BY NIALL SHERRY
ALL PIX DANNY LAHART
Shamrocks Ballyhale set for Ballygunner shoot-out
AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship Final
Ballygunner (Waterford) vs Shamrocks Ballyhale
Saturday, February 12th, 3pm, Croke Park
Tomorrow at headquarters sees the top two hurling clubs on the Island of Ireland take to the turf of Croke Park. In one corner, Shamrocks Ballyhale, Kilkenny and Leinster Champions. In the other, Ballygunner, Waterford and Munster Champions. This promises to be an epic battle.
Shamrocks have previous form in this competition. James O’Connor’s side are bidding to become the first hurling club to win 3 All-Ireland club titles on the bounce. What an amazing achievement that would be.
Standing in the way of even more greatness for the Kilkenny side, are Ballygunner. Serial winners within Waterford, Darragh O’Sullivan’s team are seeking to shake-off the ‘bridesmaids’ tag, as they have been knocking on the door for a number of years, without making the decider. Having won the last EIGHT county titles, they hope to translate home domination onto the national stage tomorrow. Should the unspeakable happen, and the Gunners upset Ballyhale, they will become the first Deise club to lift the Tommy Moore Cup.
Forty-three games unbeaten in Waterford, Ballygunner are no mugs and will leave it all out on the Croker pitch against their near-neighbours tomorrow.
There is less than 25 miles separating these two wonderful clubs, and there are many ties between the two clubs. Shamrocks talisman, TJ Reid is a distant cousin of the Mahoney brothers, so you can bet there will be an extra edge to their contests, in a bid for the family bragging rights.
An All-Ireland final appearance is the natural progression for Ballygunner, on the back of their county stranglehold. Yes, this is their first appearance in the club decider, but they will come into the final in rude health and full of confidence following their provincial and national campaigns to date.
They cantered to their eighth straight county title with a 20-point win over Roanmore last October, with Dessie Hutchinson scoring 1-9 from play. Hutchinson only returned to club hurling 3 years ago, having played a little bit of soccer with Brighton across the water and now has three county titles to his name.
When they entered the provincial series, they dispatched Clare opposition for the fourth consecutive campaign, running out comprehensive 17-point winners over Ballyvea, who desperately missed their star, Tony Kelly. The Gunners had impressive performances from Pauric Mahony 0-8, Billy O’Keeffe 2-1, Mikey Mahony 1-2 and Conor Sheahan 0-3 as they advanced to a Munster semi-final with Loughmore-Castleiney on a wild afternoon in Dungarvan.
The Tipperary champions went down by 5-points to the Gunners and had the McGrath brothers red-carded during a tempestuous encounter. Goals in either half from Mikey & Kevin Mahoney proved crucial, while Dessie Hutchinson was in blistering form and notched 5 points from play. Shane O’Sullivan & former inter-county keeper were particularly impressive for the winners on the day.
The Munster final would see Ballygunner take on Limerick’s Killmallock in Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh. They showed no mercy to the Treaty County side as they ran out 14-point winners, to claim their third Munster title. Once again, Dessie Hutchinson was in scintillating form, hitting 1-5, but it was his exceptional movement and accuracy that stood out in this crushing defeat of Killmallock. Livewire Billy O’Keefe hit 1-3 in an impressive attacking display from the Waterford side that saw all six starting forwards get on the score board. In goals, Stephen O’Keefe was again in imperious form, pulling off some fine saves throughout the contest.
Derry and Ulster kingpins Slaughtneil were next up for Darragh O’Sullivan’s charges in the All-Ireland semi-final. Parnell Park hosted the encounter as both sides battled for a crack at Ballyhale. The Ulster side were hoping for another shot at the Kilkenny side, following their defeat at the same stage of the competition just a couple of seasons ago. A sluggish start to each half would prove costly for Michael McShane’s side, as they were 5-points down after just three minutes of action, while they conceded 1-1 when play resumed in the second half.
Ballygunner would win out by 5-points and hit 15 wides, but they had to battle across the 60-odd minutes to quell the storm that the Derry side brought across the game. Indeed, the Gunners were 8-points up as the game reached the final quarter, but McShane’s side dug in and hit four scores on the bounce to worry the Munster champions and force them to find another gear. Dessie Hutchinson 0-4, along with Billy O’Keefe who hit 2-3 were menacing throughout, and were ably supported by Kevin Mahony 0-4, and Peter Hogan 0-3, as the Deise side advanced to a first All-Ireland club final.
The Deise Threat…
Ballygunner possesses a genuine scoring threat to our County and Leinster Champions tomorrow. Their ‘normal’ front six would trouble most club defenders. As mentioned, Dessie Hutchinson has been in inspired form since his return from the ‘foreign’ game three years ago. Hutchinson has proved to be extremely accurate and razor-sharp this season, while his movement has troubled all opponents this far. Billy O’Keefe, their 2-goal semi-final hero is another that will take some watching in Croker tomorrow. Throw in a triple threat of Mahony’s and this side are primed to do some damage to any scoring board.
Conor Sheahan at midfield will test the Shamrocks engine room with his forward bursts, and can raise a flag or two.
At the back, it all starts with former Waterford keeper, Stephen O’Keefe. His shot stopping has been right up there with the best, while his restarts have given his side a crucial platform to build wave upon wave of attack. Captain, Barry Coughlan will command the square and will no doubt relish his battle with his opposite captain, Colin Fennelly. Shane O’Sullivan’s ability to deliver quality ball from No.6 will need to be restricted, as he is a main source of his sides attacking play.
Back-to-back All-Ireland Champions for a reason….
Enough about the Gunners. Those of you not familiar with the Deise side have now been informed.
