BY NIALL SHERRY
Croker clash could be very, very tasty
AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Semi-Final
Shamrocks Ballyhale vs Ballygunner
Sunday 18th December, Croke Park (Throw-in 3:30pm)
It’s the clash that everyone was hoping for, a repeat of last season’s All-Ireland Club Hurling Final, Leinster’s finest, Shamrocks Ballyhale and Munster’s big guns. Ballygunner.
When the draw for this year’s competition was made, it became clear that if our South Kilkenny giants were to reclaim the Tommy Moore Cup, they would potentially lock horns with Waterford neighbours Ballygunner. For both clubs, February’s final at Sunday’s venue has left its mark.
For Darragh O’Sullivan’s red & black clad outfit, they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, thanks to Harry Ruddle’s latest of late strikes. Essentially Ballyhale had been ballyhale’d by the last-gasp long-range shot by Ruddle. There was no time to reply, Ballygunner, in their first All-Ireland Club Final were champions in really dramatic fashion.
As you would imagine it sparked wild scenes of jubilation amongst the Waterford’s side’s players and travelling faithful. The other side of the coin was the Shamrocks Ballyhale contingent, shell-shocked, numb and struggling to believe what had just happened.
As with everything the Shamrocks do, there was graciousness in their defeat. In recent interviews former inter-county man Colin Fennelly, hinted that that respect may not have been reciprocated, possibly alluding to Barry Coughlan’s winner’s speech from the stands when collecting the Waterford side’s first Tommy Moore Cup.
“It goes around, it comes around”. Words that will have been noted by the most successful side in club hurling.
Having reached the promised land and delivered the ultimate prize in February, Ballygunner set about backing-up that successful campaign by claiming a 9th County title in a row when they disposed of city rivals Mount Sion by 9 points in early September. That was The Gunners 21st News & Stars Cup, and there’s no doubting their dominance in their own back yard.
In the Waterford championship, Pauric Mahony was the second overall top scorer, hitting 2-40 in his sides run to a record-equaling 9th title on the bounce. In their game against Passage, Mahony hit 1-9, his highest return in a single game in the Deise competition. Since entering the provincial arena, Pauric has continued to lead the way, registering 0-29 over three games.
Keeping Pauric company in the scoring stakes is young Patrick Fitzgerald. The former county minor has made huge strides, both physically and mentally as he has cemented a place in this Ballygunner line-up, notching an impressive 3-9 to date in the provincial and All-Ireland series. The young attacking star hit 1-4 as his side became the first team to win back-to-back Munster titles since St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield in 1998-1999. That was a huge statement of intent from Darragh O’Sullivan’s charges.
Tony Kelly’s Clare champions, Ballyea provided the opposition in the Munster final, but The Gunners ran out comfortable 9-point winners with Fitzgerald’s goal ten minutes before the short whistle proving crucial. County star Dessie Hutchinson weighed in with 4 points himself as the Waterford side back-boned by a strong family connection reached the last four. The Mahony’s hit just over half their sides points as they claimed a fourth provincial title.
Pauric’s battle with cousin TJ Reid on the placed ball front will again be key to determining the outcome of this titanic clash. These two players are unerringly accurate from frees and both will look to keep the score boards ticking over for their respective sides. There’s no doubting that both sides main weapons lie in the strength of their ‘front 6’. Three Mahony’s, young Fitzgerald, Dessie Hutch and Peter Hogan will undoubtably test Joey Holden and Co. On Sunday.
Over the last couple of games, Shamrocks have coughed-up a fair few more goal opportunities than Pat Hoban and his backroom team would like, and despite Dean Mason’s brilliance between the posts, you don’t want to keep leaving the door open, as this will bite you in the proverbial sooner or later.
Ballygunner’s defence has a strong spine in Barry Coughlan and Philip Mahony with joint captain Ian Kenny a sticky marker in the corner. Wing-backs Ronan Power and the talented Shane O’Sullivan will look to get forward at every opportunity, but I’d imagine that Eoin Cody amongst others will try to put the Waterford sides defenders on the back foot.
Shamrocks seeking revenge
That February afternoon in Croker has remained in the memory for Ballyhale. There’s no doubting that there’s a sense of unfinished business for the Kilkenny kingpins. I for one, was already writing winning headlines for the most successful side in club hurling history.
