IT WAS an operation carried out with military precision and personal discipline that was absolute. And while a number of others around him were involved in all sorts of shenanigans and tomfoolery at times, Eoin Larkin played like the trooper he is in real life and simply got on with the game.
This week James Stephens are celebrating their ninth victory in the Kilkenny senior hurling championship. That they are the kings with the path to even greater riches ahead they can thank county star, Eoin Larkin, who harvested a rich crop of 1-11.
There was a cynical and dare one suggest nasty side at times to this county final replay at Nowlan Park on Sunday, but Larkin rose above it all at all times, kept his eye on the winners prize, and drove, carried, inspired, use whatever word you like, his side to a remarkable victory.
“It was a fantastic performance,” insisted James Stephens manager, Niall Rigney of the team effort. “We left disappointed last week. The way we regrouped was great. It was an incredible effort.”
Two players, one from each side, were dismissed in the 35th minute and it was only after that the game settled into a pure, open contest. When it did Larkin and ’Stephens cut loose and shot wonderful points from all angles and huge distances to polish up a contest that was in danger of being choked by its own intent.
You see, the game threw up a lot of niggling, and like two proud, head butting Elks battling for supremacy there was a fair bit of territory marking, with county colleagues Jackie Tyrrell and Michael Fennelly hopping off each other during the first period. The second period then started with a flare-up near the Shamrocks goal, and we wondered where it would all lead.
Mainly thanks to the hurling vision, intent and skill of Eoin Larkin it all had a happy ended for James Stephens, who won their eight title overall and first since 2005.
And now, on Sunday at Nowlan Park, they will start on the road in the Leinster club championship when they entertain Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford), most likely without Jackie Tyrrell, who was shown a red card, as was county colleague, Colin Fennelly, in that defining 35th minute.
The game opened up afterwards, but ’Stephens, with veteran Philip Larkin powerful in what appeared to be a roving role in the heart of their defence, cobbled together the better of the new shapes. And then they had the other Larkin, Eoin to show them the way home.
Goalie Derrick Brennan executed the first important task after the red mist cleared when he saved a flicked on, close range effort from the ever dangerous Eoin Reid after Henry Shefflin had pumped a free into the danger area in front of the city end goal.
Next up Eoin Larkin won a great ball on his own ‘40’; dashed 30 metres up the field before drawing a foul near the right wing and roughly 60-metres from goal. He hit the free, that like an Exorcet missile, was drawn straight to the target.
’Stephens moved 1-10 to 0-10 clear.
Under pressure Shamrocks didn’t wilt. Sub Mark Aylward fielded a drive from their own half by James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick before being fouled 40-metres from goal. Henry Shefflin hit the target.
Shefflin repeated the act in the 41st minute, again with Mark Aylward involved, reducing the deficit to the minimum. The momentum was back with the favourites.
Again Larkin, the Eoin fellow, stepped out of the ranks and pointed the way, hitting the target from 55 metres. Shefflin posted a reply from a free to cut the gap to the minimum.
’Stephens response was magnificent, a wonderful score with a great strike from midfield by David McCormack, with an assist from sub Richie Hayes. The cheers had barely died down when Matt Ruth, again from way out the field, sent the white flying (1-13 to 0-13).
And then the spectacular! ’Stephens full-back Tomás Keogh, who sometimes appears to play with the heart of two men, charged up the field from around the centre-back position. Passing the Shamrocks ‘60’ line he did an inter-change of passes with sub Hayes, before galloping on and shooting a mighty point.
Although Shefflin pulled back a minor for the losers, the tide of the game was flowing strongly against them. They were in trouble.
’Stephens, all action all over the field, bolted further ahead with scores from Larkin (free) and another great effort from over 55 metres by Niall Tyrrell, his third of a great afternoon. With the difference now at 1-16 to 0-14 and less than seven minutes remaining, the game was up for the Southerners.
Just to make sure, during the time that remained the new champions threw over points per sub Jack McGrath – with his first touch – Larkin, David McCormack and Larkin again to run out comfortable winners.
If Eoin Larkin was the star of the show, ’Stephens had an additional bunch of top line performers, including Tomás Keogh, Philip Larkin when it mattered most, David McCormack, Niall Tyrrell and John Comerford.
There was nothing between the teams during the opening quarter when 10 points were shared equally. Shamrocks were hurling with the fresh breeze, but against close marking opponents they could neither find, nor create space anywhere on the field.
The Shamrocks took up the running again in the 16th minute when T.J. Reid placed Conor Walsh for a nice point (0-6 to 0-5). By now the hostility, the niggling (jostling, pushing off the ball) was open.
Gnawing contest, the sort I dislike
Jackie Tyrrell, who appeared particularly fired up, was testing Michael Fennelly, who had moved to centre-forward. Neither gave an inch. Henry Shefflin was being constantly nudged, shouldered, niggled when the ball wasn’t even about.
It was that sort of gnawing contest at this stage, the sort I have to admit I dislike. Give me the beauty of the open game any time......the hurling that was there at the finish.
The best the Shamrocks did during the half was to get 0-8 to 0-5 clear, Shefflin and Eoin Reid, who was their best attacker by far in this period, adding points to the Walsh one mentioned above (0-8 to 0-5).
An exchange of points followed, and after Shamrocks missed two possible scores from frees, they looked set to carry a small advantage into the rest. Larkin robbed them of the luxury.
Right on the half hour mark he dug out possession from a melee of players in front of city end goal. He charged forward, and after breaking through three would be tackles planted the ball in the net. With the addition of a 33rd minute ‘lost time’ point from Eoin Larkin, The Village took a 1-7 to 0-9 lead into the break.
The second half opened with two players digging into each other in the left corner at the country end. Others got involved, and when the ball was eventually thrown-in a wild pull across Eoin Larkin earned the winners a free which the former All-Star turned into a point.
Colin Fennnelly and Matt Ruth, in that order, exchanged points before a foul by Tyrrell on the above mentioned Fennelly preceded the sending offs. Obviously I missed something, because I didn’t expect the pair of them to be sidelined. Both had been booked earlier, however.
Their departure led to the game opening up, to the best hurling of the afternoon being produced. In full flight James Stephens were a sight to behold. We look forward to their travels in Leinster!
Mighty men for Shamrocks were Eamon Walsh, Bob Aylward, Aidan Cummins and Eoin Reid.
James Stephens – Derrick Brennan, John Comerford, Tomás Keogh, Philip Larkin, Donnacha Cody, Jackie Tyrrell, Niall McQuillan, Eamon Sheehy, Ray Coady, Niall Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin, David McCormack, David Walton, Eoin McCormack, Matt Ruth. Subs – Richie Hayes for R. Coady 45th min; Jack McGrath for D. Walton 57th min; Gary Whelan for E. McCormack 57th min.
Ballyhale Shamrocks – Richard Reid, Paul Shefflin, Aidan Cummins, Ger Fennelly, Joseph Holden, Eamon Walsh, Bob Aylward, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly, T.J. Reid, David Hoyne, Eoin Reid, Henry Shefflin, Conor Walsh. Subs – Alan Cuddihy for P. Shefflin ht; Mark Aylward for C. Walsh 38th min; Patrick Reid for D. Hoyne 52nd min.
Referee – Eamon Mansfield (Cloneen).
Attendance – 8,742.