IT was on. The shock was on. The champs were teetering on the brink. Or so it seemed.
This wasn't the Ballyduff of old. This wasn't the Ballyduff of the last three years. They were being out-fought comprehensively and, it seemed, out-thought on the line by a Ballyheigue side who refused to meekly accept their fate.
A young team. A young team shorn of two of their best forwards – Shane Dunne missed the championship having picked up a cruciate injury, while Ronan Kenny missed out on this game, also through injury – wasn't supposed to put the reigning champs under this much pressure. Yet that's precisely what they did and in the process earned for themselves quite a few admirers.
Before the start of this match news had filtered through of Kilkenny's demise. With just minutes remaining on the clock at the end of the first half, with Ballyheigue leading by six, the prospect of Ballyduff meeting a similar fate didn't seem beyond the bounds of possibility.
Two points was all Ballyduff had managed up to then – an early Bobby O'Sullivan free and a point from play by Pat Joe Connolly with about twenty two minutes gone. Not the stuff of champions. Even at that stage Ballyheigue should have been further ahead.
Jason Casey drove the team with intent from centre-back. Diarmuid Walsh impressed in the number nine jersey and up front young Philip Lucid was every bit as accurate as his predecessor Mike 'Boxer' Slattery had once been from the placed ball. The trouble was they were far too reliant on Lucid for scores. Seán Colgan did lend some support, but that was it and it wasn't enough.
A fact cruelly exposed by Ballyduff's first goal of the game.
Bobby O'Sullivan took a quick free around the middle of the park. Padraig Boyle, who had been having a quiet enough afternoon of it at full-forward up until then, claimed it and fed Pat Joe Connolly. Connolly rammed it home. In thirty seconds Ballyheighue's seemingly impressive lead had been cut in half and before the half-time whistle blew had been cut to too – Thomas O'Rourke hit a late free.
All Ballyheigue's good work had been undone. No question about that. Their two point lead wouldn't be much protection in the second half as Ballyduff began to get to grips with the challenge of their neighbours. Now that the champions knew that quick, low ball into Boyle at full-forward had the potential to create havoc in a way that the long ball just wasn't in the first half with Damien Casey performing admirably.
At the start of the second half O'Sullivan once again found Boyle. This time Boyle took it on himself and slammed the sliotar home. Ballyduff were laying down a marker that they weren't done in this championship yet.
Not by a long shot. Neither were Ballyheigue. They recovered quite well from Boyle's goal and the Barry O'Grady point which followed. They went up the pitch, earned two frees and Lucid did as he'd been doing all day. The sides were level.
Could the shock still be on? Well no. Boyle got in for his second right away. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. From then on there was only going to be one winner. Not that Ballyheigue gave up the ghost. They didn't. Not even when Ballyduff had stretched their lead to seven with about five minutes remaining. No they kept going. Lucid got in for a goal. Four point game.
Try as they might that was as close as they got. Gary O'Brien got the last score of the game. The champs survived.
At times they were impressive. At times anything but. Ballyheigue gave themselves plenty encouragement for the year ahead. They're building something by the sea.
Ballyduff: PJ O'Gorman, Jason Bowler, Padraig O'Grady, Declan Bowler, Ally O'Connor, Liam Boyle, David Goulding, Eric O'Connor, Bobby O'Sullivan (0-2, 1f), Aidan Boyle, Gary O'Brien (0-1), Barry O'Grady (0-2), Pat Joe Connolly (1-1), Padraig Boyle (2-3, 2f), Anthony O'Carroll Subs: Thomas O'Rourke (0-2f) for A O'Carroll, Martin O'Connor for T O'Rourke, Kevin Junior O'Connor for PJ Connolly
Ballyheigue: Kevin O'Mahony, Mark Dineen, Damien Casey, Padraig Behan, Jason Griffin, Jason Casey, Michael O'Halloran, Kevin Reidy, Diarmuid Walsh, Sean Colgan (0-2), Jerry Crean, Joe O'Halloran, Gary Galway, Tomás Casey, Philip Lucid (1-10, 10f) Subs: Pa O'Regan for G Galway, Daniel Casey for J Griffin
Referee: Jason Mullins (Limerick)
It has to be Padraig Boyle. He set up Connolly for his goal and nabbed two of his own. A class act.
Pat Joe Connolly's goal just before half-time. It came at just the right moment for the champs and just the wrong moment for their rivals.