Thursday 18 January 2018

King Henry decrees that Ballyhale get late reprieve

Niall McQuillan of James Stephens (left) in
action against Ballyhale's Joseph Holden in the
Kilkenny SHC final yesterday
Niall McQuillan of James Stephens (left) in action against Ballyhale's Joseph Holden in the Kilkenny SHC final yesterday
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

A story as old as the druids in a dark, beleaguered Nowlan Park where Henry Shefflin's refrigerated nerve earned Ballyhale an injury-time reprieve against city boys James Stephens.

Remarkably, both minor and senior finals ended in draws on a day when the granite will that defines Kilkenny hurling found epic expression in the tempest.

The Village looked to have secured a first county title since '05 through Eoin Larkin's brilliant 60th-minute point, but their desperation to hold out led to the concession of a 64th-minute free that, in the conditions, didn't exactly come with a written guarantee.

As Shefflin settled over the ball, he was no more than 10 yards from the toes of the new stand and bending into an angry gale. Novena territory if you have mortal blood coursing through your veins. Maybe a quick Hail Mary if you're the Ballyhale No 11.

"Henry being Henry, he never misses," chuckled their manager Michael Fennelly Snr in the dressing-room corridor later. "Fair play to him, he wasn't intimidated by it."

The great man had been held scoreless from play, as he was in the '05 final, but this was a day when even the finest wrists were ridiculed by the weather gods. On one occasion, the hurley flew out of Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly's hands in a comedic loop, drawing gasps from the crowd as it came spinning to ground like a giant acorn.

On another, Henry completely fluffed his lift for a free, the sliotar just sliding off the bas like soap down the side of a bath. It was that kind of day in the home of the All-Ireland kings.

A day when you saw things that might have persuaded Noah to call a lifeboat.

Logically, the Village couldn't but feel a little deflated when it was over. Trailing 0-4 to 0-8 at half-time, they dominated the second half territorially -- a wind whipping at their backs -- and looked to have found critical momentum through David Walton's 55th-minute goal.

The score came when the sliotar went to ground after a wonderful, slaloming Larkin run and Walton reacted quickest to whip it past a helpless Richard Reid. It put them a point to the good and, given that Ballyhale did not register a score from play in the entire second half, that looked like a winning position.

But Shefflin reined them in two minutes from the end of normal time with a wonderful free from the '65'. And even when Larkin then fired what looked a certain winner for the Village, Shefflin's mere presence on the field seemed to counsel against premature celebration.

He'd been brilliantly marshalled throughout by Donnacha Cody, the Kilkenny manager's son following Henry across every position of the half-back line and, eventually, even into the corner.

The anticipated shakedown with county colleague Jackie Tyrrell never materialised, the Village happy to leave the shortest of straws in Cody's possession.

Their defence actually had a storming hour, maybe none more so than full-back Tomas Keogh, whose glorious fetch and buccaneering 40-metre run almost brought the score of the season a minute from the time, his giant effort dropping just short and into Reid's grateful palm.

"We're proud as hell of them," their manager Niall Rigney would tell us later. "It was an unbelievable day to play hurling, but their hearts are massive. Look, we can win this. There's no talk of referees or conditions in our dressing-room.

"We'll be back training on Wednesday night and again Friday and back then to win the championship on Sunday. That's the target."

Shamrocks, bidding for their fifth crown in six years, looked to be in reasonable control during an error-strewn first half. Yet, had Reid not miraculously deflected Matt Ruth's 16th-minute shot out for a '65', after Eoin McCormack's defence-splitting run, the boys from the south might have been in early difficulty.

Fennelly, whose son and namesake had a relatively subdued game in midfield, reckoned they needed an eight-to-10 point lead by the break to be in any way content. To him, four felt uncomfortably threadbare.

And the realisation that an upset was possible found palpable expression in the 6,974 attendance as two Larkin frees and a fine Eoin McCormack point drew the Village to within a single point with 16 minutes remaining. They'd been denied what looked a possible 46th-minute penalty too when Ger Fennelly clearly pulled the shirt of Walton as James Stephens came swarming around the Shamrocks' square.

Referee Michael Flynn seemed intent on overlooking what he saw as venial sins and certainly made the odd eccentric call. To Village eyes, that critical late free clearly constituted one of them.

In Keogh, Jackie Tyrrell, Cody and Eoin Larkin, they had heroes who probably felt they'd done enough to win. But to finish Shamrocks, you need to nail down the casket lid, placing a boulder on top. A one-point lead in injury-time doesn't quite do that.

"We got out of jail," admitted Fennelly senior. "'Twas a battle out there on a terrible day for hurling and we're lucky to survive. Look, we'll be happy enough to get another day out of it."

Battle resumes next Sunday, as does the replayed minor final between Thomastown and Bennettsbridge.

SCORERS -- Ballyhale Shamrocks: H Shefflin 0-7 (7f), TJ Reid 0-2, C Fennelly, E Reid 0-1 each. James Stephens: E Larkin 0-6 (5f), D Walton 1-0, D McCormack, E McCormack 0-1 each.

BALLYHALE -- R Reid; P Shefflin, A Cummins, G Fennelly; B Aylward, E Walsh, J Holden; M Fennelly, J Fitzpatrick; H Shefflin, TJ Reid, D Hoyne; E Reid, C Fennelly, C Walsh. Subs: M Aylward for Hoyne (55).

JAMES STEPHENS -- D Brennan; J Comerford, T Keogh, N McQuillan; P Larkin, J Tyrrell, D Cody; R Coady, N Tyrrell; D McCormack, E Sheehy, E Larkin; E McCormack, M Ruth, D Walton. Subs: R Hayes for Sheehy (52), G Whelan for N Tyrrell (60).

Ref -- M Flynn (Mooncoin).

Irish Independent

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