Young club still has long tradition of success
LEINSTER CLUB HURLING FINAL: THIS SUNDAY'S Leinster club hurling final sees Ballyhale Shamrocks attempt to win a fifth provincial title for Kilkenny in six years. Although champions Birr, the club with whom they share top spot in the All-Ireland roll of honour, stand in the way, Shamrocks are 1 to 7 to recapture the title they won two years ago.
This success rate mirrors the dominance of the county team and has brought to an end a barren spell for the county's champions within Leinster, just one win, by Glenmore in 1995, stretching from 1990 until a decade later when Graigue-Ballycallan took the provincial title.
"I suppose there was a time recently when we weren't that successful," says Ned Quinn, secretary of the county board and chair of the national hurling development committee.
"The standard in Kilkenny is very good, but there were very good teams around. Birr won All-Irelands in the 1990s and this decade, so it hasn't been easy getting out of Leinster.
"If you go back to the start of the club championship, James Stephens and Ballyhale Shamrocks, who are the most successful club in the history of the competition (with Birr, on four All-Irelands each), won All-Irelands in the 1970s and 1980s."
The maintenance of a very successful development system within the county has helped feed the clubs in Kilkenny, but even allowing for that production line, Ballyhale have been exceptional.
Two years ago the club could boast both the national hurler of the year, Henry Shefflin, and young hurler of the year, James Fitzpatrick, on the team that won Leinster en route to the 2007 All-Ireland.
Both were injured 12 months ago and Birr took the chance to relieve them of their title.
Having been founded in 1972 as an amalgamation of the two junior clubs of Ballyhale and Knocktopher, Ballyhale Shamrocks made a rapid ascent through the grades to senior by 1975.
It took just three seasons for the club to win the first of 12 Kilkenny senior titles in 1978, before going on to win a further seven in the following 13 years.
All-Ireland success followed in 1981 with success against St Finbarr's of Cork in the final at Thurles. Three years later the club added an unusual All-Ireland, which was played out over a weekend with semi-finals on the Saturday and the final the following morning.
It was Ballyhale who best endured the demanding format - which was dropped after its Centenary Year experiment - to defeat Ballycastle the first day and Galway's Gort the next.
The third title came in 1990 when Limerick champions Ballybrown were defeated.
All three teams featured seven Fennelly brothers, who also managed to win three Kilkenny football titles along the way.
"Shamrocks are a remarkable club," according to Quinn. "They were only established in 1972 and have already caught up with traditional clubs like Bennettsbridge and Mooncoin. Ballyhale is a parish of just 1,000."
Like all clubs with a small catchment, Ballyhale depend on a small number of families.
Names like Fennelly, Shefflin, Reid and Holden featured on the teams that amassed silverware in the 1980s, and this weekend the same names will compete in Nowlan Park.
The success of the county's clubs - James Stephens won the two Leinsters and one All-Ireland before Ballyhale - is reflected in the county's achievements and the club game is allowed to thrive without undue interference.
"Hurling is played in every parish and every parish school has a team," says Quinn.
"This year's minor team (All-Ireland winners) represent a spread of clubs, including a number of junior.
"Our county championships, senior, intermediate and junior, are all drawn in February and that draw is adhered to right the way through.
"This year we played a full round of matches between the All-Ireland semi-final and final. Our champions have never failed to make a date for the Leinster club championship."
An important element in the clockwork running of the championship is the discipline with which the fixture list is enforced.
By Quinn's reckoning, an average of less than one match a year gets postponed in the county championship.
"We only postpone in extreme cases," he says, "and Brian Cody (county manager) is very supportive.
"We show him the fixtures list in February in case there's anything significant he wants to bring up and then he agrees it. He's never once asked for the postponement of a club match.
"There's no point in denying that success makes it easier to run structures. Everyone appreciates success and you get co-operation between board and county teams and clubs. Then again, the best tool for promoting hurling is a successful county team because kids want to be associated with that success."