AIB All Ireland Club SHC Final: Ballygunner finish with a flourish
AIB All Ireland Club SHC Final
BALLYGUNNER (WATERFORD) 2-17 BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS (KILKENNY) 1-19
By Paul Keane at Croke Park
Substitute Harry Ruddle struck a remarkable match winning goal for Ballygunner in the very last action of the AIB All-Ireland club hurling final, breaking Ballyhale hearts and etching his own name in hurling history.
Ruddle was only on the field a matter of minutes but with just seconds left in the contest provided a quite stunning cameo when, with Ballygunner trailing by two points, he soloed through towards the Hill 16 End of Croke Park and unleashed a sidewinder to the corner of Ballyhale's net.
Moments later referee James Owens blew for full-time. And that was that. Somehow, Ballygunner had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and Ballyhale's quest to become the first ever team to win three All-Ireland club hurling titles in a row, in the year of the club's 50th anniversary, was dashed.
Ballyhale players sunk to their knees in despair as Ruddle and his stunned Ballygunner colleagues celebrated a win for the ages.
Ballygunner are eight-in-a-row Waterford champions, unbeaten in 43 championship games within their county and have won two of the last three Munster titles but nothing will top this.
Even with county star Dessie Hutchinson firing 1-3 they must have thought that it wasn't to be their day as they chased the 2019 and 2020 winners for long spells, undermined by a dozen wides along the way.
They, or to be more precise, Ruddle, delivered when the need was greatest though and will take a while to get their heads around just what they've achieved.
The classic encounter anticipated between two generational teams, who have dominated their own county championships for several years, didn't quite materialise initially despite the pleasant conditions and perfect pitch.
TJ Reid, Ballyhale's top scorer with 0-8, and Mikey Mahony both registered a brace of early points for their teams but it was tight and tense with both teams clearly aware of the magnitude of the contest.
The individual matchups were intriguing with veteran Ballygunner defender Shane O'Sullivan initially picking up Reid before Tadhg Foley took over the duties. Joint Ballygunner captain Barry Coughlan marked former Kilkenny star Colin Fennelly.
At the other end, Ballygunner dangerman Hutchinson was tracked by Ballyhale corner-back Darren Mullen.
Hutchinson escaped Mullen for a couple of first-half points but Ballygunner didn't make enough of their opportunities, shooting as many first-half wides, seven, as points.
Ballyhale enjoyed a dominant spell in the second quarter of the game and outscored Ballygunner by 0-7 to 0-2 between the 18th minute and half-time, taking firm control of the game with a 0-10 to 0-7 interval lead.
Reid moved between the full-forward and half-forward lines and drove over one sumptuous score in the 26th minute from long range, adding four more first-half points from placed balls.
The score of the first-half came from Eoin Cody in the 21st minute when after some slick interplay between Richie Reid and Conor Walsh, he controlled the sliotar on his hurl under pressure from a Ballygunner defender before cleverly volleying over.
TJ Reid extended Ballyhale's lead to four points early in the second-half and when substitute Eoin Reid netted in the 43rd minute, following up with a ground stroke on Fennelly's initial blocked shot, the margin was out to five at 1-14 to 0-12.
But just when it looked like the eight-time champions might finally pull decisively clear and enjoy a procession to a landmark win, they were reeled right back in.
Patrick Mullen conceded a series of frees that were converted by Pauric Mahony and then Hutchinson plucked a high ball from the air, shrugged off Darren Mullen and banged a 49th shot to the net for Ballygunner.
Suddenly, Ballyhale were just one point ahead again at 1-15 to 1-14 and with just eight minutes remaining the game was very much in the melting pot once more.
Credit to Ballyhale, they put themselves in a winning position by pressing two points clear again with 64 minutes on the clock and must have felt they'd done enough to win when Evan Shefflin pumped over what they felt was surely the insurance score, 1-19 to 1-17.
But Ruddle had other ideas and struck a goal that had the stadium on its feet.
Scorers for Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony 0-7 (0-7f), Dessie Hutchinson 1-3, Harry Ruddle 1-0, Mikey Mahony 0-3, Billy O'Keeffe 0-2, Kevin Mahony 0-2.
Scorers for Ballyhale Shamrocks: TJ Reid 0-8 (0-4f, 0-1 65), Eoin Reid 1-0, Adrian Mullen 0-2, Evan Shefflin 0-2, Patrick Mullen 0-1, Brian Cody 0-1, Colin Fennelly 0-1, Eoin Cody 0-1, Joey Cuddihy 0-1, Darragh Corcoran 0-1, Richie Reid 0-1.
Ballygunner: Stephen O'Keeffe; Ian Kenny, Barry Coughlan, Tadhg Foley; Ronan Power, Philip Mahony, Shane O'Sullivan; Conor Sheahan, Paddy Leavey; Peter Hogan, Pauric Mahony, Mikey Mahony; Kevin Mahony, Dessie Hutchinson, Billy O'Keeffe.
Subs: Cormac Power for Billy O'Keeffe 47, Harry Ruddle for Sheahan 53.
Ballyhale Shamrocks: Dean Mason; Brian Butler, Darren Mullen, Joey Holden; Evan Shefflin, Richie Reid, Darragh Corcoran; Conor Walsh, Patrick Mullen; Brian Cody, Adrian Mullen, Joey Cuddihy; TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Eoin Cody.
Subs: Kevin Mullen for Richie Reid 12-14, blood, Eoin Reid for Walsh h/t, Kevin Mullen for Butler 33, Conor Phelan for Patrick Mullen 46-48, blood.
Referee: James Owens (Wexford).