Since then, Pat Hoban’s men have navigated a fifth Kilkenny title on the bounce and four provincial titles back-to-back. It wasn’t all plain sailing since getting over the line against The Village in UPMC Nowlan Park. Both Naas and Kilmacud caused a fair number of problems for Shamrocks. Had Naas taken more of the chances they created in the opening 20 minutes; the second half could have proved much less straight forward for Ballyhale.
Dublin Champions Kilmacud uncovered a few more chinks in the Shamrocks armour when they produced a stunning comeback in the second period. As mentioned earlier, goalkeeper Dean Mason produced an exceptional shot-stopping display to help send his side through to Sunday’s semi-final.
Captain Ronan Corcoran was a huge loss to the Kilkenny champions last time out. Hopefully the influential midfielder will be available come Sunday as his calmness and long-range shooting were certainly missed against Crokes.
Adrian Mullen put in an awesome display in Ronan’s absence, hitting some lovely points in his sides win. The former inter-county skipper has been in tremendous form for both club and county in 2022. His all-round ability will be vital as side look to set the record straight at headquarters on Sunday.
The top scorer for Shamrocks in the provincial series so far is twice crowned young hurler of the year Eoin Cody. The attacking genius has amassed 3-13 in his 3 games to date and will be keen to lead the Ballygunner defence a merry dance at Croker.
Colin Fennelly has also been mightily impressive during this campaign hitting 3-6 and causing havoc in every defence faced. His battle with the Ballygunner defence will be exciting.
TJ Reid who missed the win over Westmeath champions Castletown, has notched 1-14 in his two games, but it is his all-round influence on this Shamrocks team that really stands out. TJ is in a league of his own when it comes to plucking the sliotar out of the air and this has proved crucial in setting up many scoring opportunities for his team mates. I’d imagine TJ will relish his free-taking battle with cousin Pauric Mahony and will want to ensure the bragging rights are firmly his at the long whistle.
The impact that Eoin Kenneally, Niall Shortall and Joe Cuddihy have had this season cannot be underestimated. Each of these players have provided vital contributions in Ballyhale’s quest to get another crack at the All-Ireland title. Kenneally especially, gets through a mountain of work and is always working hard to support the man with the ball. Indeed, it was Eoin’s speculative long ball into the danger zone that deceived the Crokes keeper and landed in the net last time out.
Discipline will be key when these sides lock horns on Sunday. Both sides will want to ensure they retain the full complement of players on the pitch throughout the encounter, and will not want to attract the attention of Galway whistler Liam Gordon.
Richie Reid will hope to control his defensive troops and stop quality ball going into his full-back line. On either side of Richie, both Evan Shefflin and Darragh Corcoran will hope to keep their men quiet while adding to their sides attacking threat, and as we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons, both can take points from distance.
In February there was only the bare minimum between the sides, and one wouldn’t be surprised if the gap was just as close this time round.
>> SHERRY SAYS…
Where has the time gone? It only seems like a few weeks since the name on everybody’s lips was Harry Ruddle. Sunday’s last-four clash with Ballygunner presents the first opportunity for the ’wrong’ to be ‘righted’
As we have mentioned, Shamrocks will need to tighten up a fair bit, we don’t want Dean Mason to have to repeat his heroics of the last two outings on Sunday. Hopefully captain Ronan Corcoran will be back in the starting line-up, but if he isn’t available, the Ballyhale bench has shown strength in depth throughout the season and will be called on at various stages of this weekend’s semi-final.
You can leave Ballyhale and be in James McGinn Park in under 40 minutes. That’s how close these two sides are geographically. Throw in the fact that TJ is cousins with the Mahony clan, and that’s adds a little extra spice to the occasion.
There has been some talk about Ballygunner being on the way up and Shamrocks maybe on the wane, but Ballyhale are still the gauge by which all clubs judge their standing. Pat Hoban’s charges have a nice mix of experience and youth and his players will die with their boots on come Sunday and give everything to set-up a final appearance in 2023.
I hope its Hale, not Gunner that prevails in the battle of the Bally’s this weekend.