Ballyhale Shamrocks 3-23
Graigue Ballycallan 2-20
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
For so long it looked as though Graigue Ballycallan may have pulled off what many consider to be the impossible by defeating county champions Ballyhale Shamrocks at John Locke Park in the first round of the championship on Saturday afternoon.
However, whether it is their reputation or their sheer firepower that is truly unmatchable, the Shamrocks always seem to come out on top in tight affairs. And Saturday was no different yet again.
It was Ballyhale Shamrocks who opened the scoring five minutes into a nervy start to the game when half forward Brian Cody picked up the ball on the halfway line and split the posts with a great effort.
There were a number of wides for both teams during the early exchanges as the possibility of their championship coming to an end dawned on them. The game began to open up after a tentative beginning with an Eoin Cody point from play either side of a Seán Ryan free and a Shane Butler point for Ballycallan putting the teams on level terms, 0-02 to 0-02.
There was a plethora of missed opportunities for the county champions early on as James O’Connor’s men seemed to be surprisingly struggling to deal with their red-hot favourites tag. Conor Murphy and Seán Ryan doubled Ballycallan’s lead after ten minutes but TJ Reid and Evan Shefflin showed their class with beautiful points from play to level the game once more.
The Shamrocks began to flex their muscles as the half progressed with 2015 Hurler of the Year Reid pointing again from play and he added a long-distance free soon after as they moved into a two-point lead at the first half water break, 0-06 to 0-04.
Graigue Ballycallan started the second quarter with intent as right-wing forward Billy Ryan and his brother Seán Ryan got superb scores with Joe Cuddihy putting his name on the scoresheet for the Shamrocks in between those Ryan points.
Billy Ryan got his second point of the game in the twentieth minute to equalise for Eugene Cloonan’s side and a fourth point from placed balls from sharp-shooter Seán Ryan gave them a deserved 0-08 to 0-07 lead.
However, they never seemed to be able to build on their good phases of play with Brian Cody, Joe Cuddihy and Evan Shefflin all doubling their accounts as the imperious Shamrocks swiftly scored three unanswered points to move into a 0-10 to 0-08 lead.
Centre back Richie Reid was given far too much space as a tight opening thirty minutes came to a close with the Kilkenny player taking advantage of that room to point from well inside his own half. 2020 Young Hurler of the Year Eoin Cody and TJ Reid added to their tallies with well-taken points as a late flurry from the Shamrocks gave them a four-point lead on the stroke of half-time.
Seán Ryan responded to that strong spell for the three-in-a-row champions with a point from play but a crucial moment in the tie came when Colin Fennelly was on the end of a loose ball and made no mistake with his goal attempt as Ballyhale’s traditional ‘powerplay’ was too much to handle for Graigue Ballycallan.
It looked as though the Shamrocks would have a seven-point lead at the break, but Seán Ryan found the net for Ballycallan to keep them within touching distance of their opponents at the interval, Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-13 to 1-09 Graigue Ballycallan.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first with both sides failing to pull away from each other with corner forwards Eoin Cody and Shane Butler exchanging points.
It was a half where both teams would go head-to-head with neither side refusing to give up on their hopes of extending their county championship and in the process avoid a relegation battle.
Billy Ryan, Colum Prenderville (x2) and Seán Ryan all kept the scoreboard ticking over for a Ballycallan side who had found their best form when it mattered most after a disappointing league campaign that ended with no victories and two defeats.
TJ Reid and Shefflin scores were enough to keep an under-par Shamrocks ahead, but a great Seán Ryan effort from play meant the sides were level with less than ten minutes remaining, 1-18 to 1-18.
Joe Cuddihy quickly replied for what looked like a shell-shocked Ballyhale Shamrocks and the Graigue Ballycallan goalkeeper Ciaran Hoyne made a critical save from TJ Reid to make sure it remained a one-score game.
Midfielder Philly Cahill once again equalised for Graigue Ballycallan as their supporters began to really find their voice.
They would be silenced soon after that Cahill point as Cuddihy and Fennelly both added quickfire goals along with two points from man of the match Cuddihy.
The Shamrocks had once again answered every question that a spirited Graigue Ballycallan side had posed, 3-21 to 1-20.
Brian Cody got another for the Shamrocks and despite a late consolation goal from Billy Ryan, Ballyhale Shamrocks progress to the quarter-finals, while Graigue Ballycallan will have a relegation semi-final to prepare for.