A cold night in Thurles twisted decisively with one goal, Eoin Cody’s calm second-half finish for Ballyhale Shamrocks proving the difference in their All-Ireland club semi-final clash with Ballygunner.
Though the eventual difference was five points, as Ballygunner boss Fergal Hartley admitted afterwards a goal in such a low-scoring game was a killer blow and made all the sharper because his side didn’t take their one clear goalscoring opportunity. For Ballyhale manager Henry Shefflin it was a job well done, and another Patrick’s Day outing for the Kilkenny champions in Croke Park. The Kilkenny icon was swift to disagree, however, when asked if March 17 had been in his mind when he took over as manager of his home club.
“No, when I took over I said ‘let’s do well in Kilkenny this year and hopefully build for next year’. It’s happened very quickly.
“When we got into Leinster we said, ‘let’s go for it’ and it’s followed on since. We put serious work into today — no more than Ballygunner did.
“You can plot and plan but you need the players and as the game went on the players got better and better. It was brilliant, it’s a great feeling to be heading back there.”
Whether it was the gathering chill of a Tipperary evening, the game was slow to kindle, with both sides reliant on two familiar names to make the early running.
TJ Reid, inevitably, was the first name on the scoresheet for Ballyhale, and Pauric Mahony’s unerring free-taking in the first half was equally predictable. Ballygunner stretched their opponents’ defence in the first half but couldn’t create a goal chance worthy of the name, while Ballyhale settled and, with a late rush of points, trailed at the break, 0-9 to 0-8.
The game stepped up in tempo markedly after the break, with Ballyhale levelling early on. At almost the midpoint of the second half, however, came the decisive score. Ballygunner’s half-backs struggled to clear the ball and teenager Eoin Cody raced onto the ball; he pinned his ears back and tore through but carried the ball that little bit closer to make sure of his shot for goal.
His strike pushed the Kilkenny side three ahead, and though Ballygunner came knocking, they couldn’t get the vital goal.
“We were happy at the break,” said Hartley. “But that goal probably was, in a low-scoring game, very much a killer blow. It opened up a gap we just couldn’t bridge.”
For his part, Hartley’s disappointment was all the sharper because Ballyhale’s winning total wasn’t outlandishly high.
“Ultimately I think 1-15 isn’t a score that can’t be beaten, but we didn’t get as many scores — 13 points is probably the lowest score we’ve been held to, so they did their homework and closed us down, closed down the space. I wouldn’t be overly critical of our defence, because 1-15 isn’t a bad score to hold a team like Ballyhale to.”
With news filtering through of St Thomas’s narrow win in the other semi-final, thoughts turned naturally to the All-Ireland fina. It’s exactly the kind of event that suits a team with a hard core of experience like Ballyhale — take the spine of Holden, Fennelly (M), Reid (TJ) and Fennelly (C). What many outside the county may not realise is the frighteningly young players at Ballyhale’s disposal. It may be a first visit to HQ for some of them next month, but it will hardly be their last.
Scorers for Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony (0-10, 1 65, 9 frees); B O’Sullivan (0-2); P Hogan (0-1).
Scorers for Ballyhale: E Cody (1-4); TJ Reid ( 0-4, 3 frees); E Reid, A Mullen, P Mullen (0-2 each); E Shefflin (0-1).
BALLYGUNNER: S O’Keeffe (jc), E Hayden, B Coughlan, I Kenny, Philip Mahony, W Hutchinson, B O’Keeffe, H Barnes S O’Sullivan (jc), Pauric Mahony, P Hogan, M Mahony, T O’Sullivan, Brian O’Sullivan, C Power.
Subs: D O’Sullivan for Hayden (HT); Barry O’Sullivan for T O’Sullivan (45); JJ Hutchinson for O’Keeffe (56).
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: D Mason, D Mullen, J Holden, B Butler, E Shefflin, M Fennelly (c), R Reid, R Corcoran, P Mullen, B Cody, TJ Reid, A Mullen, E Reid, C Fennelly, E Cody.
Subs: C Phelan for Butler (inj, 11); M Aylward for B Cody (HT); C Walsh for C Phelan (52); J Cuddihy for E Reid (58); G Butler for Corcoran (61).
Referee: C Lyons (Cork).