An electric start to the second-half by the Limerick men was identified by ‘Gunners boss Denis Walsh as the key to their victory, and he was correct. A low-scoring, dour opening half had been shaded by the Waterford champions, but once Na Piarsaigh hit their stride they were irresistible.
“We said to the lads at half-time the seven or eight minutes after the break would be the winning or losing of the game,” said Walsh. “From our point of view it was the losing of it, they must have hit seven or eight points in ten minutes.
“They were able to move up a gear, and we weren’t able to move up a gear with them. They’re the hard facts of it. They deserved it the way they moved up a gear and we didn’t.”
As everybody knew, Ballygunner were understrength from the start — they lined out without Pauric (injury) and Philip Mahony (suspension), but that loss was offset somewhat by the pre-game withdrawal of Kevin Downes of Na Piarsaigh through injury.
Both sides struggled to find their range in the opening stages before Alan Dempsey hit a fine opener for the Limerick side, Brian O’Sullivan responded with a free, and the game was in motion.
Frees from ‘Gunner goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe, O’Sullivan (two) and a good effort from Stephen Power put the Waterford side three up by the end of the first quarter. Neither side was dominating, but Ballygunner were a little surer at the back at this point and were coping well with the diagonal ball being played into space by their opponents.
A long-range free from Ronan Lynch kept Na Piarsaigh in touch, then they goaled, on 19 minutes: Mike Foley’s long ball found David Dempsey alone near the Ballygunner goal, and though he laboured over his stroke, he found the net: 1-3 to 0-5, though sub. JJ Hutchinson equalised for Ballygunner with his first touch.
Seven minutes later they had a goal of their own. Tim O’Sullivan had a lot of work to do in the right corner when he got possession, but he stepped cleverly past two challenges and hit the net from an acute angle — 1-6 to 1-4. Before the break Brian O’Sullivan hit a 65 to make it a three-point game.
Na Piarsaigh wired into the second-half, with five points in a row, three — Dowling (free), Peter Casey and Will O’Donoghue — in the opening five minutes, and then Mike Foley blasted them into the lead from halfway. Dowling had a point from play before Brian O’Sullivan pointed a Ballygunner free on 40 minutes — 1-9 to 1-8. Dowling (free), David Dempsey and Kevin Ryan points pushed Na Piarsaigh’s advantage, however, making it 1-12 to 1-8 entering the final quarter.
On 47 minutes, Stephen Power went for goal from a close-in free for Ballygunner but it was saved at the expense of a 65 which Brian O’Sullivan pointed, their second score since half-time. Shane O’Sullivan added another soon after, and there were three points in it.
Though David and Alan Dempsey points pushed Na Piarsaigh five ahead with only seven minutes left, there was a goal left in Ballygunner. Conor Power’s shot from the 20-metre line looked harmless, but it was deflected past Piarsaigh ‘keeper Podge Kennedy by Brian O’Sullivan, who steered it into the corner of the net.
That left only two points in it, but Na Piarsaigh responded in style. They hit three points on the spin — a long-range classic from Lynch, Casey and sub David Breen — before Dowling’s perseverance down the left wing was rewarded, the forward breaking through to crash home a late, late goal.
The victory continues a remarkable sequence for Na Piarsaigh — they have never lost a game in the Munster Club championship, and they must now fancy their chances of going all the way to St. Patrick’s Day and the All-Ireland Club final itself.
Their manager Shane O’Neill was delighted with yesterday’s victory, naturally enough, but he also had an eye on winter and spring 2016, with Na Piarsaigh’s previous campaigns adding some context.
“We’ll enjoy the next few days anyway,” said O’Neill, “We obviously made some mistakes because we lost both (previous) All-Ireland semi-finals. We’ll have a look at that. I was involved in one of them myself as a player.
“We’ll have to see amongst the players what they thought could be improved on coming up to the All-Ireland series. It is difficult because you’ve got December and January and half of February to train for.”
It’s difficult, but a lot of clubs would like to have that difficulty to deal with.
S. Dowling (1-4, 2 frees); D. Dempsey (1-2); P. Casey (0-3); K. Ryan, R. Lynch (f), A. Dempsey (0-2 each); M. Foley, W. O’Donoghue, D. Breen (0-1 each).
B. O’Sullivan (1-6, 4 frees, 2 65s); T. O’Sullivan (1-0); S. Power (0-2, 1 free); S. O’Keeffe (f), JJ Hutchinson, S. O’Sullivan (0-1 each).
P. Kennedy, M. Casey, K. Breen, K. Kennedy, M. Foley, R. Lynch, C. King ( c), A. Dempsey, W. O’Donoghue, K. Ryan, D. Dempsey, S. Dowling, P. Casey, P. Gleeson, A. Breen.
D. Breen for Gleeson, 39; T. Grimes for K. Ryan, 52.
S. O’Keeffe, E. Hayden, B. Coughlan, I. Kenny, S. Walsh, D. O’Sullivan ( c), H. Barnes, B. O’Keeffe, S. O’Sullivan, T. O’Sullivan, S. Power, Barry O’Sullivan, P. Hogan, Brian O’Sullivan, C. Power.
JJ Hutchinson for Hogan inj, 20; C. Sheahan for B. O’Keeffe, 49; D. Walsh for Hutchinson, 53.
D. Kirwan (Cork).