It's not quite A-Connecticut-Yankee-In- King-Arthur's-Court but at first glance, the notion of two Tipperary men coaching in Kilkenny hurling heartland may seem like a strange fit. But then, through all of the decades of rivalry between the two counties, nothing has ever straightforward and Andy Moloney knew his way around Ballyhale years before he ended up managing the senior team. The Cahir man happened to arrive to study in Waterford IT around the same time as a lanky, copper-haired forward from Kilkenny.
Moloney captained the college side to two Fitzgibbon titles in 1999 and 2000 and also struck up a fast friendship with team-mate Henry Shefflin. Ballyhale was only a short skip away.
“Mae, Henry’s mother, was sort of like a mother to all of us,” Moloney remembers. “You wouldn’t leave that house without getting the tea and something to eat. There was a core group of us that are still very good friends and we often seemed to be in Ballyhale for 21sts or things like that. Then, when Kilkenny began to do really well, we would be up there celebrating with Henry.”
When the Ballyhale managerial position became vacant last autumn, it ended up with Moloney familiarising himself with the town all over again. It had been anticipated that he would return with Colm Bonnar to manage Ballygunner, whom they had guided to the Waterford final in 2014. When that ticket didn't materialise, Moloney happened to ask Shefflin if the Ballyhale post had been filled yet. "The next thing I got a phone call from Michael Fennelly senior and here we are."
Moloney and Bonner’s stewardship of Ballyhale has been unerring. Although Ballyhale was the jewel in the Kilkenny club crown, winning five of the last seven county titles, as well as two All-Irelands in 2007 and 2010, they were perceived as being an aging force. Dealing with where they were as a squad – and where they wanted to go – has been a critical part of their progress.
“The Clara county final was big because we had a lot of good players but we were sort of written off. We weren’t expected at all to win it and that hurt the boys. I felt they gave a good display on a dead sort of a day. But I think the turning point was the match against O’Loughlin Gaels that we lost in the league stages of the championship. We played poorly.
“We didn’t hurl as we wanted to hurl and our minds weren’t where they should have been. So that made us ask a lot of questions and really it came to: are we gone? Are we finished or are we going to make a right go of this? And we came out the following week and beat Carrickshock by 13 points, which was a fair statement of intent.”
Ballyhale is a contradiction: in hurling, the place has acquired an omnipotent tradition over the past five decades. In life, it is a very small town. Both Bonnar and Moloney had friendships with the local hurlers that predated their managerial roles. It has never caused any tension.
"Yeah, I mean . . . there are a couple of lads like Aidan Cummins and Paul Shefflin that I knew well before coming here and Colm would know Eoin and TJ [Reid]. But I have to say they are all very receptive and respectful. They understood from the outset that myself and Colm were in to do a job. For instance, Aidan didn't make the team for a long time.
“He played his first half of hurling against Kilcormac in the Leinster final but prior to that he hadn’t played since August. That was tough on him and it was tough on me too to have to leave him on the line because I know he is an intercounty talent, really.
“He is that bit older now but has the speed still. And he is back in the team now, but the point is that there was never any animosity there from him towards us.
“He didn’t like it but he got on with it, worked harder. And during the year we had to drop Paul for one or two games and he came back stronger and there wasn’t a cross word spoken. We have to think of the team and they understand that. That is the first thing that we spoke about.”
Ballyhale’s on-going season has meant on-going national speculation as to whether Henry Shefflin will be seen in black and amber again.
When Moloney recalls his friend in his Waterford IT years – and he admits to being slightly alarmed at how quick 15 years have slipped away – he admits that he didn’t predict a future in which Shefflin would tower over the hurling landscape. He was an unerring sharp-shooter in frees and had terrific skills set.
“But he seemed to kick on after college – maybe we were a distraction to him! He played the Intermediate All-Ireland against Limerick and then an under-21 and it was just after that he . . . exploded. He got faster. I never had perceived him to be fast but he improved his running technique and his hurling was just . . . you could see, now, that he had all the components to be the hurler that he became. He just needed that drive.”
Coaching his friend has been one of the joys of the season. The wait between the Leinster final win and Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final against Gort has been long. Moloney is the only Cahir man to have hurled with Tipp: that today’s match is fixed for Thurles is pleasing for him. It is the toughest of assignments.
There is history between these clubs revolving around the All-Ireland semi-final of ’84, when fathers and uncles of the current bunch would have hurled. The Kilkenny men prevailed by 1-10 to 0-7 but only after a replay. Moloney knows that easy assumptions have Ballyhale favourite to win this. Being favourite is a treacherous place. There is nothing he can do about that. “Look, Gort beat Portumna, probably the best club team in the country,” he points out.
“Gort have obviously worked hard early in the year and they are a young team, they are well able to move and Thurles will suit them.
“We are the opposite. We are an older team. We have a lot of good hurlers but we have a fair few lads over 30. And we are going to have to hurl to our strengths and hopefully that will be good enough. If we win it, we win it. If we don’t, we wish Gort luck.”