Masterful Shefflin delivers exhibition
King Henry reigns supreme to earn final berth
IF only everything in life were as reliable as Henry Shefflin.
He has started the new season as he ended the last -- and indeed several prior to that -- with another of those trademark exhibitions which he constructs with such apparent ease. It took him on another wonderful adventure around Semple Stadium yesterday as he whipped over 0-13 to mastermind Ballyhale's narrow win over Newtownshandrum.
Ten of Shefflin's points were from placed balls but he also fired over three excellent points from open play, scores which ultimately proved crucial in a high-quality game that maintained a terrific tempo from start to finish.
It looked as if it might be headed for extra-time when dogged Newtownshandrum, who were chasing the game all day, cut what had been a four-point deficit after 53 minutes down to a single point in the 60th minute, but Ballyhale ensured safe passage through to the final against Portumna on St Patrick's Day when Shefflin pointed a free in stoppage-time.
"It was a great game to win. We hung on in there in the second half when Newtownshandrum came at us and luckily the breaks went our way," said Shefflin.
It was, of course, a question of making the breaks go their way as they forced the pace in short, sharp bursts while underpinning everything else with an all-round solidity which contrasted their chaotic display against Portumna in last year's semi-final.
They were hit for five goals that day, much to the disappointment of goalkeeper James Connolly who will have far happier memories of yesterday's game. He pulled off a fine save from Cathal Naughton in the 34th minute and made another crucial intervention two minutes later when he dived to his right to divert Ryan Clifford's penalty away.
Newtownshandrum had missed another glorious goal opportunity in the first minute of the second half when James Coughlan flicked the ball wide after it broke in the square. It meant that in the space of six minutes, Ballyhale had survived three goal scares but, from there on, they tightened up defensively, leaving Newtownshandrum chasing salvation through the points route.
Ben O'Connor scored 0-9 from placed balls, one of which was a delightfully struck line ball in the 17th minute, but he couldn't match Shefflin in open play. In fairness to O'Connor, his supply lines weren't nearly as fluid as had been in the case in the Munster championship where Newtownshandrum's running game proved too much for Thurles Sarsfields, Adare and Ballygunner.
Cathal Naughton, Jerry O'Connor and Michael Bowles tried hard to get it working again yesterday and made some progress from time to time but never quite enough to establish a rhythm that would knock Ballyhale off their powerful stride. "We wouldn't be used to their style of play so we decided to stick to our own game and see where it took us," Shefflin added.
It took them into an early three-point lead but Newtownshandrum battled back in what was a point-for-point tussle through much of the first half. Newtownshandrum goalkeeper, William Biggane, who had to retire at half-time due to an ankle injury, made two excellent saves from Patrick Reid and Mark Aylward as Ballyhale pressed on in search of a goal. It didn't come and while they led by three points (0-13 to 0-10) at half-time Ballyhale probably had concerns that the best was yet to come from Newtownshandrum who had played against the breeze in the first half.
That proved to be the case and despite having the missed goal chances, Newtownshandrum's determination brought them level at 0-13 each after 39 minutes.
Their supporters in the crowd of 6,000 were now in full voice in expectation of a big Newtownshandrum finish but, as so often with Kilkenny teams -- especially those featuring Shefflin -- the response was quick and effective.
Shefflin (two) and Mark Aylward put Ballyhale three points clear and they extended it to four in the 53rd minute before Newtownshandrum rallied but ultimately they couldn't quite see the job through to a successful conclusion.
Newtownshandrum manager, Phil Noonan, reckoned Ballyhale's greater physical strength was an important factor but felt his side might have edged through had they enjoyed any luck close to the opposition goal. "We had one or two chances we didn't take in the second half. They (Ballyhale) weren't superior in skill but they got the rub of the green with a couple of fouls and frees near the end. I'm proud of our fellas and we'll be back again," Noonan said.
Like everybody else in Semple Stadium, he was full of admiration for Shefflin, even if it did present his players with problems they never quite sorted out.
"Any ball within 90 yards, he'll punish you. That's what he does. Similar to Ben (O'Connor) for us," said Noonan.
Unfortunately for Newtownshandrum, Shefflin had better support acts around him than O'Connor. Still, it might have all been different except for a 'professional' foul by Ballyhale full-back Aidan Cummins on Jamie Coughlan as he sped in on goal in the 59th minute. It earned Cummins a booking but it halted the Newtownshandrum surge and while O'Connor pointed the free, it still meant that Ballyhale were leading where a goal would have put the Cork champions a point ahead.
Newtownshandrum had sub Maurice Farrell sent off just before the end.
So then, hurling gets the club final most neutrals wanted between the two sides which have dominated the All-Ireland scene for the past four seasons.
Ballyhale were horrified by the nature of their defeat by Portumna in last year's semi-final and certainly look more solid in defence this year.
"We worked fierce hard to get this far. We were awful disappointed last year so it's great to give ourselves a chance of putting things right," said Shefflin.
Newtownshandrum worked extremely hard over the past year too, including all through yesterday's energy-sapping encounter but, in the end, they came up just short against a well-balanced side decorated with customary excellence from the court of King Henry.
Scorers -- Ballyhale: H Shefflin 0-13 (0-8f, 2 '65's), M Aylward 0-2, J Fitzpatrick, E Reid, TJ Reid, C Fennelly 0-1 each. Newtownshandrum: B O'Connor 0-9 (7f, 1'65'1 line ball), M Bowles 0-3, J O'Connor, R Clifford 0-2 each, C Naughton 0-1.
Ballyhale -- J Connolly; A Cuddihy, A Cummins, T Coogan; P Shefflin, E Walsh, B Aylward; J Fitzpatrick, M Fennelly; C Fennelly, H Shefflin, TJ Reid; E Reid, P Reid, M Aylward. Subs: J Holden for P Shefflin (62).
Newtownshandrum -- W Biggane; J O'Mahony, B Mulcahy, D Gleeson; S O'Riordan, P Mulcahy, P Noonan; PJ Copse, C Naughton; R Clifford, Jerry O'Connor, M Bowles; J Coughlan, J Bowles, B O'Connor. Subs: P Morrissey for Biggane (h-t), J Herlihy for Copse (54), John O'Connor for Clifford (54), M Farrell for J Bowles (58).
Ref -- J Ryan (Tipperary).