When I was driving back from Thurles yesterday, I was listening to the widespread coverage on RTÉ Radio 1 of Ireland’s memorable win against the All-Blacks on Saturday evening. Hugo McNeill and Eddie O’Sullivan made some really interesting points but the general thrust of their analysis was that Ireland just refused to take a backward step against the World champions, writes Anthony Daly.
Ballygunner’s magnificent display yesterday was broadly similar. Na Piarsaigh may have only won one All-Ireland but they have become the All-Blacks of Munster hurling this decade, having been unbeaten during five provincial campaigns, which amounted to 12 matches. The formlines coming into the match suggested that they would extend that run but Ballygunner fronted up like Ireland on Saturday night. And just refused to take a backward step.
I know you can’t compare the two performances but the thrust and tone of both displays were almost identical. Similar to Ireland, Ballygunner were real, they were well prepared and had a very obvious attitude from the first ball: ‘Hi, we’re having a right go here, no matter what everybody else thinks the outcome will be.’ And they did, washing the Limerick champions away with a torrent of desire and passion. And savage hunger.
We can talk about hurling all day and all night. Nobody is more into tactics and gameplans and patterns and trends than myself but when you boil everything down, it invariably comes back to want. My great friend Pauric Russell was home from Leeds for the weekend and he travelled to Thurles with me. “By God, Dalo,” he said afterwards, “you can’t bate desire.” Fact.
Ballygunner just wanted this more. Na Piarsaigh looked like a team turning up expecting to win. They got the dream start with a goal from Kevin Downes inside three minutes but there is often nothing worse when you’re hot favourites than getting that big early score. I know that might sound like a total contradiction, especially when everybody thought that the last thing Ballygunner needed was to be chasing the game early on, but it almost sets a false psychology of how everyone expects the game to pan out anyway.
You could almost see those thoughts reflected in the body language of the Na Piarsaigh players immediately afterwards. You could sense that script spinning in their heads. ‘Yeah, this is going exactly as we expected it to, just like everybody told us how it would be. This crowd can’t beat us.’
It can be easy to buy into the hype that inevitably goes with a team which have dominated the province as much as the Limerick champions have.
Na Piarsaigh have enough big-day experience to be able to overcome that kind of stuff but those insidious threats can be harder to stave off when you’ve been so long on the road, which Na Piarsaigh have been since the start of 2017. Their six Limerick players have huge physical and emotional mileage on the clocks too after such a epic season.
Na Piarsaigh did have 1-4 on the board inside the ninth minute but the scores began to dry up as the half progressed. And that failure to get their big players up front on the ball was a trend that defined the match.
Na Piarsaigh just had no response once the tide turned and Ballygunner got level after Stephen O’Keeffe buried the penalty at the end of the first half. When Ballygunner got a grip around the middle and started to drive on throughout the second half, Na Piarsaigh’s big names up front couldn’t get the scoreboard moving. Shane Dowling, Peter Casey, David Dempsey and Downes were largely anonymous.
You can’t lay all the blame at their door either because no Na Piarsaigh player put his hand up and halted the Ballygunner charge. Even Mikey Casey, who was outstanding in the All-Ireland final for Limerick, was out of sorts.
This though, was all about Ballygunner. Hurt and loss can be a powerful force and their players – most of whom had experienced two Munster final defeats to Na Piarsaigh - went to the ball as if their lives depended on it, always fully prepared to put their bodies on the line at any costs. I’m not saying that Na Piarsaigh players didn’t but they just couldn’t match that intensity. Ballygunner hoovered up the dirty ball. They forced a massive amount of turnovers in the tackle. Ballygunner asked the fundamental question: who wants this more – us or them? And the answer was obvious.
Ballygunner had massive performances all over the field, especially from Peter Hogan and Conor Power. Their defence was magnificent but Wayne Hutchinson was immense, especially in the second half. There were times in that last quarter when Hutchinson seemed to have the ball in his hand anytime Na Piarsaigh tried to break through for the scores they desperately needed to rescue the match.
I know a lot of these Na Piarsaigh lads, especially the younger guys. They are super fellas. You’d be disappointed for them but it’s really satisfying as a hurling man to see a group who have suffered as much heartbreak as Ballygunner finally break breaking through that glass ceiling. And now that they have, anything is possible.
The won’t be thinking of it today but Ballygunner have every reason now to believe that they can win a first All-Ireland club title. They will meet the winners of Ballyhale Shamrocks and Ballyboden in an All-Ireland semi-final in February. That won’t be an easy task but if Na Piarsaigh were lining up in the other corner, you’d be fancying them.
And with the way Ballygunner took Na Piarsaigh apart yesterday, this side now have a great chance of bringing a first All-Ireland club title back to Waterford.