The Christy O'Connor column: Kilkenny kingpins Ballyhale a club like no other

The Christy O'Connor column: Kilkenny kingpins Ballyhale a club like no other
Colin Fennelly of Ballyhale Shamrocks in action against Gerald Bradley of Slaughtneil during the AIB hurling semi-final. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

AFTER Ballyhale Shamrocks defeated Slaughtneil in an epic All-Ireland club semi-final nine days ago, Henry Shefflin spoke afterwards in his TG4 interview of what the win meant to the club. “We all dream of Croke Park,” he said. “And we’ll look forward now to going there again.”

It’s always a dream but going to Croke Park has almost become a birthright for Ballyhale hurlers; for a number of players, Sunday’s final will be their fifth. It will be Ballyhale’s ninth decider as they go chasing an eighth title.

Despite all the iconic players who have gone before them, the staggering numbers from the current Ballyhale panel show the immense legacy Ballyhale have left, and continue to leave, on the game; the starting team against Slaughtneil had won 26 All-Ireland senior medals; there were already 72 All-Ireland club medals amongst the panel. And their manager is the most decorated player in the history of the game.

The achievement of winning a seventh All-Ireland title last March was even more pronounced considering that 16 of the squad which won the 2015 All-Ireland — including eight starters from that team — were no longer around. Losing that volume of players would decimate most rural clubs but Ballyhale Shamrocks are no ordinary club.

Players were slipping away but, all the while, a new generation was coming. And the torch just gets passed along the unique path Ballyhale have paved.

In a small parish, hard work and dedication sustains their excellence. Yet Ballyhale’s identity and winning mindset has been formed through a deep history of success and pride. And the end product is an enduring tapestry of brilliance stitched together by genetic inheritance and generational sinews.

In the GAA, family bloodlines flow from one generation to the next, passing on traditions and talent like heirlooms. But Ballyhale have the richest gene pool in the country.

Ballyhale went 15 years without a county title between 1991-2006 but the generation game soon took hold again. Adrian, Darren, Kevin and Patrick Mullen are first cousins of Michael and Colin Fennelly. Evan Shefflin and Brian Cody are nephews of Henry Shefflin.

A huge volume of the current panel has family links and connections to the great teams of the past, especially the side which won the club’s first three All-Irelands.

The Shamrocks are unique in how they keep evolving but the current generation still retain the values and playing style of their predecessors. When Ballyhale first emerged as a force in Kilkenny in the 1970s, they developed a criss-cross style of hurling that teams could not handle. Despite all the tweaks this side have made to cater for the modern game, Ballyhale are on the cusp of successive All-Irelands playing in their traditional style.

Ballyhale have some of the biggest names in the game but the next wave of exceptional talent just keeps on rolling. After Shefflin came TJ Reid and then Adrian Mullen.

Their success has granted them an incomparable status in hurling but to win another All-Ireland would be all the sweeter again if it came against Tipperary opposition.

The meeting of Ballyhale and Borris-Ileigh on Sunday is unique because it is the first time that clubs from Kilkenny and Tipperary are meeting in an All-Ireland club final.

In the early years of the All-Ireland senior hurling championship, Tipperary and Kilkenny clubs met in three finals. Kilkenny and Tipperary dominated the last decade at inter-county level, sharing seven of the 10 titles, but not meeting at club level over the last half century highlights the beauty and diversity of the club championship.

Kilkenny clubs have won 21 provincial titles to Tipperary’s 10, but two of those Munster club titles came in the 1960s, when there wasn’t an All-Ireland championship.

The only occasion in the history of the club championship when a Tipperary and Kilkenny club did meet was the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final, when Ballyhale edged past Toomevara in a brilliant All-Ireland semi-final in Portlaoise.

That Ballyhale generation were always special, and were always going to be successful but that match was still one of those tipping points in modern club hurling — a great club became great again, while a great club with a brilliant team finally relinquished a glorious chance to win a coveted All-Ireland title. 

Toomevara did return to win an 11th Tipperary county title in 17 years in 2008 but the dream for that generation finally died that November when they lost the Munster semi-final to Adare. After chasing the Holy Grail for so long, that Toomevara team never came back.

Those Toomevara teams were good enough to win at least one All-Ireland but, failing to crack the code, has been a consistent struggle for Tipperary clubs.

That has been the primary reason they haven’t ran into Kilkenny opposition. Apart from 2007, there was only one other occasion prior to this season when Kilkenny and Tipperary clubs won their provincial titles in the same year and could have clashed on the All-Ireland stage. James Stephens and Toomevara were on track to do so in 2004 but Athenry defeated the Tipp side in the All-Ireland semi-final in Ennis.

Sunday will be just the fifth time a Tipperary club has reached an All-Ireland club final. Borris-Ileigh have a winning tradition in this competition from their 1987 side but now they face the masters at this level; after losing the 1979 final to Blackrock, Ballyhale haven’t lost a final since.

Whatever happens on Sunday, Ballyhale will always be considered hurling’s greatest club. And beating a Tipperary side to win an eighth All-Ireland would be the ultimate way for Ballyhale to cement that greatness.

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