Shamrocks get out of jail as ’Stephens caught deep in ‘lost’ time in thriller

EVEN the great Houdini would have appreciated the effort! Red hot favourites Ballyhale Shamrocks called on what must have been the last scintilla of luck that was left to them in this championship when escaping with a late, late, late draw against James Stephens in the senior hurling final at weather battered Nowlan Park.

EVEN the great Houdini would have appreciated the effort! Red hot favourites Ballyhale Shamrocks called on what must have been the last scintilla of luck that was left to them in this championship when escaping with a late, late, late draw against James Stephens in the senior hurling final at weather battered Nowlan Park.

With 63 minutes and 46 seconds showing on the scoreboard clock a very difficult free from the right wing by Henry Shefflin hit the target at the city end. All at once the score gave relieved Shamrocks a reprieve, while it robbed bitterly disappointed James Stephens of what would have been their first senior win since 2005.

“We got out of jail,” Shamrocks manager, Michael Fennelly admitted afterwards. “Now we have a second chance we will try and make the best of it.”

Some in the James Stephens camp were furious that so much additional time was played. In the losing final of 2009 against the same opposition they were far from happy with the handling of the game by the referee.

On this occasion the main thrust of their argument was that too much additional time was played. The official announcement nearing the hour mark was that “at least two minutes of additional time” would be played.

Beyond that the match official has the discretion to add on more time if he feels there have been further delays. This time the clocked ticked on to close to twice the suggested length of additional time. ’Stephens fury at the finish was understandable.

In a season in which the inconsistent standard of refereeing in the county has been the subject of much comment among fans and club officials, often furious, Sunday’s events added to the simmering pot.

Apart altogether from Sunday’s game, personally I have been baffled on a regular basis by the interpretation of the rules, and even what constitues a foul, so perhaps now at the close of the season would be a good time for all parties, clubs, referees and County Board, to sit down and review things. A frank exchange would do no harm.

Measured in comments

’Stephens were very measured in their comments after the game. They didn’t want to be drawn into a controversy that might cloud their preparations heading into the replay, but they were far from happy. And their dissatisfaction wasn’t confined to the time issue alone.

Certainly the Walsh Cup looked bound for Larchfield when Eoin Larkin took a pass from Eoin McCormack with 59.26 showing on the clock before shooting the lead point from 20-metres on the left.

The equaliser from Shefflin, into the wind, from 45 metres distance and no more than a metre in from the sideline on the right, was some strike. It followed a foul on Colin Fennelly.

The draw was the first in the Kilkenny final since O’Loughlin Gaels and Young Irelands (Gowran) drew 3-9 (O’L) to 2-12 in 2003. And this was the first time in history that the senior and minor county finals ended in draws in the same year.

The replays will go ahead at Nowlan Park on Sunday. The senior winners Leinster club engagement against Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford) at the same venue has been put back a week, thanks to the understanding of the provincial council.

However, extra-time will be required in both finals this time because decisions must be reached.

The dreadful weather, driving rain, an ever strengthening wind blowing towards the country end and surface water in places on the pitch, ruined what could have been a great hurling occasion. Instead of a hurling spectacle, the near 7,000 fans were treated to a dogfight in which the players all but flogged themselves to death for the cause.

Hats off to all, you were mighty…….of spirit, of belief, of application. This was commitment beyond question, almost beyond full appreciation, apart from among the brave souls who shared the energy sapping pitch.

Bundled over sidelines

From an early stage a spray of water was kicked up when the sliotar travelled along the ground; players found it difficult to rise or catch the sliotar; holding your footing was a lottery; timing a tackle even more so.

Regularly, especially during the closing half, players were bundled over the sidelines when in possession because it became a profitable tactic dictated by the day and conditions. The towel, for cleaning sliotar and caman, was a great friend of all players.

‘Rucks’ developed at regular intervals with the ball all but ‘lost’ at the players’ feet and the match official had to whistle up things before restarting the action with throw-ins. Even though mindful of ’Stephens misfortune at not landing the title, perhaps a better day might produce a test more relevant to the skills of hurling and more worthy of the talents of such a fine bunch of players?

The rain was belting down when the players arrived out on the field, and it never relented. The evening was dark grey, so much so that the illuminated names and numbers on the scoreboards danced gaily like Christmas tree lights before our eyes.

Shamrocks had first use of the wind. Early on T.J. Reid and Niall Tyrrell exchanged points. Shamrocks won back the lead in the fifth minute via a Henry Shefflin point from a free following a foot trip on T.J. Reid.

