Ballyhale Shamrocks 3-22 Naas 1-16
By Paul Keane & Ben O’Keeffe at Croke Park
An early speed wobble aside, Ballyhale Shamrocks were good value for their latest win in the AIB Leinster club SHC, eventually motoring through to next weekend’s decider with a dozen points to spare.
Last season’s All-Ireland runners up did fall six points behind initially as Kildare representatives Naas hinted that they might make a mockery of the long odds attached to them.
But goals from TJ Reid, who finished up with 1-6 for the three-in-a-row provincial champions, Joey Cuddihy and and Eoin Cody ultimately eased Pat Hoban’s crew through to next weekend’s decider.
They will face the winners of this afternoon’s second semi-final between Kilmacud Crokes and St Mullin’s and will shoot for a record 12th Leinster success.
Naas, who won the AIB All-Ireland intermediate title last February, promoting them back to the senior ranks in Leinster for the first time since 2002, can be proud of their efforts and had a star attacker in Jack Sheridan who delivered from both frees and in open play, striking 0-12 overall.
Fresh off their four-goal quarter-final win over Shinrone, Naas came into the contest high on confidence and full of momentum.
Perhaps drawing on the positive vibes from that intermediate final win over Kilmoyley at Croke Park last February – a number of their players also played for Kildare in the Christy Ring Cup final win at GAA headquarters – they burst out of the traps and into a shock 1-5 to 0-2 lead at the quarter hour mark.
Sheridan, who took over the free-taking duties from dual player James Burke after the county final, drilled two early points and Harry Carroll added another from long range.
Then Cathal Dowling sniped a goal and suddenly the raging underdogs led by 1-3 to 0-1.
Remarkably, Naas carved out three decent goal chances before they actually hit the mark; captain Brian Byrne twice going close and Sheridan also forcing Dean Mason to save smartly.
By the time Shamrocks knew what had hit them, they trailed by six points and must have realised it wasn’t going to be the cakewalk many had predicted.
To their credit, the five-in-a-row Kilkenny champions didn’t panic and simply set about reeling in Naas, score by score.
Reid’s 22nd minute goal from a penalty – Colin Fennelly was fouled by full-back Ross Kelly in the buildup – breathed life into their comeback.
Cody then slotted his second point and with 22 minutes on the clock they were already back on level terms at 1-6 apiece.
When Adrian Mullen then picked off a cracking point from the right sideline to move Ballyhale ahead for the first time in the 26th minute, it looked like they might go on to put some daylight between the teams.
Naas dug in though and the sides were level four more times in the run up to half-time with Darragh Corcoran’s point for the holders in the 34th minute giving Ballyhale a narrow 1-11 to 1-10 interval lead.
Naas kept Ballyhale waiting for several minutes before they returned for the second-half. Tom Mullally and his management team were perhaps reminding the players that with eight first-half wides, three shots that dropped short and three goal chances, aside from the one they scored, they were proving more than a match for their vaunted opponents.
Ballyhale’s strong start to the second-half was ominous though and points from Ronan Cororan, Reid and Paddy Mullen stretched their lead.
The eight-time All-Ireland winners effectively sealed the win during a terrific 60 seconds of play late in the third quarter when they rattled the net twice.
Cuddihy struck the first of those goals and when they regained possession from the resulting puck-out, Ballyhale worked the ball to Cody who opted for goal from around 25 metres out and found the bottom right corner.
Naas did respond immediately with back to back points but the damage had been done and the Shamrocks could afford to go through the motions in the run in, Reid even opting for a cheeky looping pass over the top of the Naas defence to Fennelly for a goal attempt in the run in.
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: TJ Reid 1-6 (1-0pen, 0-4f), Eoin Cody 1-2, Paddy Mullen 0-4, Adrian Mullen 0-4, Joey Cuddihy 1-0, Darragh Corcoran 0-3, Ronan Corcoran 0-2, Eoin Reid 0-1.
Scorers for Naas: Jack Sheridan 0-12 (0-9f), Cathal Dowling 1-0, Kevin Whelan 0-2, James Burke 0-1, Harry Carroll 0-1.
Ballyhale Shamrocks: Dean Mason; Darren Mullen, Joey Holden, Killian Corcoran; Evan Shefflin, Richie Reid, Darragh Corcoran; Ronan Corcoran, Paddy Mullen; Joey Cuddihy, TJ Reid, Eoin Cody, Adrian Mullen; Eoin Kenneally, Colin Fennelly.
Subs: Niall Shortall for Cuddihy 50, Brian Butler for Killian Corcoran 61, Eoin Reid for Adrian Mullen 61.
Naas: Cormac Gallagher; Ross Kelly, Peter O’Donoghue; Harry Carroll, Rian Boran, John McKeon, Kevin Whelan; Conan Boran, Simon Leacy; Kevin Aherne, Brian Byrne, James Burke; Charlie Sheridan, Jack Sheridan, Cathal Dowling.
Subs: Conor Dowling for Aherne 49, Ferran O’Sullivan for Kelly 56, Darach MacDonncha for Rian Boran 59, Rian Monaghan for Burke 61, Liam Walsh for Charlie Sheridan 62.
Referee: Thomas Gleeson (Dublin).