It was Ballygunner’s eighth week in a row playing championship hurling, and they needed a late JJ Hutchinson goal to get them over the line in a terrific contest. Sixmilebridge had a Seadna Morey goal with almost the last puck of the game, but by then it was too late: the Gunners were in the final, where they’ll meet Na Piarsaigh of Limerick.
“The week off before the final might break our momentum,” laughed Ballygunner manager Fergal Hartley afterwards.
“Ah no, we’ll be glad of the week off, it’s been a hard eight weeks and I’d say this week has been the toughest of the lot, particularly after the extra time against Thurles Sarsfields last weekend.”
Sixmilebridge opened with the breeze and a Jamie Shanahan pointed free, a sign of how the game would develop: they had Ballygunner under pressure early on - one effort bounced back into play off the post but the Waterford side smuggled it out of the danger zone.
The visitors squandered some good chances early on as both sides tried to find a rhythm in front of a vocal crowd of 2,490.
The first half became a shoot-out between Pauric Mahony for Ballygunner and Jamie Shanahan of Sixmilebridge. Early on some loose tackling by the ‘Bridge defence kept Mahony busy with his frees, but as the half wore on Shanahan had more to do. Both men ended the half with five frees scored but Shanahan added a fine effort from play as well.
For all that Ballygunner had a sniff of goal after 20 minutes. An angled ball into the ‘Bridge’s left corner favoured Conor Power, who turned his man and headed for goal. The angle was difficult, though, and the visitors’ keeper, Derek Fahy turned the shot around the post.
Unlike the previous weekend against Thurles Sarsfields, when Ballygunner dominated around the middle of the field, they found Shanahan and Conor Deasy far more competitive in that area yesterday. The home side also struggled against the Sixmilebridge half-back line, which did well to overcome the withdrawal before the throw-in of captain Paidi Fitzpatrick.
As the game progressed Sixmilebridge’s energy and commitment began to tell, and in the closing stages of the half they turned the screw - two late Shanahan frees, one a monster from out on the halfway line near the sideline, pushed them four up before the evergreen Niall Gilligan, now 41, curled over a beauty on the run.
It was 0-11 to 0-6 at the break and the Clare men clearly in the ascendant.
“Half-time couldn’t come quick enough,” said Hartley. “Because we were out hurled and outfought. It was probably one of our weakest halves of hurling in the year, certainly in the last eight weeks. The lads knew that, though. It wasn’t a case of a huge tactical change at half-time, it was more a case of getting the intent right. The lads probably found it hard to get up to the pitch they reached last Sunday, because that was a savage pitch, but they got there in the second half. That was the difference. We ran at them the way we said we would, and it worked for us.”
Ballygunner stretched their opponents on the resumption, with Conor Power, Peter Hogan and JJ Hutchinson dragging their men around the field. Within nine minutes of the resumption the sides were level on 12 points apiece, Mahony’s metronomic free-taking punishing the Clare side. Credit Sixmilebridge, they never gave up. Jamie Shanahan continued to impress, hitting good points into the breeze, and with just over ten minutes left Brian Corry actually put them one point up.
Mahony, inevitably, levelled before Shanahan nudged his men one ahead, 0-17 to 0-16.
Then Hutchinson hit his all-important goal with three minutes left, pulling first-time as a ball squirted loose near the opposition square. He and Billy O’Keeffe added points, and though Morey had that late goal for the Clare men, Ballygunner had done enough to book a date in the Munster final.
“I couldn’t be more complimentary about our guys,” said Sixmilebridge manager John O’Meara. “There’s savage character in them, and you saw that out there. They died with their boots on. Our focus coming down was to get the performance out of ourselves and if that was good enough, that was good enough, and if it wasn’t it wasn’t. It wasn’t to be today and while you’d love to win it every day, unfortunately you can’t. We were beaten by a fine side and we wish Ballygunner the best in the final.
“We had a sniff of goal and so did Ballygunner, but whoever got the first goal, it was always going to be a massive score, and they got it. It gave them huge momentum, a huge opportunity to push on and stretch out.” Hartley acknowledged the battle: “We had to break down a serious, serious side in Sixmilebridge, and we got a rub of the green with the goal. We were on top for maybe a five-minute spell towards the end, it was 50-50 all the way through. The frees kept us in touch particularly in the first half, they got some superb scores from play against the wind in the second half. Pauric’s importance to this team is the same as it is for Waterford - you just can’t buy a free-taker like that. He does that week in week out.”
He does. They’ll need him to do it again in a fortnight’s time.
P. Mahony (0-11, frees, 0-1 65); JJ Hutchinson (1-3); B. O’Keeffe (0-3); S. O’’Sullivan (0-1).
J. Shanahan (0-9, 0-6 frees); S. Morey (1-0); N. Gilligan (0-2); S. Golden, A. Dunleavy, B. Corry, A. Morey, C. Malone, C. Deasy (0-1 each).
. O’Keeffe, E. Hayden, B. Coughlan, I. Kenny, P. Mahony, W. Hutchinson, S. Walsh (jc), H. Barnes, S. O’Sullivan, P. Hogan, D. O’Sullivan, P. Mahony (jc), C. Power, JJ Hutchinson, B. O’Keeffe.
B. O’Sullivan for S. Walsh (41); D. Walsh for Hogan (59).
D. Fahy, N. Purcell, S. Morey, B. Fitzpatrick, A. Quilligan, C. Morey, E. McInerney, J. Shanahan, C. Deasy, C. Malone, N. Gilligan, S. Golden, B. Corry, A. Morey, A. Mulready.
K. Lynch for Mulready (53); B. Carey for McInerney (55).
J. Murphy (Limerick)