Sunday afternoon Ballygunner host Patrickswell in the Munster Club SHC semi-final in Walsh Park (throw-in 1.30pm).
This match-up didn’t seem a nailed-on certainty at this stage last week. Nothing to do with the ‘Well, recently crowned Limerick champions, but because Ballygunner were making the long trek from Waterford up to Clare to face Banner champions Sixmilebridge. All presumed going to the ‘Bridge’s home patch was going to be a stern test for Ballygunner, but they dumped the Claremen out of the competition, 1-21 to 0-12.
From this perspective it looks like the Waterford kingpins are timing their run to perfection. Ballygunner icon Paul Flynn is inclined to agree.
“Absolutely, their timing seems good now because the standard in Munster seems at a pretty even pitch. Clare had a good run the time I was playing, Cork had a good run in the seventies and eighties, Tipp have come and gone a bit — Toomevara were very good in their time, when we started competing in Munster — so it now looks like the standard is pretty even.”
Dominating in Waterford — they collected their sixth title in a row this year — means Ballygunner have had the chance to get to grips with the provincial series. As Flynn points out, they’ve made mistakes but they’ve also had the opportunity to put lessons learned from those mistakes into practice.
“Losing to Na Piarsaigh (of Limerick) in 2011 in Walsh Park in the Munster club is a good example. They had Na Piarsiagh beat but made a couple of silly mistakes at a silly time in the game and Na Piarsaigh won. They’ve learned from that, from making those mistakes.
“Having said that, though, they were definitely out of it last year against Ballyea until Philip Mahony got that late goal to bring it to extra-time. But they still went on and won that match. Compare that to the year when Pauric Mahony had a broken leg, Brian O’Sullivan had a broken shoulder . . . last year they got a good run at it, between the Ballyea game and the Midleton game.”
Winning those two home games propelled them to a Munster final, and again their experience stood to them in an encounter which began badly.
“In that final, when Na Piarsaigh got that goal in the first minute there might have been a sense of ‘here we go again’,” says Flynn.
“But in fairness they knuckled down and kept hurling and won a fantastic game. In the end it was Na Piarsaigh who had no answer.
“Now it could be because they were tired after four or five years on the go, but it could also be pointing to the timing being right for Ballygunner.”
Their opponents tomorrow won’t lack confidence. Patrickswell have Ciaran Carey on the sideline and big names in Diarmaid Byrnes, Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane backboning the team.
“Patrickswell also have tradition, which is always a help in this competition, but coming to Waterford is probably going to be a help to Ballygunner — going to Limerick would be a very tough assignment.
“There’s a bit of speed in the Ballygunner team, young lads who were waiting for their chance, and they’re playing well — and a lot of those players are approaching 24, 25, which is the prime. Performance-wise it looks good for them, but obviously Aaron Gillane is a huge threat for Patrickswell, they’ll be trying to feed him.
“If they can get goals, then in winter hurling those can be a huge advantage to have. If Ballygunner can turn it into a shoot-out from out the field then they have a good chance.”
Ballygunner’s dominance of the club scene in Waterford contrasts with the scene in Limerick, Flynn notes.
“Limerick seems to be the most competitive championship at the moment — the likes of Na Piarsaigh and Kilmallock were able to go on, and for a while whoever won Limerick won Munster.
Flynn adds that Ballygunner have refreshed their side subtly, with positional switches and new players energising the side.
“Barry Coughlan is rejuvenated at wing-back after being a full-back for a long time, while Conor Sheahan is a young lad who’s come in at midfield. Ian Kenny is growing in stature, every knows that Stephen O’Keeffe’s a very good goalkeeper and Billy O’Keeffe and Eddie Hayden are very good.
“Philip and Paudie (Mahony) as well — they’re a huge asset, their experience. Paudie’s accuracy is a big help in winter hurling, too.
“Go back a few years, to when De La Salle beat Thurles Sarsfields in the Munster club final down in the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh 0-9 to 0-8 (2010). Now you’re looking at maybe 1-16 to 1-18 to win a game in the Munster club, and a couple of goals are a huge advantage.
“If it becomes a game of shooting from long range then Ballygunner have a very good chance.”