Larkin rises to the occasion
Ballyhale stunned as star forward drives 'the Village' to glory
Two Kilkenny colleagues sent off for clashing with each other, a Laois man coming to the citadel of hurling and coaching the new county champions, and a scoring tour de force by a player in a game involving Ballyhale Shamrocks that wasn't Henry Shefflin.
These were the unusual events that summed up a Kilkenny hurling final replay in which James Stephens landed their eighth title against the weight of predictions last week, as the assumption that they had left it behind them when Shefflin pointed an injury-time free for the draw last week was shattered.
It was sheer force of will that carried 'the Village' across the line for what felt like their most important victory ever.
"The lads said all week that this would be the greatest ever day for the Village. It was a county final now. They won an All-Ireland club title in 2005. That didn't come from me. That came from them. That's what drove them on today. They were superb," said Niall Rigney, the one-time Laois stalwart and manager who has made quite an impact since taking charge earlier this year.
James Stephens had lost county finals to Ballyhale in '07 and '08 and, after last week's late drama, the conventional thinking was that Shamrocks would readjust their settings accordingly.
But there was a grim determination about James Stephens, and in Eoin Larkin they had the game's most influential player.
He finished with a tally of 1-11, 12 scores from 12 shots in a display of unerring accuracy, but that only tells some of the story of how Larkin drove his team to victory before a crowd of 8,742.
He hooked, he blocked, he ran, he carried, he laid off. He was utterly flawless and those around him responded to that impressively, particularly when their captain Jackie Tyrrell was given his marching orders four minutes into the second half for a clash with his Kilkenny colleague Colin Fennelly.
So much for the sanctity of the inter-county dressing-room! Put club shirts on these guys and what happens in Croke Park for a few months every summer can be quickly set aside.
Tyrrell clashed with some of those colleagues all afternoon, barrelling into Shefflin in the first half and having numerous barging matches with Michael Fennelly, who was posted on him at centre-forward intermittently.
The older Fennelly and Tyrrell were eventually booked for their argument over territory and there was that edge to the game all afternoon, as you might expect with so much was at stake.
But when Tyrrell launched himself at Colin Fennelly, who had cut down an opponent for what would be his second yellow card, the James Stephens captain gave referee Eamonn Mansfield no option but to dismiss him.
It looked like Ballyhale held the advantage, but Larkin's leadership was crucial and his surge from defence within a minute of those red cards to earn a free and a three-point lead, 1-10 to 0-10, was perhaps the defining moment of the afternoon.
Tyrrell had sailed close to the wind for the 34 minutes he was on the field and was thankful afterwards to his colleagues for the manner of their response after he departed.
"After last week and all that has gone on and getting sent off today, it was a nightmare. And then the way the boys responded and pulled it out of the bag. Brilliant. A great win for the Village, my best ever.
"That's what happens when a player gets sent off. Others step it up a bit more. It's a credit to the lads. I have to thank them. I thought I was after losing the game on them," said a contrite Tyrrell.
Did he really think his red card would prove that costly?
"I have only been sent off once before -- things start flashing in front of you. I actually didn't realise Colin Fennelly was after being sent off. The linesman was trying to put me up in the stand and he said, 'I'll get Colin up as well', and I had to ask, 'was he sent off as well?'.
Tyrrell admitted he had "probably lost the run" of himself.
"I didn't intentionally mean to headbutt Colin Fennelly but our two helmets clashed. I deserved to get another yellow and get sent off. I just saw him reaching for it and I knew I was gone. It definitely warranted another yellow.
"I'd say I was (pumped up too much). Normally I'm able to keep my emotions in check. Clearly I lost the run of myself here and I would definitely say there was an element of that. It was a huge occasion. It was the last thing I wanted to do."
It was James Stephens' first county title since '05 and once again they had to come from behind, with Larkin's goal just before half-time after cutting through a forest of green shirts and then a subsequent free giving them a slender 1-7 to 0-9 lead.
There were many other performances to hail apart from Larkin's. Corner-back Tomas Keogh linked with David Walton for a wonderful second-half point that put them 1-14 to 0-13 ahead and must surely have convinced them that the title was theirs.
From that point on there was only one team in it. Niall Tyrrell chipped in with three points and Matthew Ruth grabbed two as a wilting Ballyhale eventually yielded.
None of their big names really rose to the occasion; even Shefflin was off course with a couple of first-half frees and he struggled to make a real impact.
"I just think we wanted it more than Shamrocks," figured Jackie Tyrrell. "You could see that, the body language, the tackles. I think at half-time the count was 25-11 on breaking ball in our favour."
Rigney revealed that their preparations this week amounted to two meetings and 45 minutes of hurling on Wednesday night.
"We asked them last week to put their bodies on the line and give 100pc and they did that. But 100pc wasn't enough last week so they had to go and get 105 or 110pc.
"They could have gone out and played the game last night, they were in such good form," said a delighted Rigney, who was surrounded by well-wishers from his native county afterwards.
"Nothing was going to stop us. We just had to get it settled, we just had to get our lines right. When Jackie was sent off, Eoin became our real leader. He took up the captain's armband and drove it on for Jackie and the rest of the lads.
"He drove us over the line. Wonderful."
Scorers -- James Stephens: E Larkin 1-11 (0-8f), N Tyrrell 0-3, D McCormack, M Ruth 0-2 each, T Keogh, J McGrath 0-1 each. Ballyhale Shamrocks: H Shefflin 0-7 (4f, 1 '65'), D Hoyne, E Reid, TJ Reid 0-2 each, C Walsh, C Fennelly 0-1 each.
James Stephens -- D Brennan; T Keogh, P Larkin, J Comerford; E Sheehy, J Tyrrell, D Cody; N McQuillan, R Coady; N Tyrrell, E Larkin, D McCormack; E McCormack, M Ruth, D Walton. Subs: R Hayes for Coady (46), J McGrath for Walton (58).
Ballyhale Shamrocks -- R Reid; P Shefflin, A Cummins, G Fennelly; B Aylward, E Walsh, J Holden; J 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, M Fennelly; C Fennelly, TJ Reid, D Hoyne; E Reid, H Shefflin, C Walsh. Subs: A Cuddihy for P Shefflin (h-t), M Aylward for Walsh (38), P Reid for Hoyne (52).
Ref -- E Mansfield.