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'Those lads have been immense' - the Ballyhale trio powering the Kilkenny attack

TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly and Adrian Mullen are central to Kilkenny’s hopes.

Fennelly, Reid and Mullen have been central to the Kilkenny cause
Fennelly, Reid and Mullen have been central to the Kilkenny cause
Image: INPHO

AS OPENING STATEMENTS go, it was a powerful one to issue.

When Kilkenny took to the field in Nowlan Park on 11 May, there was comfort for them in the knowledge that their leader on the pitch was present.

It was the first time in the 2019 season that TJ Reid slipped into the role of captain and in that maiden Leinster championship assignment of the summer he made his mark in a striking fashion.

Reid was in dazzling form, pivotal to the second-half Kilkenny comeback that floored Dublin. He shot 2-12, both of his goals arriving in the second half with his free-taking flawless.

The first goal captured what Reid could offer and more pertinently what Ballyhale Shamrocks could offer. When he gathered possession around the 45-yard line, a swarm of Dublin defenders converged but Reid manoeuvred clear, surged forward before flipping the sliotar to club-mate Colin Fennelly who evaded a couple of challenges and produced the return pass for the captain to drill home.

That score illustrated what a boost it was for Kilkenny to have their experienced attacking duo back in harness.

They have remained central to their progress as the championship has unfolded.

And with the emergence of the precocious Adrian Mullen in the half-forward line, the Ballyhale impact on the Kilkenny attack has been even more pronounced.

The trio may have been marked absent in the league as club matters dominated their horizon.

But their return has been instrumental to bringing Kilkenny close to the biggest championship prize tomorrow.

“Since the club All-Ireland they haven’t really waned in their level of performance,” says Andy Moloney.

“If Tipp are going to win on Sunday, they’re going to have to nullify that threat because the Ballyhale influence is huge. Those lads have been immense.”

Moloney is well-placed to assess the capabilities of Reid, Fennelly and Mullen. He’s a Tipperary native who forged a playing path as a hurler when he settled in Waterford.

In 2015 he worked in tandem with Colm Bonnar to mastermind an All-Ireland club win for Ballyhale. Last February he was supporting his Waterford club Ballygunner but witnessed how strong Ballyhale were when they toughed it out in a semi-final in Thurles.

On St Patrick’s Day, the Kilkenny flag-bearers reached the national summit once more. They blitzed Galway representatives St Thomas by 17 points. The way was paved by the 2-18 combined haul from Fennelly (2-4), Reid (0-9 including 0-5 frees) and Mullen (0-5).

Last month the trio caught fire again in Croke Park. This time it was the reigning Liam MacCarthy Cup holders who were on the receiving end. Reid’s placed ball prowess yielded 0-8 in a masterful showing, Fennelly grabbed 1-3 and Mullen chipped in with 0-4. 1-15 out of Kilkenny’s total of 1-21. A valuable resource in the dismantling of Limerick.

The roots are strong when it comes to supplying to the Kilkenny cause from Ballyhale. The three forwards are part of a seven-man unit from the club on the squad. Joey Holden will start in defence on Sunday with Richie Reid, Darren Mullen and Evan Shefflin part of the overall panel.

The club’s contribution to Kilkenny’s scoring prospects is well-established from the original Fennelly clan a few decades ago along with the more recent bursts from the middle sector by Michael Fennelly and James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick.

And then there is the wisdom that Ballyhale’s club manager can impart, Henry Shefflin’s towering input in his Kilkenny career setting the bar high for others to aspire to.

“The players that have come on stream in the Shamrocks have been phenomenal,” says Moloney.

Andy Moloney Andy Moloney during the 2015 All-Ireland club hurling final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“They always provided for the county. There was always someone to look up to so you were never above your station in Ballyhale from my understanding of the place.

“They all admired each other. It was never one player above the other. There was a pride in the parish as well and a confidence. When they get to finals, they generally know how to win them.

“Like away from those names, Cha was pound for pound one of the best hurlers I’ve seen. Then you’ve a family like the Aylwards. When you saw someone like Bob Aylward, it was hard to understand how he wasn’t with Kilkenny.”

