When I looked at the match programme before yesterday’s Ballygunner-Patrickswell match, a number of aspects immediately struck me about the make-up of the Ballygunner squad; their formation, and the potential for tactical adaptability, plus the huge depth to their bench.
Conor Power, JJ and Wayne Hutchinson were listed among the subs but JJ was the only one to get game time. He wasn’t introduced until the 63rd minute but Ballygunner had the luxury of not having to spring their first sub — Kevin Mahony — until the 59th minute. By that stage, the game had long been sealed by the Waterford champions.
You just gotta hand it to Ballygunner.
Yesterday secured their third straight provincial final appearance in succession, and a fourth in six years. They may have only two titles but no other club has appeared in as many finals, 11. And eight of those have come in the last 20 years. Savage.
The way in which the team continues to evolve highlights how much of a powerhouse they have become now. It’s no disrespect to any of the other clubs in Waterford but Ballygunner just have the county championship in a headlock and no team seems able to prise it away from them.
The club is clearly built towards winning Munster Championships but, at this stage — and they won’t thank me for saying this — provincial titles won’t do them anymore. They’re just desperate for that elusive All-Ireland.
On the evidence of the last week, it will take a good team to stop them achieving that goal. Sixmilebridge and Patrickswell were convincing in their respective county final wins in Clare and Limerick but Ballygunner won both matches — within the space of seven days — by an aggregate margin of 20 points. Serious.
They operate like a professional outfit and that was really reflected in this performance.
Composure,intelligence and smart method defined this display but Ballygunner were tactically smart too. Ian Kenny’s stability at full-back has released Barry Coughlan to wing-back, which has further facilitated Philip Mahony’s role to sit in the pocket, but Conor Sheahan man-marking role on Cian Lynch was decisive to how Ballygunner were able to control this game.
Lynch was never a factor. An early dead leg may have been a primary reason but Ballygunner had their homework done all over the field. Patrickswell may have played into their hands at stages, especially in starting Aaron Gillane at wing-forward, which allowed Shane O’Sullivan to break and spoil puckouts or high balls dropping on Gillane.
The Well probably felt they needed Gillane’s ball-winning ability in that sector against a team so well set up but, when that outlet wasn’t functioning, the Limerick champions had no real threat inside.
They weren’t economical enough either. In any game, at any level, you have to keep the scoreboard ticking over, but the Well went 19 minutes without their first point, and then 13 minutes before registering their first score of the second half. And both were frees. Nine points won’t win any match.
Ballygunner sat very deep but that is their style. They play that short game very smartly and there was always someone available for the out-ball, long or short.
I’ve often said that the best ball might often be a behind you, as opposed to some guy bursting through tackles and looking for that perfect delivery. And that composure is a hallmark of Ballygunner, because they have it down to a fine art.
Ballygunner had all the standout performers. TG4 gave man-of-the-match to Pauric Mahony but I’d have given it to Michael Mahony or Barry O’Sullivan.
Michael Mahony’s four second-half points were massive but O’Sullivan ran the show down the left flank. With Dessie Hutchinson always a live threat too, the potential of him and young Mahony underline the evolution and improvement of this side from last year.
Diarmaid Byrnes brought the Well back into the game before half-time but, at the same time, you can’t not man-mark Pauric Mahony, who seemed to be Byrnes’responsibility. He might not have been as accurate as he normally can be but Mahony’s creativity was central to Ballygunner’s control.
Hindsight is no good to the Well this morning but they’d have been better off sacrificing a man-marker on a marquee player, like Ballygunner did with Sheahan on Cian Lynch. It would have been easier then to justify leaving Byrnes in the pocket.
Kevin O’Brien tried hard up front but when Gillane wasn’t firing, the Well were never going to have the firepower to shoot down Ballygunner.
They never looked capable of doing so anyway but Patrickswell’s regrets over their wastefulness will be all the more acute considering Ballygunner never once threatened a goal.
Ballygunner didn’t need to go hunting for goals but they had been a key currency for the Well in Limerick and couple of goals yesterday could have completely altered the tone and trend of the match.
Ballygunner’s shot selection was far better but they still have work to do, especially around goal scoring. Not looking too far down the line, or writing off any other team still left in the competition, but a team like Ballyhale will soak up that pressure all day and then hit you hard where it hurts.
Ballygunner saw that first hand inFebruary when goals were decisive in Ballyhale’s comfortable win for a finish in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Ballygunner won’t be looking be looking too far ahead at this stage — especially with their poor track record in Munster finals — but they’ll fancy beating Borris-Ileigh in the final. Borris had a good win against Glen Rovers yesterday in Semple Stadium but the Gunners will be a totally different animal to a Glen side going into the competition as runners-up in Cork.
Adhering to the process and gobbling up another Munster title is the only priority for Ballygunner now. But it has to be all or nothing for the Waterford champions. I’m not putting any extra pressure on this group by saying that they have to win an All-Ireland. Because they know, and expect, as much themselves.