Those notorious thrill-seekers Ballyhale Shamrocks don’t seem to be running out of ways to win games.
A conventional score-line attained in a most unconventional way, they landed an historic fourth consecutive Leinster championship having been 14 points to the good three minutes into the second half.
Coughing up 1-7 without reply shook them, though, and a second Kilmacud Crokes goal shrank the margin to a solitary point before they eventually saw out the victory courtesy of a fortuitous goal by Eoin Kenneally.
Prior to Ballygunner’s last gasp knock-out blow against them 10 months ago, Shamrocks had been running low on lives having diced with disappointment on a few occasions in reaching the All-Ireland final.
Here was another almighty scare and it will do little to make people believe they will avenge that defeat to their Waterford neighbours. Ballygunner’s win over Ballyea was surely an impetus for them to go and beat Crokes but these fallow periods in games are disconcerting.
“We were really aware of their pace and I think we brought savage physicality to the first half,” reviewed Shamrocks’ boss Pat Hoban. “I think we really won all those battles in the middle third. It might have taken a bit out of our lads physically.
“At half-time, you’re leading, you go (another) two up and maybe get a little bit soft mentally and they came at us with savage pace and it did cause us problems.” Indeed, leading by 11 points at the interval, 1-15 to 0-7, Shamrocks had extended the gap by three before Crokes' sensational revival. Captain Caolan Conway’s 35th minute goal began the comeback and while a TJ Reid free stopped the rot, Oisín O’Rorke’s second 65 cancelled it out.
Then came a second Crokes goal, Alex Considine showing his pace before converting in the 47th minute, and quite incredibly it became a one-point game as Ballyhale were struggling to win primary ball from their restarts.
Joey Cuddihy did hit back immediately with a point and the decisive twist came seconds later when Shamrocks’ advantage jumped to five points seconds later courtesy of Kenneally’s long drive being misjudged by Eddie Gibbons, who was distracted by Niall Shortall, and the sliotar found the net.
Crokes were back within three points by the 53rd minute but the scores dried up in the closing stages, a Reid free and Ronan Hayes’ first score, and Shamrocks could breathe a sigh of relief.
To Dean Mason, they owed a depth of gratitude, their goalkeeper denying O’Rorke a green flag in the 34th minute, Considine a minute before he did breach his goal-line followed by Conway in the 52nd minute. “If you don’t take your chances when they’re presented, you’re not going to win – and we didn’t take our chances,” rued Crokes manager Kieran Dowling.
Stand-out characteristics of the second half were the valiant display of Dara Purcell, who finished with five points from play, and Shamrocks’ difficulty to reach the posts. Six of their efforts, including the goal, fell short.
Asked if it was a malfunction or the elements, Hoban responded: “I wouldn’t call it a malfunction anyway. We created a couple of chances near the end. You have to give Ballyhale credit too, they showed savage character there. A lot of teams might have caved in in that last 15. The win was very strong out there, I think stronger than you could see from the stand.
“We have good strikers, Eoin Cody had two shots on goal that you’d expect him to put over, Paddy Mullen had a chance so the wind was a factor, pressure’s a factor, all of those things. To be fair, Kilmacud had a few chances that they missed so they’d be disappointed with those.” Backed by that breeze in the opening half, Shamrocks initially struggled to find their range and the wides were totting up too quickly for their likely. However, between the 10th and 20th minutes they struck over seven without reply.
Crokes’ woes grew in the 24th minute when Colin Fennelly took a goal after Reid had shown great dexterity to catch the ball at his shoulder in a tight spot. Just when it appeared Robert O’Loughlin was about to get the ball in his hand, Fennelly pounced.
The former Kilkenny star was one of the top performers in the opening period but then he had an avalanche of ball sent into him as Shamrocks skinned Crokes on their puck-out and were generally showing more appetite for the battle in the middle of the field.
Crokes ended a 20-minute spell without a score in the 28th minute and finished the half with a further three points. However, Shamrocks contributed an additional four and were handsome half-time leaders.
It had all looked so ominous at that stage. Or so we believed.
T.J. Reid (0-8, 5 frees); C. Fennelly (1-3); A. Mullen (0-4); E. Kenneally (1-0); E. Cody, N. Shortall (0-2 each); R. Reid, P. Mullen, J. Cuddihy (0-1 each).
O. O’Rorke (0-8, 5 frees, 2 65s); D. Purcell (0-5); A. Considine (1-1); C. Conway (1-0); F. Whitely (0-2); M. Roche, B. Hayes, R. Hayes (0-1 each).
D. Mason; K. Corcoran, J. Holden, D. Mullen; E. Shefflin, R. Reid, D. Corcoran; A Mullen, P. Mullen; E. Kenneally, T.J. Reid, E. Cody; N. Shortall, C. Fennelly, J. Cuddihy.
E. Gibbons; C. Mac Gabhann, D. Butler, B. Sheehy; R. O’Loughlin, M. Grogan, C. Ó Cathasaigh; B. Hayes, D. Purcell; C. Conway, R. Hayes, F. Whitely; A. Considine, O. O’Rorke, M. Roche.
B. Scanlan for C. Conway (52); B. O’Carroll for M. Grogan (temp 54-58); S. Purcell for M. Roche (58).
P. O’Dwyer (Carlow).