Turn the spotlight onto each of the forwards and place them in focus. First is the newcomer. Mullen was Kilkenny minor captain in 2017 and claimed an All-Ireland title with St Kieran’s in 2018.

Adrian Mullen and Shane Quirke Adrian Mullen in action in the 2018 Croke Cup final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

It was a rapid rise then to make his senior bow in that Dublin game in May. He only raised a single white flag in that game but pounced for 1-3 a few weeks later in a thrilling draw against Wexford and was equally as effective in causing damage to Limerick.

“We had Adrian for one year, our last year with Ballyhale,” outlines Moloney.

“Even at that age he was very stylish, very skilful. He’s developed physically since then. It’s been an unbelievable 18 months for that young chap. It’s no flash in the pan with him, he’s a consistent performer.

“His brother is a very good hurler as well, Darren. Then there’s Paddy probably could be the best of them if he got himself right. He’s been very unlucky with injuries, he did his cruciate. Darren did his cruciate twice.”

Next is Fennelly, the focal point that draws Kilkenny’s attacking movements towards him. His penchant for goals has been crucial of late against Cork and Limerick.

Colin Fennelly scores a goal under pressure from Niall O’Leary Colin Fennelly hit Kilkenny's opening goal against Cork. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I think people underestimate Colin. He’s a very physical player. When he has that ball in his hand, it’s next to impossible to get it off him because of his power. The one thing I’d say about all the Fennellys, and Adrian Mullen’s mother is a Fennelly, they’re brave and they’re strong. They’ve unbelievable heart.

“Colin if you notice in matches puts his head sometimes where other fellas wouldn’t put their hurley. He takes the belts. What he’s doing a lot lately, apart from just getting the goals, is setting up the scores. He set up a brilliant goal for Richie Hogan against Cork.”

And finally there is TJ, the marquee name in the Kilkenny outfit. Back when Moloney was in college with WIT, he forged a strong friendship with Shefflin and became attuned to Ballyhale’s standing.

The arrival of Reid was forecast a long way off.

“I played for Ballygunner myself, we would have played Ballyhale a couple of times. The two clubs are only probably 30 minutes from one another, you would have heard of TJ Reid. The Reids would have been a famous name in Kilkenny hurling anyway. His father played with Ballyhale but his uncle played with Kilkenny as well.

“Eoin (TJ’s brother) is the lad I would have known more in college. He was just coming in when I was going out but myself and Colm Bonnar would have been over a WIT team with Eoin involved in it. We knew Eoin well and in the years after that TJ came on stream.”

31-year-old Reid chases his eighth All-Ireland senior medal tomorrow, 29-year-old Fennelly seeks his fifth and 20-year-old Mullen goes in search of his first. Reid predictably leads the way in the scoring stakes with 5-72 in championship action this year with Fennelly notching 3-10 and Mullen striking 1-13.

They already have their club honours in the bag from 2019 and are in prime spots to contend for All-Star awards. Their threats are well-flagged, Tipperary’s attempts to thwart them will be instructive.

It is Reid who spearheads the challenge, jostling at the front of the pack for Hurler of the Year and hoping to be the latest victorious Kilkenny captain.

As is his standing rises, the topic of whether he now resides in the same rarefied air as Shefflin continues to spark debate.

TJ Reid celebrates after the game TJ Reid celebrating after Kilkenny's win over Limerick. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“To be honest Henry for me is probably the best hurler I’ve ever seen,” states Moloney.

“Himself and DJ Carey would be the top two I’ve seen in my lifetime and I was lucky enough to play with Henry as well in the college setup. TJ is definitely in that pantheon of greats.

“I just think it’s a little bit unfair to compare TJ to Henry or Henry to a player in any other time because all you can be is the best of your generation. I think TJ has shown that, himself and Joe Canning are probably the top two players of their generation really.

“I’d find it hard to compare the two of them because they just work differently in terms of the team dynamic. Henry’s longevity was probably greater than TJ’s but the contribution the two of them have made to Kilkenny has been immense.

“The bloodlines are good that side of Kilkenny. In Ballyhale there’s just a long history of success there and it keeps going.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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