Mount Leinster Rangers 0-16
Ballyhale Shamrocks 0-22
In the battle between the kingpins of Kilkenny and the cream of Carlow, there was to be no shock in Netwatch Cullen Park as All-Ireland champions Ballyhale Shamrocks marched to victory and secured safe passage into the AIB Leinster SHC Semi-Final.
It was not as easy as the final scoreline would suggest, however, with the 2019 and 2020 Leinster champions being made to work for a hard-fought victory away from home.
On a cold afternoon at Netwatch Cullen Park, the players didn’t need long to warm up for a game that was delayed by a week due to a request by the Kilkenny county champions. James O’Connor’s men were not so reciprocal of Mount Leinster Ranger’s act of kindness to move the game forward, however, as they put their opponents to the sword in what was an impressive first half display.
A candidate for club player of the year to date, Joey Cuddihy opened the Shamrocks’ account before the outstanding Brian Cody sent the ball straight over the bar from 45 metres out after a smart hand pass from full forward Colin Fennelly to push them two points ahead.
Denis Murphy made no mistake with his first free of the day to settle a nervy looking Mount Leinster Rangers outfit. Right-half forward Fiachra Fitzpatrick and midfielder Brian Cody exchanged scores to leave the scoreboard reading Mount Leinster Rangers 0-02 to 0-03 Ballyhale Shamrocks.
Kilkenny stars Adrian Mullen and Eoin Cody both got their first points of the provincial championship to extend their side’s early lead and a third unanswered point from Ronan Corcoran saw the Shamrocks take control despite the best efforts of the battling Carlow champions.
There was a huge blow for Conor Phelan’s men after fifteen minutes when late inclusion Eddie Byrne was forced off through injury. Byrne’s injury along with fine scores from play by Brian Cody and Adrian Mullen gave the most feared club side in hurling a 0-08 to 0-02 lead.
Despite playing against the wind, Mount Leinster Rangers found themselves in desperate need of answers to the questions that Ballyhale Shamrocks posed but they could not find them as James O’Connor’s well-oiled machine maintained their extraordinarily high standards in both defence and attack.
A long-distance strike from TJ Reid that somehow found its way over the bar was the last piece of action before the first half water break, giving the four-in-a-row Kilkenny county champions a 0-09 to 0-02 lead, with all nine points coming from open play.
A hopeful rather than expectant home crowd’s silence was deafening as a third point from Mullen increased the mountain that Mount Leinster Rangers had to climb at the beginning of the second quarter. There was some much-needed respite in the form of a Teddy Joyce point and a second free from corner forward Denis Murphy to make it a two-score game soon after Mullen’s score.
That was as good as it got from a Rangers perspective in the first half as Joey Cuddihy and a Reid free immediately cancelled out Mount Leinster Rangers two consecutive points.
The difference between the two sides could be seen in how easy the Shamrocks were able to find scores while Mount Leinster Rangers seemingly had to work extra hard for any scraps that they could muster up.
Trailing ominously by eight points with five minutes of a one-sided first half coming to a close, Phelan knew that they could not afford to concede any more needles points. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened as Cuddihy and Brian Cody were given far too much space and executed their attempts perfectly to give them a 0-14 to 0-04 lead.
Another free from sharp-shooter Denis Murphy on the stroke of half-time reduced the deficit at the interval to nine points, Mount Leinster Rangers 0-05 to 0-14 Ballyhale Shamrocks.
The second half started as the first finished with another Murphy free. The corner forward tapped over another dead ball from close range before Reid got a free of his own to make it 0-15 to 0-07.
Whereas the first half was stocked with scores from play, the beginning of the second period became a battle of the free takers as Reid pointed another that was quickly responded to by Murphy with two more frees for Mount Leinster Rangers.
The crowd found its voice for the first time as a third consecutive point, this time from Richie Cody, made it a six-point game as the Carlow club had gathered some momentum.
They got their fifth unanswered point through yet another Murphy free as the All-Ireland champions had gone from assured looking to being under sever pressure.
Just when it looked as though Mount Leinster Rangers would build on their good start to the second half, Evan Shefflin and Mullen scored two from play. Murphy did take advantage of more Shamrocks ill-discipline with a free before the final water break to leave six point between the teams, Mount Leinster Rangers 0-12 to 0-18 Ballyhale Shamrocks.
Murphy added another long-distance free in what was quickly becoming a a free-taking masterclass from the dead ball specialist.
Just as the game reached boiling point, there was a medical emergency in the stands as a spectator collapsed and was in need of immediate attention, forcing the game to be briefly suspended by Offaly referee Richie Fitzsimons.
Thankfully, the game resumed after that unfortunate incident was dealt with by emergency services on sight at Netwatch Cullen Park.
To the surprise of nobody, Murphy added another point to make it a four-point game with 10 minutes left to play.
The moment that Rangers would come to regret came from the convening puck-out as Chris Nolan picked up the ball close to goal and found his namesake Jon who only had goalkeeper Dean Mason to beat. He failed to find a way past the young goalkeeper, however, to the dismay of the vast majority in attendance, as Mason astonishingly saved.
2015 Hurler of the Year TJ Reid and Gary Kelly exchanged scores as the game reached an unexpectedly exciting climax. Murphy added another free to make it a one-score game, 0-16 to 0-19, with two minutes of normal time remaining.
The underdogs looked to have the Shamrocks on the ropes, but cometh the hour, cometh the man, as TJ Reid got the score of the game from within his own half to stem the red and black tide that was looking unstoppable.
Mount Leinster Rangers goalkeeper Dean Grennan was called into action for the first time late on as he saved a low shot from Eoin Cody. Reid pointed the resulting ’65 and one final point from Joey Cuddihy saw the Shamrocks over the line.
In tough conditions, both teams provided an incredible spectacle and proved why they are the undisputed best in their respective counties.
Next up for Ballyhale Shamrocks is a clash with Offaly county champions St Rynaghs on Sunday, December 12, with a throw-in time of 1pm.