BY NIALL SHERRY
Offaly champs St Rynaghs next up for Ballyhale
AIB Leinster SHC quarter-final
Mount Leinster Rangers 0-16 Ballyhale Shamrocks 0-22
Reigning All- Ireland club hurling champions, Shamrocks of Ballyhale secured a semi-final berth in the Provincial series, with a hard-fought 6-point victory over Carlow kingpins, Mount Leinster Rangers at a cold and windy Netwatch Cullen Park last Saturday.
Despite coming into the tie as massive underdogs, Rangers gave a good account of themselves, considering they hadn’t been in competitive action since winning their county title on September 19th. This period of inactivity was probably one of the factors as Ballyhale came out of the traps much more sharply than their neighbours.
The Carlow side would actually open the scoring, playing against the wind in the first half, through a placed ball from corner-forward Denis Murphy. Their Kilkenny opponents hit back straight away, when Adrian Mullen took possession, before passing to the impressive Joe Cuddihy who slotted over to level. Shortly after, midfielder Brian Cody picked up a loose ball before finding the on-running Adrian Mullen who turned inside and popped over a lovely point. Cody would then register his sides 3rd score of the day, following lovely build-up play from Ronan Corcoran and captain Colin Fennelly.
Shamrocks had settled and were displaying all the attributes of a side who’s record outside of their county is as good as any across the island. James O’Connor’s side appeared to be able to create scoring chances with greater ease than their Carlow opponents. The first burst from Ballyhale had produced 3 points, the second would triple that and would see them lead 0-9 to 0-2 at the first water break. Messrs. Adrian Mullen, Brian & Eoin Cody, Ronan Corcoran, TJ Reid and Joe Cuddihy would contribute to the emphatic first quarter blitz by the Nore Siders, and notably, all their scores came from play.
MLR would only add one further score to their first quarter total, via Fiachra Fitzpatrick, and the warning signs looked ominous for Conor Phelan’s charges. Things would go from bad to worse for the Carlow side when the heavily strapped Eddie Byrne had to be withdrawn from play after only 15 minutes.
You could sense that the Rangers supporters were fearing the worst, and when Adrian Mullen slotted over another well-taken point for this third of the day, the gap between the sides appeared to be widening. The Carlow champions did reduce the deficit to six points, with much needed scores from Teddy Joyce and their top marksman, Denis Murphy.
Little did their watching faithful know that only one further placed along with those points would be the last scores registered by their side in a disappointing first half for MLR. Shamrocks responded to their opponents 2-point salvo with scores of their own from TJ and Cuddihy.
Eight points down as they entered the final five minutes of a difficult first period, manager Phelan needed to stem the tide, but unfortunately some loose marking allowed No.12 Cuddihy and the very lively Brian Cody to pop over nice points to leave Shamrocks an impressive and worthy 9 points up when Offaly referee Richie Fitzsimons blew for half-time. Ballyhale 0-14, MLR 0-5.
Despite having wind advantage for the second half, MLR knew it would take a comeback of epic proportion to advance to the next stage of the competition. Surely the best-known club side in hurling history wouldn’t entertain such fairytales.
When play resumed, the first score registered was a free from that man Denis Murphy. The corner-forward was then given another opportunity from a placed ball which he duly slotted over. TJ then popped over a free to leave the score 0-15 to 0-7. The pattern in the second half was a little different to that of the half that had preceded it. The game wasn’t as free-flowing, the referee was much busier, mostly in the blowing for frees.
Both teams possessed accurate placed-ball takers, in TJ Reid and Denis Murphy, and so commenced their personal battle. The newly-wed TJ fired over another free, before his nemesis Murphy, replied with two of his own following Shamrocks indiscretions. The crowd had been lifted; the noise increased and when midfielder Richard Coady hit his sides third score on the bounce, they were a little more hope in their cheers if not total belief in the task ahead.
When Murphy struck his sides fifth unanswered point to narrow the gap to just 5 points, there appeared to be a little more collective belief in the MLR challenge. For the first time in the quarter-final, Ballyhale found themselves under periods of concerted pressure, but what do champions do when facing difficulty? they respond, and that’s exactly what James O’Connor’s troops did with the next two points, both from play by Eoin Cody and the sharp looking Adrian Mullen.
Denis Murphy again punished another Shamrocks indiscretion when he pointed yet another free, to leave six between the sides as the whistle sounded for the second water break, 0-18 to 0-12. To the surprise of the pundits, players and supporters, MLR had outscored Ballyhale by 0-7 to 0-4 with corner-forward Murphy responsible for six of those scores.
