IT’S funny how the wheel turns. On St Patrick’s Day 2005, James Stephens were Kilkenny, Leinster and All-Ireland club senior hurling champions.
A year on they were again Kilkenny and Leinster champions, pipped at the All-Ireland semi-final stage by eventual champions Portumna.
Yet here we are on the eve of the Kilkenny SHC final and The Village are rank outsiders. In the last couple of years a new ‘old’ power has emerged in Kilkenny club hurling, in the form of Ballyhale Shamrocks. Powered by county stars and perennial All Stars Henry Shefflin and Cha Fitzpatrick, Ballyhale have won the last two Kilkenny senior titles.
With Shefflin recovered from injury, the Shamrocks are back in another Kilkenny final, and even Eoin Larkin, newly acclaimed Hurler of the Year and the main man for James Stephens, has no quibble with the new reality — Ballyhale Shamrocks are the power team.
“You can’t argue with that, Ballyhale have been the team in Kilkenny for the last few years, we’re really up against it. It’s not just Henry and Cha, they also have the two Reids, TJ and Eoin, they have Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly, Aidan Cummins — they’re strong all over the field. They’ve been a different class to any side in the country over the last few years, bar Portumna.”
Pragmatic, and good reason to be. In their semi-final win over Carrickshock, Ballyhale Shamrocks were superb in the second half, and they powered away to an emphatic 1-21 to 0-11 victory over a side considered by many to be the coming team in Kilkenny. James Stephens, meanwhile, struggled to put away O’Loughlin Gaels, who were without county star Martin Comerford.
“We didn’t play our best hurling that day,” Larkin agrees. “We got the few vital points, got the goal that gave us the edge and that was the difference. It was good to win the city derby.”
The goal came from Eoin himself, who was an inspiration during the second half, but it was set up by an unlikely hero up front, former All-Ireland-winning Kilkenny centre-back Peter Barry, now operating at full-forward. Horses for courses, says Eoin.
“He’s doing a job for us there. An experienced head up front means a lot. We were struggling up there since 2006, struggling for a bit of cuteness more than anything else; Peter and Phil (Larkin, Eoin’s cousin) were moved to the forwards and they were doing a good job for us.”
Phil will be absent tomorrow after sustaining an injury in the quarter-final win over Graigue-Ballycallan.
“It was a very serious injury, he came within a couple of inches of death, so it puts hurling in perspective. One of the Ballycallan backs pulled on the ball and the tip of the hurl caught Phil around the Adam’s apple and damaged the cartilage around the windpipe. It’s eating him, but sure there isn’t a whole lot he can do.”
James Stephens are still well served in that area, with All Star Jackie Tyrell at centre-back, long-striking senior panellist Donncha Cody on the wing. They’re going to need all their defensive guile against the Shamrocks half-forward line however; Shefflin, Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid did real damage against Carrickshock, scoring 1-16 of the 1-21 semi-final total, while outstanding full-forward Eoin Reid hit four of the other five points.
From one to 15, James Stephens will have to be on song if they’re to have any chance here, admits Larkin: “We are, it looks like we’re going to need a miracle. We’ll do the best we can do.”
As for the new Hurler of the Year, well, whatever happens now his name is writ on a pretty exclusive honour roll, and Eoin is suitably humbled. “It’s a great feeling, a great honour; you look back at the lads who have got it over the years, so many fantastic hurlers — even our own lads in the recent past, Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, DJ Carey. To follow those, that’s something special.”
What of the pressure that’s sure to follow now, the fact that he’ll become something of a target? “Yes, that’s the other side, I’ll just have to knuckle down next year. I suppose all eyes will be on me, I’ll just have to work harder again behind the scenes, and hopefully things will go well for me again.”
That starts tomorrow, and Eoin is going to have to do the work of two men — at least — if James Stephens are to prevail.
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