Shamrocks Ballyhale (Kilkenny) 2-22 Kilmacud Crokes (Dublin) 2-19
Ballyhale roll on, taking their lumps and bumps as they find them.
They had to beat Kilmacud twice here, blitzing them in the first half and then having to scrape and claw their way across the line after the Dublin champions chased them down in the second.
They haven’t lost a match in Leinster since 2012 – you don’t put together a stretch like that without perfecting every possible way to stay alive.
This was madcap stuff at times. Ballyhale, already in cigar-lighting territory after a thumping first half, pushed on to a 14-point lead with the first three scores after the restart.
A Crokes comeback from there looked about as likely as a run on sun cream at a perishing Croke Park and yet Kilmacud proceeded to run Ballyhale ragged, outscoring them over the next 15 minutes by 2-8 to 0-1.
It needed the poxiest of poxy goals to grab them some breathing room, Eoin Kenneally’s point attempt dropping in over the head of Crokes goalkeeper Eddie Gibbons on 50 minutes. Only for it, the result could easily have been tipped on its head.
But then, a few teams have said that against Ballyhale down the years. Where they all have if-onlys to dwell upon, Ballyhale have the first ever Leinster club four-in-a-row.
“At half-time we spoke about putting two halves together,” said Ballyhale manager Pat Hoban afterwards.
“Last week we were poor in the first half and finished well. In previous games in our championship we’ve been hot and cold. We came out after the break and had two points on the board within a minute and I thought, ‘yeah, this is looking good’.
“But we conceded a soft goal – maybe a defensive error – and they turned us over and got huge momentum. The wind picked up and we couldn’t win a puck-out and they really came at us in droves. Only for Dean [Mason] in goal making a good save, we were in big bother.’”
The two halves couldn’t have been more different. For Kilmacud, the first period was like a trip on a ghost train. They had to expect the ghouls and bogeys jumping out at them from the dark and still, when it happened, they were left reeling from the shock. They were perfectly fine and happy, until they weren’t.
After the opening 10 minutes of the first half, they were 0-3 to 0-2 up. They were competing all over the pitch and holding their own in plenty of it.
Ballyhale had a strong wind behind them and had sprayed three feckless wides by that stage so it was fairly clear that the Crokes lead was a soft one. But even so, the almost haughty ease with which Shamrocks torched them over the next 20 minutes left them in pieces.
The Kilkenny side scored 1-9 on the bounce in that stretch. Adrian Mullen and Colin Fennelly did a world of damage in attack, Richie Reid cleaned up everything around the middle third.
They were occasionally wayward with their shooting – eight first-half wides told their own story. They had the wind advantage but it was more than that. They were winning every duel and Crokes were looking increasingly deflated with every attack.
And once Fennelly tapped home after a fluffed pick-out by Luke O’Loughlin in his own square on 23 minutes, Ballyhale were nine up and cruising. Their half-time lead was 1-15 to 0-7. By the 33rd minute, it was 1-18 to 0-7. By no stretch of the imagination could you see this turning into a contest.
Which only goes to show the limits of imagination. Well, ours, at any rate. Crokes were 14 points down, they were playing maybe the best club side Leinster has ever seen and they were cold and wet on a brutal December day. They had every reason to throw their collective hat at it. And yet they summoned up a comeback.
“We just asked the lads to batten down the hatches,” said Kieran Dowling, the Crokes coach afterwards. “Go back to the basics of what we’ve always done and just start running hard at them. We’re talking about a fantastic comeback against arguably the greatest club team in the history of the GAA.
“To put up that type of performance and be here with huge regrets is testament to the work the team has put in, themselves and the management, to get them there. It was just to get at them. I felt we stood off them a small bit physically. We did [get at them] and then we started to get the turnovers.”
They started with a goal from Caolán Conway, wiping out the three points Ballyhale had put up since the break. They used the wind to pen Shamrocks in, winning all around midfield and feeding corner-forward Dara Purcell who was in scintillating form.
Alex Considine had goal on his mind at every turn – his was the shot that Mason saved to keep Ballyhale afloat in the 46th minute but he wouldn’t be denied and leathered home Kilmacud’s second two minutes later.
Ultimately, the fluke goal from Kenneally was the killer blow. Kilmacud had pulled it back to a point when Kenneally floated a shot in from the sideline, going for a point.
The wind caught it and made it drop short but Crokes goalie Eddie Gibbons misjudged it and watched it fall into the net behind him.
SHAMROCKS BALLYHALE: Dean Mason; Darren Mullen, Joey Holden, Killian Corcoran; Evan Shefflin, Richie Reid (0-1), Daragh Corcoran; Niall Shorthall (0-2), Paddy Mullen (0-1); Adrian Mullen (0-4), TJ Reid (0-8, five frees), Eoin Cody (0-2); Eoin Kenneally (1-0), Colin Fennelly (1-3), Joey Cuddihy (0-1).
KILMACUD CROKES: Eddie Gibbons; Brian Sheehy, Darragh Butler, Robert O’Loughlin; Cian Mac Gabhann, Mark Grogan, Cian Ó Cathasaigh; Brian Hayes (0-1), Michael Roche (0-1); Caolan Conway (1-0), Oisín O’Rorke (0-8, five frees, one 65), Fergal Whitely (0-2); Dara Purcell (0-5), Ronan Hayes (0-1), Alex Considine (1-1).
Subs: Brendan Scanlan for Conway (53 mins); Bill O’Carroll for Grogan (blood, 54-58); Sean Purcell for Roche (58).
Referee: Paud O’Dwyer (Carlow)