The Mullen brothers, Darren, Kevin, Adrian and Patrick with the Tommy Moore Cup
For as long as the Cody generation can remember, Ballyhale’s appearances in Croke Park have been a frequent occurrence - almost as frequent as Kilkenny’s, one could argue.
The team may have evolved, but their ruthless attitude still remains the same.
Sport has a habit of following a cyclical pattern, where teams can go through transition periods after a run of success before returning to the kind of form that led to that success. It is only natural, the conveyor belt of talent can slow down and new teams can emerge to challenge the status quo.
There was always something unique about Ballyhale, however. They went through a golden period shortly after the club was founded in 1972. With brief famines in between, they have become the most successful hurling club team in the country, with six All-Ireland club titles.
Not bad for a relatively young club!
Fast forward to Sunday, where they were looking to extend that gap between them and their nearest rivals, under the stewardship of one of their greatest players.
Anyone who would have watched Henry Shefflin throughout his playing career would have suspected he would have stepped in the world of management sooner rather than later. His natural leadership qualities and impressive reading of the game suit the position so well.
Managing Ballyhale was the most logical first step. He would be familiar with the squad, and would get good experience of the cut and thrust of Kilkenny club hurling and beyond.
It would not be a big stretch to speculate that Henry had always been observant of the management style of his old mentor, Brian Cody. The attributes both Henry and Brian associate with success are pretty much the same - drive, spirit and honesty. These qualities have served both Ballyhale and Kilkenny well through the years.
Henry and his team’s journey to this point has been laden with bumps and twists and turns. One must not forget the close county semi-final against Erin’s Own of Castlecomer, where a fortuitous goal saw Ballyhale emerge victorious.
The ’Comer men really had the Southern club on the rocks that day, but typical to Ballyhale, they dug deep and got the result they wanted.
The success they have had, however, is also a direct result of the new wave of talent that has come through. Players such as Eoin Cody, Evan Shefflin, Adrian and Darren Mullen have added that extra freshness and hunger to the team which was already decorated with well-known faces.
St Thomas, Ballyhale’s opponents, were also All Ireland winners - this wasn’t their first rodeo. They were a rural, country, club with a big tradition like Ballyhale so it was a case of which team could pinpoint the other’s weakness and exploit it the most.
The build-up to the big game was a little blighted with news that Michael Fennelly might be sidelined with a knee injury.
If he couldn’t line out, it would have been a massive blow to Ballyhale. It turned out to be mere speculation however, as he took his place at centre back.
The Kilkenny side got off to a blistering start in the first five minutes, with points coming from TJ Reid and Adrian Mullen. Already, Colin Fennelly was causing the St Thomas defence all sorts of trouble with his menacing runs. His first goal came off a rebound from Gerald Murray the St Thomas’s goalkeeper and he flicked into the net.
Ballyhale had their tails up - but anything can happen in hurling and St Thomas’s managed to gain a foothold in the game with a penalty conceded by Darren Mullen. Conor Cooney converted it with ease. Ballyhale responded well with Adrian Mullen slotting over a point. TJ then pointed a free.
One glaring observation was that referee Fergal Horgan was a little inconsistent with his decision making. It may not have made a difference in the final score, but Ballyhale found that the fouls committed against them were not being punished but that St Thomas’s were getting those decisions easier.
Ballyhale chose to use this as motivation however, and tacked on the points. Colin Fennelly than followed this up with a goal set up by Adrian Mullen and left the St Thomas defence stunned. St Thomas’s were floundering in the eye of the Ballyhale storm.
Their best scorer, Darragh Burke, slotted over a point just before half-time. One would wonder if St Thomas’s could conjure up any plan for what a Ballyhale were throwing at them.
That answer was a firm NO! Ballyhale took control halfway through the second half and didn’t look back. Colin Fennelly gave a Man of the Match performance by scoring 2-4 but Adrian Mullen would have also been a credible candidate.
Mullen’s vision, flair and easygoing style was a joy to watch. It would be fair to suggest a certain Brian Cody was somewhere earmarking him for a Kilkenny jersey. He certainly did himself no harm.
It was not just one Mullen who impressed on Sunday however, Darren Mullen was also impressive in defence with his vital interceptions and blocks, and who could forget Patrick Mullen’s point in the 38th minute. Magic!
St Thomas’s, try as they might, simply had no answers for Ballyhale. They had a star-studded lineup, with Cooneys and Burkes aplenty but, as can happen with some teams, they could not reproduce their form when it mattered the most.
A word on Ballyhale, and Henry Shefflin. For a club with limited resources, as Michael Fennelly put it in his speech, their ability to conjure up great hurlers and keep evolving their style rivals few other clubs around the country.
There will be players amongst that panel who will be seen in black and amber jerseys sooner or later, and that can only mean great things!
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.