BY NIALL SHERRY
ALL PIX DANNY LAHART
TJ strikes at the death to send Shamrocks to Croker
AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Semi-Final
Shamrocks Ballyhale 2-15
St Thomas’ (Galway) 0-20
Semple Stadium, Thurles, Sunday 23rd January 2022
We’ll come back to the start later. Extra time loomed. The sides were deadlocked. We were now in 3 minutes of additional time. The Clare referee awarded yet another free to the Connacht champions. Conor Cooney slotted it over, as he had done for most of the preceding 60 minutes. One minute later, another free. This time Cooney rifled it over from his own half. St Thomas’ now 2 points up going into the last minute of the signaled three.
Ballyhale launched the ball into the danger zone. Adrian Mullen tried to gain possession; the ball broke to TJ who was wrestled to the ground by the opposition full-back, Fintan Burke. 62.47 on the clock. TJ picked himself up and went into his ‘free-taking mode’. The referee indicated that there were about 30 seconds remaining to the Kilkenny legend. 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.
Let’s rewind about 60-odd minutes.
Shamrocks took to the Semple stadium turf minus star midfielder Ronan Corcoran, missing out through injury. It was a midfield pairing of Paddy Mullen and Conor Phelan that lined up in the engine room for James O’Connor’s side as they began their quest to reach a third club final in a row. Ballyhale also welcomed back Joe Cuddihy following his recent suspension.
From the throw-in, Shamrocks attacked. Richie Reid pumped a long searching ball into the opposition full-back line where Eoin Cody took possession and headed for goal, before his effort was smothered away by a scrambling St Thomas’ defence. From the puck-out, the ball made its way to young wing forward Eanna Burke who fired over a nice point from out on the right for the games first score.
The same player doubled his account on 4 minutes, when he took a nice pass before popping over the ball over the bar. Following a sloppy restart, Brendan Farrell took full advantage and split the posts to give his side a 3-point lead. St Thomas’ were playing with great hunger and desire as they hunted down their more illustrious opponents with steely determination. The dangerous Eanna Burke then won a free which Conor Cooney popped over with ease to extend the Galway sides lead.
It would be the eighth minute before the Leinster champions opened their account, courtesy of a point from TJ Reid after a nice catch and turn. The Connacht champions responded immediately when Paddy Mullen was adjudged to have fouled his man. Cooney slotted the placed ball to restore his teams 4-point lead. This appeared to stir Shamrocks into action, as the Kilkenny side hit four on the bounce.
First up was Eoin Cody. The Young Hurler of the Year, two years running, picked up the ball out on the left wing and swung over a lovely point. Moments later, the same player took a sideline cut and found TJ with an excellent delivery. TJ laid his pass off to the on-running Joe Cuddihy who fired over an excellent point. From the next passage of play, TJ again picked out Cuddihy on the right and the No. 21 duly obliged by slotting his effort over the bar. Seconds later, Eoin Cody emerged from a scrimmage and showed unbelievable skill and poise before registering the equalising score and undoubtably the best point of the game to date with 13 minutes gone.
Kenneth Burke’s side hit back with a well worked score from midfielder Bernard Burke. From the puck-out, Shamrock’s net minder Dean Mason picked out TJ Reid. The roving attacker then found last season’s County captain Adrian Mullen, who struck a nice point on 15 minutes. The next attack from the westerners didn’t end in a score. Again, Mason’s restart was excellent. He saw Eoin Cody signal and break to his right and managed to pick him out with ease. The impressive attacking star took possession and fired over from distance for the last score before the first water break. Shamrocks led by the minimum, 7 points to 6.
When play resumed, Conor Cooney registered another score from the placed ball, when again, referee Rory McGann gave another decision in favour of the underdogs. It did appear that those marginal calls were going the way of the St Thomas’ side.
The Connacht side reclaimed the lead soon after, when Eanna Burke hit a magnificent point to rival that of Eoin Cody’s minutes earlier. Moments later, the most prominent of the Burke’s had a glorious chance to raise the green flag, but saw his improvised effort expertly saved by Mason. Another ‘soft’ free allowed Conor Cooney to slot another free from about 45 metres out. Midfielder Bernard Burke then got his second point of the day with a long-range effort from half-way. That capped somewhat of a purple patch for the N66 based side, as they had reeled –off their own 4 scores in a row to lead 0-10 to 0-7.
The All-Ireland champions then replied with three scores. The hugely impressive Eoin Cody then cut in from the right touchline before striking over a fine point. Not to be outdone by his young apprentice, TJ then pointed from the right-hand side. From the puck-out, Eoin Cody won back possession before finding his captain at the edge of the ’D’. Fennelly made no mistake and swung over the point, to make it ten apiece. The next passage of play say Eoin Cody lose his hurl, but true to his nature, he battled on to try and disrupt his opponent, before being blown up for a foul.
Conor Cooney pointed the placed ball as his side regained the lead on 26 minutes. The St Thomas’ full-back, Fintan Burke who was having a good game on Fennelly then got out in front of his man, before arrowing a pass into Eanna Burke, who collected the ball before splitting the posts with for a fine score. Cooney then showed his skill from the sideline cut, when he pointed to leave his team up by 3. A nice ball into Fennelly looked like it might cause problems, but the veteran forward was fouled. TJ popped over the placed ball, to reduce the gap to two points. Conor Phelan who had struggled to make an impact on the game was replaced in injury time at the end of the first half by Eoin Kenneally. Dean Mason then made another fine save as referee McGann blew for the interval with St Thomas’ leading 0-13 to 0-11.
