THERE was an element of shadow boxing about the whole thing as on the one hand Ballyhale Shamrocks used the occasion to give a full complement of players a run, while James Stephens fielded without three who would be classed as regulars.
All the same, there was no disguising the fact that Shamrocks will be the team to beat again when the championship hits full tilt this weekend.
“It was a good start back into things with the championship next week,” was the simple message from Shamrocks manager, Michael Fennelly. “We have to be ready for that. This was a game to learn from.
“It was a title to be won, but the championship is the thing. That is what we are aiming to win.”
In terms of context, this was the Shamrocks table topping sixth success in the senior hurling league, and fifth in six seasons. The result avenged a one point defeat by ’Stephens in the final last year (1-18 to 1-17).
’Stephens were without lively forward Matt Ruth plus defenders, Tomas Kehoe, Ray Coady and Donnacha Cody. There was no Henry Shefflin in the Shamrocks attack in this senior hurling league final at Nowlan Park on Saturday.
A game, important enough, but a mere hor d’oeuvre on the menu for the season.
From the off the Shamrocks let rip, and with James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick all but eating up the ground at midfield – this was the ‘Cha’ of old, his best game in ages – and T.J. Reid flying in attack they threatened to bury the opposition when playing into the wind during the opening half.
At half-way ’Stephens were 0-2 to 1-7 in arrears, and were it not for the brilliance of goalie Derrick Brennan they could have been three goals further behind.
The winners failed to turn a real goal chance into account in the fifth minute when their reward was a mere 65; in the 21st minute Brennan brought off a body save from Colin Fennelly initially before dazzling with a follow up stop from the same player; and the same Fennelly was deprived yet again by a great stop by Brennan in the 29th minute.
’Stephens were lucky to be still within sight at the break, although it must be said their early shooting was poor, a fact highlighted by five wides during the opening 10 minutes.
Eoin Reid and T.J. Reid (2) tossed over early points to get the winners into the groove. Jackie Tyrrell landed a massive point in the fifth minute from a free in his own half to get ’Stephens going.
However, the losers were to register just once more during the following 25 minutes, via a 22nd minute free from David Walton.
The eager winners had no such problems. ‘Cha’ took a pass from T.J. Reid in the 11th minute before galloping through on the ‘40’ for a point (0-4 to 0-1).
Their goal arrived in the 16th minute. Mark Aylward put Colin Fennelly through, and the latter scooped the ball home at the city end over the head of the advancing ’keeper from less than 10 metres.
Actually, Colin Fennelly looked supremely confident. He was a new man after a dashing All-Ireland final experience. Although marked by Jackie Tyrrell, a superb performer in the All-Ireland, Fennelly was never afraid to take on his opponent. He looked extremely, extremely capable.
The balance of the quarter produced scores for David Walton for the losers, while Shamrocks boosted their take with efforts from Eoin Reid, after a great piece of skill on the ball, ‘Cha’ and T.J. Reid (65) after Colin Fennelly had brought the best out of the ’keeper again.
Half-time: Shamrocks 1-7; James Stephens 0-2.
’Stephens were more on the pace after the turn and they made a better game of it. After an early exchange of points David Walton converted a free following a foul on Jack McGrath before he finished a one-handed stroke to the net in the 39th minute (1-8 to 1-4).
With the addition of a minor from Niall McQuillan, the losers, for all their early troubles, were suddenly on the shoulders of Shamrocks. However, it must be added that this time it was Shamrocks who were afflicted by the poor shooting bug, a fact highlighted by 10 second half wides.
Their finishing was particularly awful during this good run by ’Stephens.
Anyway, the winners regained some direction when the lively James Walsh posted a point after three successive wides by his team (1-9 to 1-5). Eoin Reid added a like score through a free, but ’Stephens were far from finished.
Back-to-back minors later from Gary Whelan and David Walton, after Diarmuid Cody was unlucky not to connect with a ball sent across goal from the left by Eoin Larkin, left the divide at 1-11 to 1-8 with 11 minutes remaining.
Shamrocks picked up things again. A beautiful move decided the contest. Colin Fennelly punched a hole in the opposing defence and sent T.J. Reid racing through for a 1-on-1 contest against the goalie. Reid planted the ball in the bottom left corner of the net (2-11 to 1-8).
It may have been a low key league final, but there was no doubting the message from Shamrocks – they will take beating. Along with Fitzpatrick, their other heroes were Michael Fennelly, Eamon Walsh, T.J. Reid, Colin Fennelly, Ger Fennelly, James Walsh, goalie Richard Reid and Joseph Holden.
Goalie Derrick Brennan was far and away the losers’ best player. Jackie Tyrrell was good too, while Jack McGrath made a big contribution during the closing half.
Shamrocks – Richard Reid, Alan Cuddihy, Aidan Cummins, Ger Fennelly, Paul Shefflin, Eamon Walsh, Joseph Holden, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Michael Fennelly (capt), James Walsh, T.J. Reid, Eoin Reid, David Hoyne, Colin Fennelly, Mark Aylward. Subs – Tom Coogan, Michael Dermody, Bob Aylward, Liam Grant, Patrick Reid.
James Stephens – Derrick Brennan, Patrick Butler, Jackie Tyrrell (capt), John Comerford, Conor McQuillan, Philip Larkin, Eamon Sheehy, Niall McQuillan, Niall Tyrrell, Diarmuid Cody, Gary Whelan, David McCormack, Eoin McCormack, Eoin Larkin, David Walton. Subs – Jack McGrath.
Referee – Peter Burke (Emeralds).