It’s tough sometimes playing for Ballyhale Shamrocks. The assumption that just because you’re Ballyhale Shamrocks and therefore born and bred to win doesn’t always reflect realities, even against so-called weaker opposition.
Last Sunday was a case in point: Ballyhale were 1/50 to make a fourth consecutive AIB Leinster club hurling final, with only Kildare champions Naas standing in their way.
Did anybody remember the Leinster Under-16 Shield final from back in 2015?
It was played in Naas, after Ballyhale offered to concede home advantage, and Naas won 6-12 to 0-6. Plenty of the Naas players remembered that last Sunday, many of the Ballyhale players too.
Including Eoin Cody, twice Young Hurler of the Year, who was part of that Ballyhale Under-16 team; back then winning anything was never the assumption.
It was reflected too when Naas raced into a six-point advantage last Sunday, after eight minutes, before Ballyhale slowly and then suddenly reigned them back in, eventually winning out 3-22 to 1-16.
“No, we weren’t too happy about that start, got caught on the hop I suppose,” Cody says of last Sunday. “Naas were flying it, and could have been a lot more up, and we were lucky in that sense.
“Somehow we went in at half-time a point ahead, I don’t know how. We knew that wasn’t good enough, but one thing we did was up our work-rate, got better ball inside, two goals in the end.”
On Cody’s mind too was that 2015 Shield final, which he played in, before winning became a bit more of a habit once he joined the Ballyhale senior team at age 18, in 2018.
“Yeah, Naas hammered us that day, and let us know about it, I don’t think they’ve taken down the scoreboard yet. That was embarrassing enough, but motivated us in our own way.
“But we’re not looking back on that too much either. Up in Ballyhale it’s not about winning underage, it’s about bringing lads through, to senior, and you earn your dinner then.
“We did win a Sevens tournament, in age group, so we knew there was a good group there, won a minor as well, and then an under-21. We just drove it on from there.”
Now that fourth Leinster title beckons, Ballyhale writing some more history in the meantime by winning a fifth Kilkenny county, in this the club’s 50th anniversary year.
“Yeah, and we didn’t shy away from it, we spoke about it as something we wanted to achieve, and are really proud of it. It was huge for us, as a parish, a team, and we really enjoyed it.”
Indeed in winning that county title over James Stephens, the club remain unbeaten in knock-out hurling in the county now since October 2017; that win also extended their outright number of hurling titles to 20 (level with the county record held by Tullaroan).
It also keeps Ballyhale on course to make some amends for how things finished up last season, when after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the All-Ireland club semi-final against St Thomas’s, they were hit with a late, late winner from first-time All-Ireland finalists Ballygunner, who also became the first Waterford club to land the coveted title.
That defeat aside, Ballyhale are still unbeaten in their last three Leinster campaigns, and before earlier this year, the previous two All-Ireland campaigns.
Standing in their way on Sunday are back-to-back Dublin champions Kilmacud Crokes, contesting their first Leinster club hurling final.
Some may be dressing it up as the super-suburb club versus the small county parish, only for Cody, who hit 1-2 last Sunday, that doesn’t always reflect realities either.
“Definitely impressed by Crokes,” he says, the Dublin champions completing their semi-final immediately afterwards, beating St Mullin’s of Carlow 1-24 to 1-12.
“They dominated the game really, were by far the better team. The way they use the ball, they use the space, did the right thing at the right time. And a young and hungry team, going for a first Leinster title, and they’re really, really hungry for it. Probably at the opposite end to us, we’re going for four-in-a-row. So we have to match that, bring even more.”
Cody doesn’t buy the idea either that Dublin clubs are somehow weaker opposition when it comes to Leinster club hurling.
“Not for me anyway. I’m not sure if that’s a kind of old folks’ tale, for me I’ve always had massive respect for Dublin clubs, the likes of Cuala come to mind, you look at what they’ve done, so definitely not taken lightly.”
It’s far from a numbers’ game either: Kilmacud may have by far the greater population and catchment area, but that doesn’t always make it easier.
“For Ballyhale sometimes it’s an advantage being a small club, everyone is getting the chance, whereas in a big club like that, they’re nearly too much of a pick, and it’s very hard to make your way up the pecking order if you’re not being seen, and it’s easier to drop off.
“Whereas in Ballyhale, if you’re not seen at a young age, you could still end up playing senior. And that happens many, many times. So it’s an advantage in some ways, but a massive disadvantage as well.”