Ballyhale Shamrocks and Ballygunner both hope to make history in All-Ireland club final

James O’Connor’s side have snatched victory from jaws of defeat twice to reach Croke Park

One of these days Ballyhale Shamrocks might know that when they're beaten, they are actually beaten. If any team has found a way of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat it's them, the only danger being it can't always be depended upon as a successive tactic.

However, this approach has worked twice in their last three games en route to Saturday's AIB All-Ireland club hurling final at Croke Park. Ballyhale's semi-final showdown last month against St Thomas's was effectively over when TJ Reid stood over a 25m free, well right of his target, needing to score a goal or else they were gone.

And score he did – finding the net beyond all reasonable sightlines – and Ballyhale won 2-15 to 0-20. St Thomas's manager Kenneth Burke stood around properly dazed and confused at Semple Stadium for minutes afterwards, as well he might.

“I knew I’d the best man standing over it,” Ballyhale manager James O’Connor mused afterwards. “If he’d see a gap, and there were a load of players crowded in there, so you’re talking about inches, and in fairness I knew it would be the last puck, we’d need that second goal to win this, thank God he did.”

They'd dispatched Clough/Ballacolla comprehensively in the Leinster final at Croke Park, putting 6-23 past the Laois champions, only in getting there Ballyhale looked certain to be beaten in the Leinster semi-final too, trailing Offaly champions St Rynagh's by three points with only seconds left on the clock, having played the entire second half with 14 men.

Then up popped Eoin Cody to score the goal that forced extra-time. Restored to 15 men, Ballyhale then outscored their opponents 0-11 to 0-2 in that period, winning 3-24 to 2-18, leaving St Rynagh's manager Ken Hogan seriously wondering out loud what it must take to beat them.

They’re now unbeaten in knockout club hurling since October 2017, since then winning four successive Kilkenny titles, the last three Leinster titles, and the last two All-Ireland titles: they might well be going for four-in-a-row on Saturday had last year’s championship not being cancelled due to Covid-19. Still, if they do triumph again they’ll be the first to win three in succession.

First-time finalists

Standing in their way are first-time All-Ireland finalists Ballygunner, who are also looking to become the first Waterford side to win the highest honour in club hurling, having won two of the last three Munster titles.

They'll be well known, however, to Ballyhale manager O'Connor (who had the unenviable task of taking over that role from Henry Shefflin), a former Waterford defender, and former manager of his own club in Waterford, Lismore.

Given neither team appeared at their best in the semi-finals – Ballygunner stuttering to get past a dogged Slaughtneil – it's a tough call. That's exactly how Hogan views it – given the two-time All-Ireland-winning Tipperary goalkeeper's firsthand experience of Ballyhale against St Rynagh's, and his familiarity with Ballygunner.

“I’d be straight about it, Ballyhale are not the force they were,” says Hogan. “That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s because they’ve huge mileage on the clock, took a lot of hits against us, played brilliantly in Croke Park, took a lot of hits against St Thomas’s, it does take its toll.

"They need Colin Fennelly, Adrian Mullen, Joey Holden, to be on top of their game. But going into Croke Park for them is so natural, it's like another day's work, All-Ireland club hurling final fever won't really hit them, they won't be intimidated or sidetracked by anything that's going on.

“They know they have to come up to the plate, knowing they haven’t been playing top-notch stuff throughout the 60 minutes.”

Perfect timing

Ballyhale may well feel they've timed their run to Croke Park perfectly, given the club is also celebrating 50 years of existence in 2022. They've a record eight All-Ireland hurling titles in all already, double the tally of Birr and Portumna, and have only ever lost one All-Ireland hurling final: their first one, in 1979.

For Hogan, however, Ballygunner certainly aren't without their own strong hopes and intentions, particularly given the way they stormed through the Munster championship, beating Ballyea and Loughmore-Castleiney, before putting 3-20 past Kilmallock in the Munster final.

“The Ballygunner thing is, it is their time. We’ve said that before in teams in football and hurling, the strength and depth that [they] have. With Stephen O’Keeffe playing in goal, at his absolute best, at his prime now.

“And if goals can be prevented, and the Ballyhale forward line fails to produce a goal, Ballygunner have a huge chance of winning.”

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