Kilkenny Kings Ballyhale ready to reclaim Leinster throne
By Eoghan Tuohey
The most decorated Leinster Senior Hurling Club team in history – sitting on eight titles - are men on a mission to regain the throne they have not held since 2014, and assume the mantle of province kingpins once again.
Ballyhale Shamrocks have been without county, provincial, or All-Ireland success since the 2014/15 season, far from a prolonged period by any county’s standards, but for the hurling utopia that exists in the close-knit, geographically small parish, it might as well be an eternity.
The dynamic of the team has changed somewhat since that phenomenally successful year, but the spine remains largely consistent, with Messrs. Holden, Fennelly, Reid and Fennelly making up the fulcrum.
Colin Fennelly, who notched a none-too-shabby 4-4 in the semi-final victory over Wexford champions, Naomh Éanna, explained how the club has had to wait for the team to evolve organically before they could contend again for major honours.
“It feels like we haven’t been here in a while, yeah," he said. "We were in transition there recently, our minors won and our U-21s won last year, so we were probably waiting for those players to come through.
“Obviously we try to win every single year, but those players have come through massively for us this year, you see Eoin Cody inside scoring every game, Adrian Mullen out around the half-forward line, Brian Cody, there’s just a good balance to the team, between the older lads and the younger lads.
“The younger lads haven’t played in a Leinster final yet, they’ll be cherishing this moment.”
The intensity of a county’s club championship is a good indication of who will move on to claim provincial and All-Ireland honours in the same year, as illustrated by the number of Kilkenny and Galway clubs who have claimed the ultimate club prize – both counties top the roll of honour in terms of All-Ireland winning clubs; 13 for Galway, 11 for Kilkenny, and both are notorious for the competitiveness and desire that is seeped into the fabric of their respective competitions.
There have been 3 different champions in Kilkenny in the years that Ballyhale have been without a title, and it truly is a tempest in every sense of the word.
“The Kilkenny championship is absolute madness, the biggest problem is we all know each other so well,” said Fennelly.
“It’s a small enough county, we all play with each other. In the games leading up to the county final, I was marking Steve Staunton, Michael Fagan, Rob Lennon, I’d be good friends with all these lads and we know each other’s game. There’d be a lot of little tricks, lads pulling and dragging, or they know what side you’re going to go on.
“It’s all those small little things that play a massive part in the championship in Kilkenny.”
It’s been a busy few weeks for the lethal full-forward, who was brought over to Sydney for a week with his fellow Ballyhale club-men on the Kilkenny panel, to link up with their team-mates who were taking part in the Wild Geese Trophy match against Galway. Following on from this, the green and white contingent had to recover from any jetlag or fatigue quickly to resume their normal routines in the lead up to the Leinster semi-final at Wexford Park, which was a hard-fought contest, despite Ballyhale emerging victorious by a generous margin in the end.
“Yeah, we were fortunate to go over there for a week," said Fennelly. "It was massive out of the GAA to accommodate four of us to get over there, and to have the experience over there and to be there for the game. It was certainly a hectic few days, we were probably travelling more than how long we actually stayed there, but it was great to get the opportunity to head over.
“It was a quick turnaround alright, yeah. We were straight back into work, straight back training, gym, work, training Friday night again and then you relax on the Saturday, back into the normal routine, and then onto Wexford Park on Sunday, which is never an easy place to go.
“There was nothing easy about it, especially when they went six points up after a few minutes. We just worked on our own team performance, we were lucky enough that we came through in the end, and it was a massive team performance on the day.”
Of course, in their way stands an imposing striped challenger. Ballyboden/St. Enda’s will care little about past records and will be focusing on creating their own legacy in the wake of Cuala’s remarkable two years at the helm. It’s a novel and intriguing pairing, and one that is not going to be short on excitement, with both sides participating in high-scoring affairs in their respective semi-finals.
“We wouldn’t know too much about them, I remember we played them back in 2008, I remember hearing names like Simon Lambert, Paul Ryan, Keaney, they’re all there and they’re a massive influence on their team.
“We tend not to look too much into other teams, and focus on ourselves, it’s up to Henry (Shefflin) and the management team, and they’ll talk to us about going forward.
“Ballyboden are an extremely experienced team, you can see from the last game, they have a massive scoring force. I was looking at their full-forward line with Basquel, Paul Ryan and Keaney there, they’re huge for them.”
Ballyhale do, of course, have an additional, if somewhat inexperienced string to their bow this year, in the form of Henry Shefflin as team manager.
It’s still early days in his management career, yet a county title in his debut season augers well for the man many consider to be the greatest hurler of all time.
With regard to his style, there are many who would be curious to learn what influence, if any, Brian Cody has had on how he now approaches his new role within his beloved club.
“You just have respect for him (Henry Shefflin) straight away, because of the player he was,” said Fennelly.
“He had that bit of a transition there when he was injured last year and he was kind of between the team and the management, he certainly made the right move because he was under serious pressure with injuries.
“It’s great to have him over us, because everyone has the height of respect for him, what he says goes, and he knows the game inside out.
“There’s a few things he picked up alright! (From Brian Cody), but he has his own style as well. The biggest thing is maintaining freshness within the team, he knows himself when to leave lads off, how much running needs to be done, how fit lads are at the moment, he just knows looking at a player what he needs to happen, and that’s all part of his experience with Brian Cody.”
It’s a club with strong family ties, strengthened through the generations by brothers and cousins playing alongside each other, which has created an unbreakable bond and understanding on and off the field.
Historically, when this team gets out of Kilkenny and goes on a run, they are difficult to stop. One of the great hurling competitions, the senior club championship is once again nearing its final few stages with the prospects as tantalising as ever, and aiding hugely in the shortening of the winter months for fans all over the country.
“Even down through the years, when our fathers were playing, it was always family, it was always very close-knit, you have ourselves and then literally up the road you have the Shefflins, literally a ten minute walk away, you have the Reids and the Fitzpatricks close by, Aylwards as well, Bob and Mark Aylward are still involved, it’s a massive tradition within the club. It’s actually quite a small club, but with a big tradition.”