SAFE passage for the All-Ireland champions at Nowlan Park where James Stephens became the first club in 17 years to successfully defend the title of Kilkenny hurling champions, writes Vincent Hogan.
JAMES STEPHENS 1-18
BALLYHALE S'ROCKS 2-12
Kilkenny SHC final
SAFE passage for the All-Ireland champions at Nowlan Park where James Stephens became the first club in 17 years to successfully defend the title of Kilkenny hurling champions.
More than 13,000 bore witness to a performance stamped with guile and big-day savvy as the "Village" collected their eighth senior county crown at the expense of challengers whose talisman, Henry Shefflin, did not register a score from play.
Shefflin swept disconsolately down the tunnel at the final whistle, choosing not to stay out for the victory speech of county team-mate, Peter Barry.
"We wanted to prove that last year wasn't a fluke, that we're not one-hit wonders." said Barry. "And I think we've proved that now."
The victory means that Barry will, most likely, be nominated as Kilkenny captain for another year despite widespread speculation that he might be considering retirement from the inter-county game.
It was a contest that effectively hinged on James Stephens' marshalling of Shefflin and, between them, Philly Larkin, Barry and Martin Phelan saw to it that the Ballyhale man had a threadbare day in front of goal. Shefflin started at centre-forward but, long before the end, had been dispatched to the edge of the Village square' in the hope that he might plunder a redeeming goal. Eoin Reid did find the net for Ballyhale three minutes into injury-time but, by then, the champions were in safe harbour.
In truth, the scoreline flattered the challengers. Despite a blistering opening, during which Cha' Fitzpatrick won the first three balls against Phelan, Ballyhale just couldn't summon a scoring threat to unhinge the champions' confidence.
Shamrocks led 0-3 to 0-0 after five minutes but that would amount to exactly half of their first-half tally, the "Village" going in at the break with a lead of 1-7 to 0-6. The goal was a monument to direct hurling, Brian McEvoy's high delivery dropping into the hand of Richie Hayes, who set up Eoin McCormack for a venomous finish. Shefflin's woes were writ large in one seven minute burst when, from four attempts to score, he spilled three wides and dropped a shot into Francis Cantwell's hand.
He was, undeniably, second best in the parade of county centre-forwards, Eoin Larkin endlessly taking the fight to Ballyhale with a display of selfless running and murderous accuracy.
Matters might have been even grimmer for Ballyhale at the mid-point, James Connolly having made a miraculous save from Eoin McCormack and Larkin then having a goal disallowed when referee, Eddie Crowley, inexplicably failed to play advantage after a foul on David McCormack.
Every game spits up a defining opportunity though and Ballyhale's came thirteen minutes after the resumption when Shefflin, now operating at full-forward, peeled cleverly away from Phelan under an Eoin Reid delivery.
The "Village" lead had been pared down to the minimum (1-9 to 1-8) TJ Reid goaling with a first-time pull just after the resumption - and Shefflin was now one-on-one with Cantwell.
But fate seemed to coil like a rattlesnake in his path, he lost his footing and ended up just jabbing the sliotar almost timidly into the side-netting.
That was the trigger for a classy necklace of "Village" scores from Larkin (three), Eoin McCormack and impressive substitute, Shane Egan (two). With eight minutes remaining, James Stephens led by five and Ballyhale made their final throw.
Shefflin was poised to set Tom Coogan into a clearing when Donncha Cody got the faintest, spoiling nick.
The sliotar spilled to Fitzpatrick, whose pile-driver was brilliantly saved by Cantwell. This time, possession fell to Henry. On another day, a gun in the hand of Wyatt Earp. Not this day.
Henry didn't quite catch it cleanly and Larkin came galloping away to riotous whoops.
That, effectively, was a curtain falling. James Stephens saw out time with old soldiers like Barry and Larkin just shepherding their team-mates over the line. Reid's late, late goal drew a modest gust of excitement from the stands. But it was illusory - the champions were home.
SCORERS - James Stephens: E Larkin 0-9 (0-6f), E McCormack 1-2, D McCormack, B McEvoy and S Egan 0-2 each, P O'Brien 0-1. Ballyhale Shamrocks: TJ Reid 1-2, E Reid 1-1, D Hoyne 0-3, J Fitzpatrick 0-2, H Shefflin 0-2 (f), M Aylward and T Coogan 0-1 each.
JAMES STEPHENS - F Cantwell; D Cody, M Phelan, D Grogan, J Tyrrell, P Larkin, P Barry; P O'Brien, B McEvoy; J Murray, E Larkin, G Whelan, E McCormack, R Hayes, D McCormack. Sub : S Egan for Murray (43).
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS - J Connolly; P Shefflin, E Walsh, P Holden, K Nolan, B Aylward, M Fennelly; A Cummins, TJ Reid; E Reid, H Shefflin, D Hoyne, P Reid, J Fitzpatrick, M Aylward. Subs : T Coogan for P Reid (41), L Grant for Hoyne (57), B Costelloe for M Aylward (57), T Shefflin for Fitzpatrick (64).
REF - E Crowley (Mooncoin).