Their advance was slow. Shefflin, with frees, was their main score getter. Colin Fennelly, via an assist from James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick – one of the players whose striking throughout resembled something like the norm – and Shefflin (3) put the scores on the ’board as the Southerners slipped 0-6 to 0-2 clear by the 14th minute.

Within a minute ’Stephens were cursing the brilliance of opposing ’keeper, Richard Reid. They pieced together a smashing move that ended with Eoin McCormack putting Matt Ruth in the clear inside the ‘20’ at the city end. Ruth made space and got in a ferocious strike.

The goalie, with a terrific reflex action, turned the ball out for a 65. The free shot was missed.

That was the only real goal chance of the half. There were times when ’Stephens withdrew a man from attack and flooded midfield. The approach worked.

Tyrrell a point of refuge

In times of real pressure at the back Jackie Tyrrell was a solid point of refuse, the man to get the ball to whenever possible. The weather ruined the play, and the ever strengthening wind was beginning to howl.

When the game reached half-time Shamrocks showed 0-8 to 0-4 in front. That was as much as they were allowed squeeze out of the game.

They hadn’t been wasteful, as four wides would confirm. ’Stephens had been strong at the back, and they had been even more frugal. They shot one wide, which was accompanied by one more after the turn.

The wind had strayed in the direction of a gale by the time the players returned. During the next 20 minutes a mere three scores were added, all by dominant ’Stephens and per Eoin Larkin (free), Eoin McCormack, a very good effort from 25 metres on the turn, and Larkin (free again).

The score read: Shamrocks 0-8; James Stephens 0-7. The scoring returns didn’t in any way reflect the huge amount of work and effort that was being put in by both sides. This was a heads down, give it a lash contest, fought within confines dictated by the weather.

By now some of the exchanges resembled those from a rugby match – the ‘rucks’, the driving of players in possession over the line, the carrying of the ball as players tried to make ground.

High fielding was out because the wind played funny tricks with the ball. The sliotar was poked off the ground rather than lifted. On one occasion we saw hurler of the year, Michael Fennelly throw up the ball but he missed the attempted strike when the wind shifted the sliotar.

And still everyone thundered on, gave all that was in them!

Shamrocks first score of the half didn’t arrive until the 51st minute. A foul on Conor Walsh earned a point from a free for Shefflin.

Within 90 seconds the ball was in the net at the other end. A beautiful ground strike from 12-metres on the left by David Walton, who was put in the clear at the end of a strong run and inch perfect pass from Eoin Larkin, put ’Stephens in front for the first time (1-7 to 0-9).

The Shamrocks were in trouble, and they knew it. Michael Fennelly burst up the field, but he shot wide. On 57 minutes a ’Stephens defender was ruled to have thrown a pass, apparently. Henry Shefflin hit the target with a great strike from 65 metres (1-7 to 0-10).

Moments later the hard going Niall Tyrrell missed a decent chance from 45-metres for ’Stephens when gifted possession after an opponent fell as the ball came to him. That miss didn’t appear to matter when Eoin Larkin, with 34 seconds of normal time remaining, sent the white flying.

Shefflin, as outlined above, saved Shamrocks and deprived ’Stephens in a brilliant and yet most cruel fashion. Back to the ’Park on Sunday. Let’s pray for better weather.

We won’t single out individuals on this occasion. Our appreciation extends to the 33 players who participated. Only true warriors could produce such a gripping contest in such hostile conditions.

Ballyhale Shamrocks – Richard Reid, Paul Shefflin, Aidan Cummins, Ger Fennelly, Joseph Holden, Eamon Walsh, Bob Aylward, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Michael Fennelly (capt), Henry Shefflin, T.J. Reid, David Hoyne, Eoin Reid, Colin Fennelly, Conor Walsh. Sub – Mark Aylward for D. Hoyne 54th min.

James Stephens – Derrick Brennan, Tomas Keogh, John Comerford, Philip Larkin, Niall McQuillan, Jackie Tyrrell, Donnacha Cody, Eamon Sheehy, Ray Coady, Niall Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin, David McCormack, Eoin McCormack, Matthew Ruth, David Walton. Subs – Richie Hayes for Sheehy (inj) 51st min; Gary Whelan for N. Tyrrell 60th min.

Referee – M. Flynn (Mooncoin).

Frees – James Stephens 12 (7 and 5); Shamrocks 12 (4 and 8).

Wides – James Stephens 2 (1 and 1); Shamrocks 8 (4 and 4).