Ballyhale Shamrocks overcome sluggish middle period to reach Leinster final

St Rynagh’s push All-Ireland champions to extra time but late goal deflates resistance

Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) 3-24 St Rynagh’s (Offaly) 2-18 (aet)

After all they’ve won – 28 out of 31 games now in Leinster and All-Ireland competitions since their 2006 Kilkenny title breakthrough – perhaps Ballyhale Shamrocks are simply bored with straightforward victories.

They’re certainly making life interesting for themselves, or needlessly difficult depending on your interpretation, and probably should have been beaten in Tullamore.

Like the previous weekend against Mount Leinster Rangers, Ballyhale burned brightly early on before fading to a dim glow, and watched in horror as a nine point lead after 15 minutes morphed into a three-point deficit in second-half stoppage time.

The great sides always seem to escape these sorts of situations, however, and back to back All-Ireland holders Ballyhale, who played the second-half with 14 men following Joe Cuddihy's dismissal, somehow conjured an equalising goal from the hurl of Eoin Cody, who finished with 2-3.

Manager James O’Connor hadn’t a clue who’d scored as Cody got hurl to ball amongst a thicket of players.

Technically, it was still a 50-50 contest but Ken Hogan’s Rynagh’s were a spent force in extra-time, the goal having the effect of a pin pricking a balloon. Suddenly, they were utterly deflated and lost the additional 20 minutes by 0-11 to 0-2.

Shamrocks then are just an hour from a record 11th Leinster title and will play Clough Ballacolla at Croke Park next Sunday in the final.

"I knew it was the last chance," said a relieved O'Connor of the long delivery in from Richie Reid that led to Cody's goal.

“We didn’t play to our potential over the first 60 minutes at all. We did play to our potential in the second 20 minutes of extra-time but for whatever reason in most of the games we have gone nine or 10 points ahead and then we’re just taking the foot off the pedal and we’re giving the opposition the chance to get a foothold.

“Normally when you get that nine or 10 points ahead, you should just be finishing off a team. We’re bringing a lot of workload on ourselves that we shouldn’t be.”

If the Ballyhale side that contested the opening quarter, sniping goals from Cody and Colin Fennelly, or the Shamrocks team that dominated extra-time, turns up at Croke Park on Sunday, Clough Ballacolla probably don't stand a chance.

But the Shamrocks team that registered just 0-5 across the second and third quarters of the game is eminently beatable.

Rynagh’s should have done it too, fighting back from an early 2-5 to 0-2 deficit to trail by just three at half-time, top scorer Luke O’Connor netting in the 23rd minute.

Cuddihy's dismissal for a high challenge on Matthew Maloney boosted Rynagh's who, aided by Paul Quirke, drew level at the second water break and then surged three ahead with a Ronan Hughes goal.

They retained that lead deep into stoppage time but couldn’t hold on and will spend Christmas mulling over a missed opportunity.

Ballyhale, meanwhile, will be without the suspended Cuddihy for the final while Evan Shefflin and Colin Fennelly are injury concerns.

Ballyhale Shamrocks: D Mason; K Mullen, J Holden, B Butler; E Shefflin (0-2), R Reid, D Corcoran; R Corcoran (0-2), E Kenneally; B Cody (0-3), TJ Reid (0-7, five frees), E Cody (2-3); A Mullen (0-5), C Fennelly (1-0), J Cuddihy.

Subs: P Mullen for Kenneally (50 mins), D Mullen for Butler (53), E Reid (0-1) for Cuddihy (red card, e/t), Kenneally (0-1) for Fennelly 62, C Phelan for Shefflin 71.

St Rynagh's: C Clancy; C Hernon, P Camon, S Wynne; M Maloney, B Conneely, D Shortt; A Treacy (0-3, two frees), J O'Connor; P Quirke (0-4), S Og Lyons, G Conneely; L O'Connor (1-8, six frees), S Dolan, S Quirke (0-1).

Subs: R Hughes (1-2) for Camon (4 mins), A Kenny for G Conneely (41), C Flannery for S Quirke (63), S Quirke for Flannery (e/t), Flannery for S Quirke & N Wynne for Kenny (69), B Rigney for Lyons (76).

Referee: C Mooney (Dublin).

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