It wasn’t even the exuberant Ballyhale Shamrocks of old! No, they were better than that.
What has been an outstanding year in hurling for Kilkenny finished on a high at Nowlan Park on Sunday when deadly challengers, Ballyhale Shamrocks snatched the title from fine champions, Clara, in a supreme senior championship final.
The game exploded into life when Clara hit the opposition for 1-2 without reply during a blistering opening three minutes. If Shamrocks were shaken, even mildly, it didn’t show because they simply rolled through the gears and drilled deadly ball crisscross around the field in mesmerizing fashion.
By half-time the tables had been well and truly turned. Shamrocks were leaders by a handsome 1-11 to 1-6. We weren’t to know it at the time, but Clara’s reign was over.
Sure, the champions drove on powerfully, hard and with great heart afterwards, led superbly by give it everything midfielder, Lester Ryan, but they never looked like winning the match.
Definitely they threatened. They looked a deadly serious threat when back-to-back points from Keith Hogan (free) in the 47th minute following a foul on James Nolan, and lively youngster, Chris Bolger in the 48th minute cut the deficit to 1-16 to 1-13.
There was a window of opportunity there!
A foul on T.J. Reid to the left of the city end goal, and 35 metres distance, earned T.J. a minor from a free to take a bit of the heat off Shamrocks. During the following three minutes T.J. completed a hat trick to up the divide to a match winning 1-19 to 1-13.
The Shamrocks captain danced a quick jig in delight. He knew in that moment that Clara were beaten. Shamrocks sixth title in nine years, and 15th in all, was in the bag.
“We were happy with that,” smiled Shamrocks manager, Andy Moloney. “During the opening five or 10 minutes were struggled big time. Clara were on top. When we got to grips with things the match changed.
“There was a 10 point swing from being five points down to five up at half-time. We hurled well. ‘Cha’ (James Fitzpatrick), Henry (Shefflin), T.J. (Reid) and so on cut loose. They are very good hurlers. After half-time we did enough to keep ahead.
“These guys are great hurlers. We knew Clara were a good hurling team and they would come out and play hurling, which would suit us. When they brought back a spare man into their defence that played into our hands a little bit. You don’t leave the likes of Joey Holden free to clean up ball. We are delighted.”
And now Shamrocks kick on for an assault on the Leinster club championship, beginning in Parnell Park, Dublin, on Sunday against the finest from the capital, Kilmacud Crokes.
The pace and scoring rush during the opening 10 minutes - eight scores - meant the non stop action instantly captivated the big crowd. The excellence of some of the play and scoring up to the break left the heart dancing, as much in delight as appreciation.
Barely 90 seconds had passed when young Chris Bolger raced on to a ball and fired over Clara’s opening point. Goalie Killian Phelan than landed a magnificent free from all of 85 metres before James Nolan flicked a clever ball to Bolger, who rattled the net from close quarters in the third minute.
Clara’s pace and movement, and work rate all over the park made the opposition look a bit unsure. The winners dug out a badly needed point through T.J. Reid in fourth minute to get them off the scoring mark.
Within seconds Mark Aylward received a nicely addressed ball from strong centre-back, Michael Fennelly before shooting a second minor. Clara kept up their strong momentum with a spirit lifting point from all of 75 metres by wing-back, Neal Prendergast (1-3 to 0-2) in the sixth minute. Clara were flying, no doubt!
Then we got a glimpse of hurling perfection. Michael Fennelly dug out dirty ball near midfield and delivered an inch perfect 60 metre pass to Henry Shefflin in space in the right corner. An accurate touch on to Mark Aylward.
The receiver was given all the advantage space provides, and he did what he was supposed to do when close to goal. He planted the ball in the net.
Clara’s early big lead was down to the minimum. It was all but ‘start again’ time in the match.
Now the pressure was back on the champions. Lester Ryan dug out a great point under severe pressure to keep them 1-4 to 1-2 in front.
Shamrocks were all the time building, building, building. The next four scores were equally divided, but for some reason Clara began to retreat, dragging a man deep and leaving only five up front.
Leaders at end of quarter
The losers hit the quarter hour mark as leaders by 1-6 to 1-5. They weren’t to score during the rest of the half as Shamrocks proceeded to land one smashing point after another.
A free Joey Holden cleaned up in the Shamrocks defence. Their dominance in this sector often left them opportunity for players to look up and take aim when getting in clearances. There were no straight down the middle deliveries. It was wing to wing crosses all the time.
