herald

Friday 15 December 2017

Hale are high on five

Super Shamrocks wreck Portumna's record bid and seize immortality

IN the end, Portumna's quest for three in a row immortality was submerged by Ballyhale Shamrocks' drive for five.

Not even the wonder of Joe Canning could suppress the Kilkenny champions, who created their own piece of history at Croke Park yesterday as the first club side to win a fifth AIB All-Ireland club senior hurling title.

There were no complaints afterwards from the vanquished champions and nor could they be. Portumna could boast the game's most luminous individual performance -- from Canning -- but the collective display from Ballyhale was streets ahead.

This final failed to live up to its advance billing as a classic in the making, but you can't blame Ballyhale who came with a plan (to nullify Portumna's vaunted attack) and a burning ambition (to make amends for last year), and who comprehensively delivered on both counts.

In stark contrast, Portumna resembled a team of proven champions who, for once, simply couldn't handle the burden of expectation.

Canning delivered another virtuoso display -- comprising a dozen points from assorted distances and angles, including five wondrous efforts from play. Yet his solo heroics could not sustain the three-in-a-row charge with so many of his colleagues afflicted by a surprising malaise.

The challengers were faster out of the blocks, scoring through James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick after just 14 seconds, and the remaining hour was a case of Portumna playing catch-up and never quite getting there.

"Five All-Ireland club titles for a small rural parish is an amazing achievement," declared Michael Fennelly, who assumed joint-managerial duties along with James McGarry at the outset of this marathon campaign.

"It's five, six or seven families we draw from, but there is a great hurling tradition down where we are and we hope to keep it going. Today they drove it on."

The memory of last year's semi-final drove them on further still. Thirteen months ago in Thurles, Ballyhale's defence was scorched by Canning and co, leaking five goals en route to a seven-point defeat that threatened to reach epic proportions at one stage.

But those defensive doubts were firmly scotched yesterday. No goal conceded to the most voracious goal-chasers in club hurling. Not even the concession of a 20m free to whet the appetite of Big Joe.

"We looked at the match last year against Portumna and the boys made a lot of mistakes," Fennelly recalled. "If we made them again, we'd be blown out of it. But we counteracted everything. The backs played wonderfully -- there was a doubt about them but they proved everything wrong."

One of those defenders, captain Eamonn Walsh, took up the same theme. He surmised that their defence has been questioned "the whole time" and not always fairly. "The Portumna match last year didn't do us any good, or the Toomevara match a few years ago," he suggested.

"People who don't see us the whole time maybe point at five goals conceded ... but if you broke down the game last year we made some awful bad mistakes, and they'll cost you against a good team.

"This year we didn't do anything differently, we just went out to play ... and the mistakes didn't really happen," Walsh continued. "We backed each other up -- the backs aren't just individuals, the forwards and midfield did great work blocking and hooking. But we're happy to take the plaudits today because we don't get them very often."

By way of confirmation, the TG4 vote for man of the match didn't go to a high-profile star like Henry Shefflin or TJ Reid or Cha Fitzpatrick but rather the unheralded Alan Cuddihy.

The corner-back's standout display was illuminated by fielding, hooking and last-ditch defending of the highest order, and you certainly couldn't quibble with his selection -- even though this observer couldn't look beyond Canning, even in defeat.

The key difference, though, is that Cuddihy was joined by a queue of Kilkenny men all contributing handsomely to this richly-deserved five-point success.

Fitzpatrick was the game's best midfielder by a distance, making ample amends for last year's semi-final when -- recovering from the mumps -- he was a shadow of the Cha we all know.

Up front, scores rained from a variety of sources, expected or otherwise. Shefflin led the way with eight points (two from play) but the performance of TJ Reid, especially in the first half, was more impressive. Like his brother, Eoin Reid also chipped in with three points, while David Hoyne delivered 1-1 in the second half.

Hoyne's 46th minute goal came as a hammer blow to Portumna, who had reduced the deficit to four points and were finally threatening to make this a genuine contest. Compounding the blow to Galway morale was the self-inflicted manner of its concession: Aidan O'Donnell played the ball back to goalkeeper Ivan Canning who, under pressure, tried to hand-pass the sliotar to sideways safety -- but his virtual fresh air was pounced on by Hoyne.

A horror show for the keeper, whose 25th minute spillage could have led to an earlier goal for Hoyne.

Mind you, he wasn't the only Portumna player off his game. Several risky flicked passes (including one from Ollie Canning) were reflective of a strange defensive jitteriness. At the far end Damien Hayes was peripheral until late in the first half -- when he scored twice in 60 seconds to leave his side trailing by 0-11 to 0-5 at the midpoint -- and the pocket rocket was pretty subdued thereafter too.

The extent of Portumna's travails was reflected in the raft of positional switches made either side of half-time, at wing-back, midfield and throughout the forward line.

"We were in trouble in too many different positions -- it was really firefighting at that stage, quenching fires all over the field," admitted losing manager Johnny Kelly. "And Ballyhale, I take my hat off to them -- they're an outstanding club, an outstanding bunch of players, but so too are we."

Kelly admitted that the goal took "the wind out of our sails" but he deemed their poor opening quarter a more critical factor.

Various Ballyhale defenders struggled to get a handle on Canning, but the mere fact they confined Portumna's No14 to a couple of shots at goal is telling.

The first opening, just two minutes in, was saved by James Connolly at his near post. Soon after, some dextrous ball control created another fleeting chance before he was bottled up by a combination of Aidan Cummins and Cuddihy. Finally, Canning tried his luck again with a 56th minute daisy-cutter from an improbable angle that Connolly repelled with some difficulty.

By then the gap was out to six -- and it was game over.

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