The Connacht champions were good value for their 2-point lead. They were first to most balls, disciplined in the tackle, and were keeping the score board ticking over, thanks largely to placed balls from Conor Cooney and the main threat from play, Eanna Burke, who had notched 4 points in the first. Period. Ballyhale, despite Eoin Cody’s brilliance, had been on the periphery of the game, and definitely weren’t the referee’s friends.
The second half was just about one minute old when the Galway side opened the scoring. Eanna Burke turned provider and set up Darragh Burke for a good point. St Thomas’ were awarded what seemed like their millionth free shortly after, just outside the ‘D’. The deadly Cooney did the needful and his side now led by four. The referee also showed a yellow card to Brian Cody for his part in the play, leading to the foul.
TJ Reid was battling well, anytime the ball came near him. He managed to secure the sliotar and pop a nice pass to the supporting Cuddihy who struck over a lovely score from distance. Reid was then given the chance to further reduce the deficit, when he himself was fouled. St Thomas’ then strung together a nice move which ended with former county star James Regan tag on a lovely point. Brian Butler was sprung from the bench to replace the injured Kevin Mullen on 43 minutes. A couple of minutes later, Evan Shefflin was harshly adjudged to have fouled Cooney, and received a yellow card for his troubles, despite it appearing like the wing-back had delivered a well-timed shoulder to his opponent. Following a touch of the magic sponge, Cooney recovered to fire over the placed ball and leave his side 4 points clear at the second water break.
James O’Connor’s men really needed to stand up and show their pedigree in the final quarter. The ball found its way to Adrian Mullen, who struck for a point, only to see his effort well blocked by the on-rushing defender. Fortunately, the ball broke to Paddy Mullen, who took aim and fired over a lovely score from out the pitch. Shortly after, Shamrocks almost fashioned a goal chance. Just when it looked like Adrian Mullen was about to swipe the ball home, The opposition defence somehow managed to hack the ball clear. Another soft free followed for the Galway side, and again Cooney took advantage.
Adrian Mullen who was becoming much more prominent in the game took the ball before being tackled high, which the referee spotted and TJ rifled over the subsequent free. Darren Mullen was then replaced by Conor Walsh with what looked like an arm injury on 53minutes. Darragh Corcoran then went on a barn-storming run before passing to his captain, whose attempt to burst through on goal was crudely halted by John Headd. PENALTY!!
TJ calmy stepped forward and fired his shot past the helpless keeper Kelly in the St Thomas goal. The sides were now level, 1-5 to 0-18, with just four minutes remaining. Eoin Reid then entered the fray, replacing earlier substitute, Eoin Kenneally.
Then followed just under 4 minutes of pure championship hurling excitement. Cooney struck his brace of free’s, the second, a monstrous effort from his own half, before 5-time Liam McCarthy winner & 5-time all-star took aim and hit the bullseye deep into injury time. The long whistle sounded. Shamrocks Ballyhale 2-15, St Thomas’ 0-20. A third All-Ireland club final on the bounce now awaits James O’Connor’s charges.
>> SHERRY SAYS………..
It was like St Rynaghs all over again. Shamrocks Ballyhale were determined to go to the wire in this one.
Let’s be frank, should James O’Connor’s men play like this against Ballygunner in a couple of weeks, there may be no reprieve. This wasn’t their best 60-odd minutes of hurling this season, but with semi-finals, it’s all about getting over the line and making the showpiece in Croker.
To their credit, the Connacht champions will feel hard done by after this result. For large periods of the game in Thurles, they appeared the better side. Eanna Burke was outstanding in the first half, hitting four lovely points. Conor Cooney was supremely accurate from the placed ball, and didn’t miss many.
In defence, Fintan Burke was immense, relishing his physical battle with Shamrocks captain, Colin Fennelly. St Thomas’ midfield edged the engine room battle, the absence of Ronan Corcoran was a key factor here.
It appeared every time Ballyhale went into a tackle, the whistle sounded, and Cooney obliged.
The main scoring threat for our Kilkenny champions was the trio of TJ, Joe Cuddihy and Eoin Cody. Restored to the starting XV following suspension, Cuddihy hit 3 lovely points, while Eoin Cody continues to sparkle on the big stage. One of his points was as good as you will see in any match.
Now to TJ Reid. The serial winner finished with 2-5 to his name. Both majors, hugely crucial to his sides semi-final victory. TJ struck his penalty with supreme confidence, never in doubt. His second major, however, well that was fairytale stuff. I found myself clenching my fist in the air when it hit the net. I for one, didn’t want this Ballyhale journey to end in Thurles.
TJ & Co. Will need to recover mentally and physically from this bruising contest as they lock-in on Waterford’s and Munster’s finest, Ballygunner. The medical team and physios will be worked hard over the next couple of weeks as they look to give these Shamrocks the best possible chance of taking to the Croker turf in decent shape.
The Ballyhale bus has one more stop to make. Thanks TJ.