T.J. Reid arrowed deadly ball to all quarters. Some of the runs undertaken, and positions sought, by Shefflin were sublime. ‘Cha’ was hurling up a storm. Colin Fennelly, when moved to centre-forward, galvanised the front line and made it even more threatening.
A cross from T.J. Reid to Shefflin ended with the latter cutting the deficit to the minimum in the 16th minute. Within seconds David Hoyne picked out Eoin Reid with a pass. The latter scored. It was level, 1-6 each.
The Shamrocks simply sailed on. A ‘pick off the ground’ foul earned T.J. Reid the lead point from a free near midfield. Then T.J. put a ball in an ocean of space for Shefflin to snatch a score. The next point was via a free for T.J. Reid.
The one after that was a combination effort between T.J. and Colin Fennelly, with the latter taking the honours. On Shamrocks rolled into a fine interval lead of 1-11 to 1-6. All their attackers had already scored.
Took up chase
When the game resumed Clara had rejigged their defence. Shane Prendergast made the move from corner to centre-back, with Tom Ryan making the reverse journey. With their team now in regular formation, they took up the chase with real intent.
They claimed the opening point of the new half through free taker, Keith Hogan. T.J. Reid replied at the other end.
And so the game rolled on, with the Shamrocks lead swinging between four and six points for the main part. The new kings weren’t as dominant as they had been during the second quarter. They were sure and steady.
When Clara put the aforementioned points from Keith Hogan (free) and Chris Bolger together with about 12 minutes remaining, there was some hope for them (1-16 to 1-13).
Within a few lively minutes Shamrocks galloped away over the horizon, courtesy of Reid’s three scores in-a-row (1-19 to 1-13). That blast epitomised the wonders of the Shamrocks attack; highlighting again the kind of displays they have been giving since the start of the championship.
They gave an encore at the finish as a sort of strong signing off. The Shamrocks were defending their lines. Henry Shefflin got on to a ball around 45 metres from his own goal on the Old Stand side.
He drilled a 50 metre pass cross field to Colin Fennelly. The latter turned inside, from almost on the sideline, before hitting the target with a beautiful strike from 45 metres off his left. Lovely hurling, absolutely lovely hurling!
There was no shame on Clara losing to a class act like Shamrocks. They went down battling, like true champions should, with Lester Ryan, Chris Bolger, Tom Ryan, David Langton and Shane Prendergast utterly defiant.
It was Shamrocks day, however, with T.J., ‘Cha’, Michael Fennelly, Conor Walsh, Joey Holden, Henry, Colin Fennelly and Alan Cuddihy the brightest of the bright performers.
And what now? If the Dublin champs can be put to the sword, the Shamrocks could be looking towards hurling early in 2015. Sure Henry might never get the chance to make up his mind about retiring!
SCORERS: Ballyhale Shamrocks - T.J. Reid (0-10, five frees, one 65); Mark Aylward (1-1); Colin Fennelly (0-3); James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Henry Shefflin, Eoin Reid (0-2 each). Clara - Chris Bolger (1-2); Keith Hogan (0-5, frees); Conor O’Shea (0-2); Neal Prendergast, Lester Ryan, Austin Murphy (0-1 each); Killian Phelan (0-1, free).
Ballyhale Shamrocks - Richie Reid; Alan Cuddihy, Joey Holden, Tom Coogan; Paul Shefflin, Michael Fennelly, Conor Walsh; Bob Aylward, David Hoyne; James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Henry Shefflin, T.J. Reid; Eoin Reid, Colin Fennelly, Mark Aylward. Sub - Brian Cody for M. Aylward 58th min.
Clara - Killian Phelan; Dermot Nolan, Sean O’Shea, Shane Prendergast; Nel Prendergast, Tom Ryan, David Langton; Lester Ryan, Jack Langton; Conor O’Shea, Keith Hogan, Liam Ryan; Chris Bolger, Austin Murphy, James Nolan. Subs - Ciaran Prendergast for A. Murphy 43rd min; Peter Nolan for L. Ryan 56th min; David Prendergast for C. O’Shea 59th min.
Referee - Gavin Quilty (Clieverue).
Attendance - 8,612.
Frees - Shamrocks 9 (5 and 4); Clara 12 (4 and 8).
Wides - Shamrocks 6 (4 and 2); Clara 5 (2 and 3).