Eoin Ryan in the middle of the half. They had 10 wides.
Shamrocks looked very comfortable as the half wore on, converting eight from 13 chances, while Kilmallock converted only four from 16. As well as their 10 wides, four other efforts dropped into the grateful hand of Ballyhale ’keeper Richie Reid. Wides from long range and balls dropped into a keeper led to a build-up of frustration.
One high lobbing delivery ended in Reid’s net early on, but it was ruled out for a square infringement. Kilmallock needed this ‘goal’ to stoke their confidence and the match needed it to keep it competitive. But the goal came at the other end with Colin Fennelly running through strongly and hitting a sublime finish five minutes before the break.
This was a killer moment. Ballyhale had a firm grip on the game by half time and they squeezed the life out of Kilmallock in the second-half with a series of well crafted points. The Kilkenny team, with time and space, stroked the ball confidently from colleague to colleague, adding a further 11 points.
Their opponents didn’t score from play until four minutes from time, a good goal from substitute Robbie Hanly and only added on two pointed frees.
Ballyhale manager Colm Bonnar and coach Andy Maloney will have been well pleased with the win and also pleased with their sideline contribution. They made a telling switch midway through the first-half. They brought full-forward Colin Fennelly to centre-forward with Henry Shefflin moving to the inside line.
Fennelly’s pace, positioning, movement and experience caused a lot of problems for Kilmallock’s overworked defence. They fought manfully all through but they couldn’t cope with the experience and talent of Fennelly and TJ Reid in particular.
Ballyhale’s defence was outstanding.They played as a unit and had a strong spine with Holden and inter-county star Michael Fennelly holding down the central positions.
Shamrocks won with a lot in reserve, winning the individual and collective battles. Kilmallock manager Ger O Loughlin and their enthusiastic fans will be disappointed and a little frustrated by the display.
Heart, commitment and no little skill were the hallmarks of their victories up to now. They needed drive, energy and enthusiasm to knock Ballyhale out of their stride. But, whereas they had these in abundance in Munster, they were unable to call them into play yesterday.