Ruddle solves riddle of how to beat Ballyhale as Ballygunner seal historic win

Substitute’s goal on the final whistle earns first All-Ireland title for a Waterford club

Ballygunner 2-17 Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-19

After some underwhelming precedent, the AIB hurling club final delivered a match and a finale to live long in the memory. First and most importantly, a stunning goal struck in the dying seconds by replacement Harry Ruddle from around 25 metres yielded a first All-Ireland title for a Waterford club.

Fittingly, the county’s dominant side of recent years, Ballygunner recorded the historic breakthrough.

It was an achievement all the more precious because of the context. The championship’s most powerful force, Ballyhale Shamrocks were chasing a three-in-a-row and right up until the fateful 64th minute they looked to have negotiated their own achievement with the composure of champions.

At the end they were the biter bit, after the last-second theatrics of TJ Reid’s free to the net to beat St Thomas’ in the semi-final. The whistle this time sounded after Ruddle’s goal and left the Kilkenny men devastated by the reversal in fortune.

For most of the match, they had looked in control and were closing in on the historic treble.

"Too many wides," was the verdict on Ballygunner, as officials began to move around in the final moments to prepare for the presentation. Their last two wides were overhit deliveries into the full forwards, specifically their chief miracle worker, Dessie Hutchinson.

That it wouldn't be the Waterford side's day appeared to have been confirmed in the 62nd minute when some Ballygunner players ran into each other under a puck-out and the ball ran for Ballyhale wing back Evan Shefflin. With unfussy precision, he picked off the point to move the lead to two, 1-19 to 1-17.

Had the match reports been written just then, there would have been consensus that the better team had won. Fewer wides and a priceless ability – hardwired into their DNA – to rise when the challenge was most intense.

TJ Reid was impeccable from frees and scored 0-2 from play, the second having a watershed feel with less than 10 minutes left on the clock and just after a frustrating wide by Hutchinson, to push Shamrocks three ahead, 1-17 to 1-14.

To many it looked as if Ballygunner were simply failing to sustain a run of their opponents when they had the chance and any time they got close, the champions went up a gear. Yet by the end they had in the words of disconsolate losing manager James O’Connor, “out-Balllyhaled, Ballyhale”.

That failure to pull away when on the champions’ shoulder could equally be read as staying with them until the guard was down sufficiently to land a knockout blow.

The first half was well contested but fitful. Within seconds Hutchinson had hit the post but the match settled and established a blow-for-blow storyline. It is greatly to Barry Coughlan’s credit that by the frantic finale he was so influential in repelling Ballyhale, because he was under pressure in the first half as the Kilkenny champions pressed and cleverly created space.

Overall he held Colin Fennelly to a point but the Ballyhale captain broke a couple of telling balls, including one that saw Adrian Mullen whistling over a point

Eoin Cody dispossessed Philip Mahony but the ball was put out for a 65, duly converted by Reid.

Having had a lot of possession and some opportunity, Ballygunner were outscored 0-7 to 0-2 in the second quarter and trailed by three at the break, 0-7 to 0-10.

After the break, play followed a pattern: Ballygunner making inroads but Ballyhale pushing ahead. The match looked to have swung decisively when Fennelly finally got a run on the defence only for Stephen O'Keeffe – dependability personified for the whole match – made a terrific save only for replacement Eoin Reid to crack home the loose ball for a five-point lead, 0-12 to 1-14 and the writing, if not on the wall, was being stencilled.

Páuric Mahony responded with a couple of frees and then Hutchinson, who ended the historic day with 1-3 and the man-of-the-match award, made his own intervention, taking a dropping ball off Darren Mullen, rounding his marker and placing the ball in the net in the 48th minute.

Just a point in it and a sense that it was anyone’s match save for that nagging ability of Ballyhale to take scores when needed and Ballygunner’s tendency to hit wides.

Did it mean Ballyhale’s name was on the cup, as had been one theory when they defied defeat in both the All-Ireland and Leinster semi-finals? Most in the crowd of 17,117 would have thought so until Harry Ruddle – brought on in the 53rd minute – took matters, and fate, into his own hands.

BALLYGUNNER: Stephen O'Keeffe; Ian Kenny, Barry Coughlan (jt capt.), T Foley; Ronan Power, Philip Mahony (jt capt), Shane O'Sullivan; Conor Sheahan, Paddy Leavey; Peter Hogan, Pauric Mahony (0-7, all frees), Mikey Mahony (0-3); Kevin Mahony (0-2), Dessie Hutchinson (1-3), Billy O'Keeffe (0-2).
 
Subs: Cormac Power for B O'Keeffe (47 mins), Harry Ruddle (1-0) for Sheahan (53).
 
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS: Dean Mason; Brian Butler, Darren Mullin, Joey Holden; Evan Shefflin (0-2), Richie Reid (0-1), Darragh Corcoran (0-1); Conor Walsh, Patrick Mullen (0-1);  Brian Cody (0-1),  Adrian Mullen (0-2), Joe Cuddihy (0-1); TJ Reid (0-8, four frees, 1 '65'), Colin Fennelly (capt; 0-1), Eoin Cody (0-1).
 
Subs: Eoin Reid (1-0)for Walsh (half-time), Kevin Mullen for Butler (34 mins).
 
Referee: James Owens (Wexford).