With 30 seconds remaining yesterday, as Borris-Ileigh were desperately trying to stay ahead, and Ballygunner were frantically trying to find a way to stay alive, Dan McCormack lost his hurley as he battled for possession in front of the seated stand in Páirc Uí Rinn.
Another fella would have gone back for his hurley but Dan just abandoned all thought. He kicked the ball ahead of him and just had the look of someone who was willing to use his body in whatever way he needed to in that moment. Dan took the slap of the hurley across the shins as the ball ended up over the line, and away from a potential Ballygunner counter-attack. Seconds later, the final whistle sounded and Borris-Ileigh were in dreamland.
The game is a way of life for so many hurling people but the explosion of happiness and outpouring of joy afterwards was a different type of emotion, soul-nourishing stuff. Borris-Ileigh have had their share of heartbreak and tragedy over the last 18 months and this win clearly represented a lot more than just a Munster championship. Because the depth of the achievement, and the impact and effect it will have on the community and its people, is immeasurable.
Borris-Ileigh clearly used that emotion as inspiration but, I’d know from being friends with Richie Stakelum, that this was tailor-made too for Borris. Some bookies had them 4-1 outsiders during the week but there’s a difference in being underdogs, and the mindset some clubs attach to that underdog status.
They would probably have felt almost insulted by those odds because there’s a fierce confidence in Borris-Ileigh fellas. They had only won six Tipperary championships prior to this year but Borris-Ileigh had won an All-Ireland club in the past. With their tradition, they probably felt that their time might come again. They have that swagger about them and this team now has that chance to emulate their predecessors.
I always got that sense off Stakelum, even when Borris-Ileigh were going through lean times.
I wasn’t talking to Richie over the last couple of weeks but, if I had been, I’d have a fair idea of what he’d have been saying. ‘Ah yeah, Ballygunner have won six-in-a-row in Waterford, and are going for two Munsters in a row, but we won’t have any fear of them.’ Why would they? Look at some of the players Borris-Ileigh have produced in the past? Philip Maher, Aidan and Bobby Ryan, Richie and Conor Stakelum, Noel O’Dwyer, right back to Liam Devanney. Liam won five All-Irelands. His grandson, JD, didn’t lick it off the ground.
Watching Brendan Maher yesterday was like watching a player imbued and inspired by that rich history, heritage and lineage. He’s long been a colossus for Tipperary but Brendan delivered a display for the ages. It was one of his finest performances, and surely, one of his sweetest.
Johnny Kelly deserves huge credit for the way in which he has transformed Borris-Ileigh. They took a fair hiding from Thurles Sarsfields in the 2017 county final. They had a dead season last year so to end up as Munster champions now is a fair testament to Kelly’s management. You’d even wonder why he wasn’t considered for the Galway job.
For Ballygunner, it’s another devastating Munster final defeat. Ballygunner could have been four or five points ahead at half-time, instead of just three, but you just felt that if Borris-Ileigh kept it tight, that they’d drive it on. I just felt they had that edge in hunger. Borris-Ileigh just needed to trust in themselves, believe in what was possible, and, once they saw a shaft of light beckoning , they blew that opening into a canyon of ecstacy.
Ballygunner can’t really have any complaints. If Borris-Ileigh had taken all their chances, they could have won by more. Even when Ballygunner got their late goal from Barry O’Sullivan, and got ahead at what looked like just the right time, they couldn’t get themselves over the line.
Much of that probably stemmed from Borris-Ileigh’s tradition, in that they were never going to be spooked by Ballygunner’s pedigree. But the Tipp champions just looked that bit fresher and hungrier too.
Ballygunner would have been targeting an All-Ireland but a lot of their players have a lot of mileage on the clock, both at club and county level. They have beaten some big teams in the last two seasons — Na Piarsaigh, Midleton, Sixmilebridge and Patrickswell — but Ballygunner needed a late Philip Mahony goal in last year’s semi-final to take their match against Ballyea to extra-time.
And when a young and hungry team, just like Ballyea, charged at them again yesterday, Ballygunner couldn’t hold out.
Ballygunner were fully entitled to be favourites but maybe they were over-hyped too. Ballygunner wouldn’t have wanted that status going into this game — especially with their poor record in Munster finals — but a facing a team like Borris-Ileigh, who were given no chance by most bookies, was always going to be highly dangerous.
Ballygunner have huge trust in their system. They’re bound to have, considering how far it has taken them, but that short, slick-passing game is harder again to execute in such tricky conditions. It may have taken Borris-Ileigh longer than they’d have liked to get to grips with it but, when Borris-Ileigh got in their faces in the second half, the Ballygunner game broke down. Every time, Borris broke up an attack, or forced a turnover, the players seemed to take energy from the electricity generated by the huge Borris crowd inside Páirc Uí Rinn.
Borris-Ileigh were that bit more direct and they had huge ball-winners up front in Jerry Kelly and the Kennys, Conor and Niall. Conor had three wides in the second half but the Borris attack was holding the ball up really well in that period, and getting their runners into threatening positions.
Pauric Mahony never fired like Ballygunner needed him to. Peter Hogan was an awful loss too. When he went off, they looked fairly threadbare up front. Dessie Hutchinson started well but Ballygunner couldn’t get him on the ball enough to be the scoring threat they needed him to be.
It wasn’t an easy afternoon for forwards. As we suspected, Ballygunner put Barry Coughlan on JD Devanney. JD had a frustrating enough day but Borris-Ileigh players stepped up everywhere else. And every Borris-Ileigh man put their shoulders to the wheel for the cause.
Every club has their own dreams, their own level of ambitions and aspirations, but the club scene is just unique. I was at a lovely function for the Castlegar club in Galway on Saturday night. Joe Cooney had only lost his brother Peter a day earlier but he still found the courage to turn up for an hour to be with the other two JCs , Joe Canning and John Connolly. It must have been very difficult but Joe probably took strength from that support that hurling people everywhere have given him.
Borris-Ileigh know all about how much that can mean during hard times. They were driven on by that special something that most clubs have, or aspire to have, but Borris-Ileigh had clearly dialled into a different frequency of emotion after all that has happened in their parish over the last 18 months.
And the feeling around the parish and community today must be absolutely amazing.