Portumna 5-11; Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-16

Goals win games and rarely does a Kilkenny side concede five, but star-studded Ballyhale Shamrocks were denied a place at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day by an equally-profuse Portumna side hell-bent on raising green flags.

Joe Canning (pictured) hit 2-5 for the title-holders at Semple Stadium on Sunday: both goals, one a penalty, fired home in the first half of a quality encounter that started in hectic fashion (Kevin Hayes pointing for Portumna inside a minute) but ultimately lacked the expected excitement.

With Damien Hayes having been the first to find the net with a sweet strike after just three minutes, Canning’s brace, his second an improvised flicked finish, put the Galway champions 3-07 to 1-07 ahead at the interval (their last score of the half coming from a trademark sideline cut by their 20-year-old talisman).

Eoin Reid had grabbed a goal in the eighth minute after a defence-destroying dash and offload by Henry Shefflin to get the Kilkenny kingpins back in the game after an awful start.

But any prospects of a Shamrocks’ comeback were scuppered when Portumna put their foot on the gas once more to poach a couple more goals via Hayes and Ciarán Ryan not long after the turnaround – both follow-ups, first following a super save by Ballyhale ‘keeper James Connolly, then a Canning shot that crashed back off the upright – and, with four clear goals between the sides (5-8 to 1-8) the game fizzled out.

Henry Shefflin continued to be typically accurate from frees, but with their rearguard being breached with such frequency, Ballyhale, despite six unanswered second-half points (five from Shefflin), were always playing catch-up. A majestic Canning score from the right touchline was the final flourish from a man who turned in another breathtaking hour’s hurling, while his brother Ollie was also outstanding in defence.

“We didn’t meet as fast a forward line up to now. Portumna were that bit fresher, too, so we have no complaints,” said Ballyhale manager Maurice Aylward.

His counterpart Johnny Kelly acknowledged that speed was a decisive factor in their favour: “We have serious pace in the side and we wanted to make it count. We were determined to make a good start and give ourselves a platform and, thankfully, it worked out in both halves”.

That a mere 10,726 turned up in Thurles added weight to the argument that the GAA should have made the semi-finals a double header – not that De La Salle are complaining, mind. Nor will they care that Portumna, on this evidence, will be raging-hot favourites on March 17th.