Shamrocks Ballyhale have been building foundations gradually throughout this season. Winning 4-in-a-row county titles with a four-point win over O’Loughlin Gaels, sent James O’Connor’s men on their provincial journey. A hard-fought 6-point win over Carlow’s finest, Mount Leinster Rangers was their first assignment in Leinster. Along with TJ, Eoin Cody, Adrian Mullen, Joe Cuddihy and Brian Cody were all contributors to their side’s progression in Netwatch Cullen Park.
The first major scare for the defending All-Ireland champions came in the provincial semi-final against Offaly champs, St Rynaghs in Tullamore. By God did Tipp legend Ken Hogan’s team put the Shamrocks player and supports through the mill that day! With Ballyhale down to 14 men, St Rynaghs were 3 points up as the match entered stoppage time. Richie Reid hit a ‘65 into the mixer and Young Hurler of the Year, Eoin Cody reacted quickest as the sliotar bobbled about and struck it to the net. This hammer blow seemed to completely knock the wind out of the Faithful County team’s sails. Indeed, they would only register 2 scores from placed balls during extra time. Shamrocks, showed their experience and ran out 9-point winners in the end.
The Leinster Final was staged at headquarters and saw the Noresiders take on ‘Picky’ Maher’s Clough/Ballacolla. Coming into the game, there was lots of talk about the Laois side’s scoring threat, led by that man Maher, who had hit 5-72 in his club’s run to the provincial decider. On the big stage, Maher would only register 3 scores from the placed ball, as ace man-marker Darren Mullen did a superb job on nullifying the dangerman’s threat.
Six of the best would see James O’Connor’s charges home by 27–odd points at Croker and in doing so, claim their 3rd straight provincial title and just two more steps from another All-Ireland title.
Semple Stadium was the venue as Leinster and Connacht champions collided. St Thomas of Galway provided the next test of Ballyhale’s credentials. If the St Rynaghs game had tested the nerves of the Kilkenny side and their travelling and watching faithful, we were to be taken to the edge once more in Thurles.
The sides deadlocked, as we entered 3 minutes of additional time. Placed ball specialist Cooney slotted over 2 soft frees to seemingly see his side home and gain revenge for their 2019 defeat to the same opposition. Two points down in the final minute of stoppage time, a goal was needed to save the day. A long searching ball in and around ‘the house’ broke to TJ Reid who was wrestled to the ground.
A quick check with referee told TJ that only 30 seconds remained. Roughly 22 metres out, on the angle to the right of the St Thomas’ goal, TJ struck a fierce shot that rocketed to the back of the net past a plethora of bodies.
Game over. Shamrocks Ballyhale through to the AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship Final.
Reasons to be cheerful….
This Ballyhale side have shown an unbelievable resilience, especially this season, when pushed to the limits. All title winning teams need that special quality, and this Colin Fennelly led side clearly have the ability to hit that extra gear when called upon. After TJ’s miracle touch the last day, he suggested that his side have been using up their ‘nine lives’ with increasing regularity. Some say you can only go to the well so many times, before it runs dry. Waterford native and Shamrocks manager James O’Connor, will no doubt hope that there isn’t the need to rescue tomorrow’s result in stoppage time.
TJ Reid, who has been playing with a groin injury since the county final, will hopefully have been wrapped in cotton wool since the St Thomas victory. Like many games nowadays, accuracy from the placed ball is key to establishing victory and we’ll need TJ to be on top of his game.
The work-rate of Adrian Mullen, along with his skipper will set the tone for the Shamrocks attack, while Eoin Cody and Joe Cuddihy will look to provide that little bit of sparkle in troubling the Ballygunner defence. The form of Eoin Cody will be particularly pleasing not only to see club, but his county Manager, who will be keen to integrate him into the black and amber set-up as the Allianz League progresses.
The Carlow IT student has also shown great confidence when taking over the free-taking duties when TJ hasn’t been on the field. Let’s hope both are on the pitch at the long whistle tomorrow. Similar to the Gunners Dessie Hutchinson, Eoin’s pace, movement and skill has troubled all opposition defenders at both club and county level. The stage is surely set for the 2-time Young Hurler of the Year to light up Croker against their near neighbours.
Joe Cuddihy has returned from suspension, and has looked lively. He too will welcome the opportunity to ply his wears in the open spaces of Croke Park and keep the score board ticking over. Brian Cody too has been operating more at ‘11’ in recent games and is capable of scoring from distance. Should the space not open up in front of him.
Going back to Adrian Mullen. The talented wing-forward has been improving with each game and when the going gets tough against the Gunners tomorrow, Mullen won’t be afraid to roll up his sleeves and mix it when required.
With a little luck, Ronan Corcoran will be fit to take a starting berth in the decider. His all-round ability was sorely missed in the semi-final win over the Connacht champions. The Shamrocks faithful will hope that the spine behind the midfield continues to dominate. Dean Mason has been playing well, along with Joey Holden at ‘3’ and Richie Reid at ‘6’. Along with a Mullen or two, Darragh Corcoran and Evan Shefflin, the Ballyhale defence will hope to snuff out the undoubted Ballygunner attacking threat.
Both sides have the ability to freshen things up the respective benches, and this could have a bearing on tomorrow’s outcome. Winter hurling is difficult, both the finalists have shown that they have earned the right to battle it out for the title on the carpet at Croker.
Shamrocks Ballyhale expect and will leave no stone unturned in their quest for a third consecutive All-Ireland Club title. Let’s hope they join Mooncoin in lifting the ultimate accolade in club hurling at headquarters tomorrow. Believe in Ballyhale.