Conor Phelan: Ballyhale Shamrocks are the 'best club team in the country'

Even after a slightly schizophrenic performance of, initially, majesty and then, at times, misery, it's hard to disagree with Conor Phelan's overall assessment of Ballyhale Shamrocks
Conor Phelan: Ballyhale Shamrocks are the 'best club team in the country'

Mount Leinster Rangers’s Jon Nolan and Denis Murphy with Brian Butler and Darragh Corcoran of Ballyhale Shamrocks. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

The best club hurling team in the country? Even after a slightly schizophrenic performance of, initially, majesty and then, at times, misery, it's hard to disagree with Conor Phelan's overall assessment of Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Phelan is well placed to assess because while he's the manager of Mount Leinster Rangers, the Clara man is also a current Kilkenny selector alongside Brian Cody.

The former Cats forward has worked closely with players like TJ Reid, Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullen all year though pitted his wits against them on Saturday at Netwatch Cullen Park.

A slow start - which was perhaps understandable considering the Carlow final was played 11 weeks ago - ultimately cost Mount Leinster Rangers who trailed by seven points at the first water break and by nine at half-time.

Mount Leinster Rangers’ manager Conor Phelan. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Mount Leinster Rangers’ manager Conor Phelan. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

They won the second-half by 0-11 to 0-8, however, and had a great chance to make it a one-point game in the 53rd minute but Jon Nolan was unable to beat Shamrocks goalkeeper Dean Mason in a straight one-on-one.

Six minutes later, free-taker Denis Murphy's 12th point of the game for the hosts left three in it but they didn't score again as Ballyhale concluded with three scores from Reid and Joe Cuddihy to set up a semi-final clash with St Rynaghs of Offaly next Sunday in Tullamore.

"At least we showed a bit of effort in the second-half and we are real proud of these guys because Ballyhale are a serious outfit, we wanted to be competitive against the best club team in the country - and they are the best club team in the country," was Phelan's assessment.

Time will tell on the 'best club team in the country' suggestion though the reigning Leinster champions are favourites to win their third consecutive All-Ireland title.

They looked the part initially on Saturday, splitting the posts at their ease with a series of medium and long-range scores from the likes of Mullen, Cuddihy and Brian Cody to open up a commanding 0-14 to 0-5 lead at half-time. At the back, Richie Reid and Joey Holden lorded the skies and cleared tonnes of ball. But playing into the breeze, and against a reinvigorated Mount Leinster outfit, the second-half was an entirely different experience.

The 2013 champions ran hard at Ballyhale's backline and won free after free which Murphy skilfully converted, the corner-forward sniping nine points from placed balls in the second-half. At one stage, TJ Reid even had a free blocked down and as Mount Leinster grew in confidence, and reduced their scoreboard arrears, they created a rare goal chance when Chris Nolan played in Jon Nolan. It was their big chance to make it a genuine 50-50 contest but Mason came to Ballyhale's rescue.

Joe Cuddihy of Shamrocks Ballyhale in action against Kevin McDonald of Mount Leinster Rangers. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Joe Cuddihy of Shamrocks Ballyhale in action against Kevin McDonald of Mount Leinster Rangers. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

"This year so far, every game, there's only three or four points in it," said Ballyhale boss James O'Connor, who led Cork outfit Fr O'Neills to the All-Ireland intermediate final at Croke Park in early 2020. "That's going back to the county final, the semi-final, quarter-final...it's just relentless. But thankfully the lads have great battling power within them and they just keep fighting every day.

"It's a great sign of a team that can keep getting those three or four-point wins every day. Someone asked me, are we playing at our best? No, I don't think we are playing at our best, I'll be honest with you. I think there's another 10 or 15% in the team. I hope that comes at the end when we really need it."

Since losing a Leinster semi-final to Oulart-The Ballagh in 2012, Ballyhale have won all 14 of the games outside of Kilkenny that they've contested, yielding three Leinster titles, three All-Ireland titles and next weekend's semi-final opportunity.

County man Darren Mullen came off in Carlow with a hamstring injury so is a concern.

"It's something that might be right for next week and it's something that mightn't be right," said O'Connor.

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