When battle recommenced, Murphy again displayed his placed-ball prowess, by slotting over another free. Play would be briefly halted, when the emergency services were required to administer attention to an unfortunate spectator, who had collapsed in the stand.
On the resumption of play, MLR Denis Murphy slotted over another free to reduce the deficit to just 4 points with a little over 10 minutes to play. From the resulting puck-out, the game’s best chance of a goal arrived, and the moment that Conor Phelan and his side will look back on over the winter months. Centre-forward Chris Nolan collected a loose ball before finding Jon Nolan with a lovely pass. Jon went straight for goal and struck his effort goal-bound, but could only watch in horror as Ballyhale net minder Dean Mason somehow managed to prevent the ball reaching the net. A collective sigh could be heard by the Rangers supporters across the ground.
Startled by MLR goal attempt, Shamrocks then registered a point, from TJ, before corner-back Gary Kelly pointed for the Carlow side to stir supporters from both sides, as the final couple of minutes approached. Who else, but Denis Murphy notched another free to leave just a major between the sides, 0-19 to 0-16.
Lesser teams would have crumbled in the face of the MLR challenge, but not this team. In true champions fashion, Ballyhale then upped the ante. First up was TJ, who struck, possibly the best score of the game with a stunning point from his own half. Eoin Cody then forced Rangers goalkeeper Grennan into a smart save, which he managed to put behind for a ‘65. What happened next? Well TJ popped over the ‘65, obviously. There was still time for Joe Cuddihy to notch his sides final score of the day and seal their place in the Leinster semi-final this weekend.
Final Score, MLR 0-16, Shamrocks of Ballyhale 0-22
Ballyhale Shamrocks: Dean Mason; Darren Mullen, Joey Holden, Kevin Mullen; Evan Shefflin (0-01), Richie Reid, Brian Butler; Darragh Corcoran, Ronan Corcoran (0-01); Brian Cody (0-04), TJ Reid (0-06, 0-03f, 0-01 65), Colin Fennelly; Adrian Mullen (0-03), Eoin Cody (0-03), Joe Cuddihy (0-04).
Subs: Eoin Reid for Darren Mullen, Gavin Butler for Brian Butler, Eoin Kenneally for Cuddihy
Mount Leinster Rangers: Dean Grennan; Michael Doyle, David Phelan, Gary Kelly (0-01); Gary Lawlor, Diarmuid Byrne, Richard Kelly; Paul Coady, Richard Coady (0-01); Fiachra Fitzpatrick (0-01), Chris Nolan, Kevin McDonald; Denis Murphy (0-12, 0-11f), Edward Byrne, Jon Nolan.
Subs: Ted Joyce (0-01) for Edward Byrne
Referee: Richie Fitzsimons (Offaly)
>> SHERRY SAYS………..
For three quarters of this quarter-final tie, James O’Connor’s men were in control. A blistering first period saw Shamrocks 7-up at the first water break. All 9 points from the Kilkenny side from play. Remarkable achievement for ‘winter hurling’. 9-up at the short whistle, all looked in order. Midfielder Brian Cody out- performing his engine-room partner, Ronan Corcoran. This Cody hitting 4 points.
Adrian Mullen & Joe Cuddihy, the pick of the attacking six. Mullen in particular is looking sharper with every minute of championship action played. This augurs well for not only the club, but the county also.
In defence, both Joey Holden and Richie Reid played superably, particularly in the first half. Holden plucking lots of balls out of the sky and Richie mopping up from No.6.
The second half saw lots of frees conceded, and this will be of concern to the Ballyhale management. The main source of scores for the opposition came from the hurl of Denis Murphy via the placed ball. As the journey in Leinster and beyond continues, we will need to tighten up a lot, in terms of giving away scorable frees.
MLR will relive Jon Nolan’s second half goal chance over the dark winter evenings ahead. When he found himself with only the keeper to beat, most spectators would have been thinking a green flag was about to be raised – but Dean Mason wasn’t a spectator – his smothering save was huge and helped -stem the rising Rangers tide. The young keeper is building on his ever-growing reputation – I would imagine the older Brian Cody will have taken note.
Next up for the champions in Leinster, is the challenge of the Faithful County’s top side St Rynaghs. Tullamore the likely venue in a couple of days’ time. Yes, they will provide a stern test, yes, they cause problems, but you ultimately feel that Colin Fennelly and co. Will prevail.