The game was over and a damp dusk drawing in but the people walking around Walsh Park were in no hurry to leave.
Ballygunner and Ballyea had fought themselves to a standstill for almost 100minutes, two separate sessions of extra time included, and though the Waterford side had won by three points, the supporters of the Clare team were also lingering before heading west. It was as though the 2,211 in attendance were still trying to get a sense of what had happened because, as Fergal Hartley of Ballygunner said, it was like no game he could recall in 27 years’ involvement in senior hurling.
Ballygunner’s win got them a place in the Munster club final, but yesterday’s epic - for once the term is accurate - deserved to grace any championship. The momentum swung from one side to each other, with last-gasp goals and nerveless equalisers the order of the day.
“The two teams went at it with no sweepers, no messing, just blow for blow,” said Ballyea boss Kevin Sheehan.
“We’re delighted with our lads, in every match this year they’ve given everything. We could have rested on our laurels after the county final and felt that was as much as we could achieve, but we gave it everything and I’m devastated.
“The home and away makes it that little bit harder. I thought our lads settled in well to Walsh Park after the first five or six minutes, they got to the pitch of the game.
“It’s the swings of the thing - two years ago Gary Brennan got a goal with the last puck of the game against Thurles Sarsfields. That’s just sport.” His opposite number said the game had nothing to do with tactics or systems.
“No,” said Fergal Hartley of Ballygunner.
“It’s down to the person behind the hurley and about character.
“There’s 40 minutes in every game for systems and tactics. The first 10 minutes are always manic. Tactics work for 40 minutes and then – particularly in games like this, Munster hurling, every game we play – it’s the last ten minutes, no rules.
“Last year against Sixmilebridge, against Thurles Sarsfields, even against Na Piarsaigh, the game is won and lost in the last ten minutes. That’s the way it goes.
“At that stage there are no tactics, there is no game plan. It’s just man for man and may the best man win. Win your battle.”
Reducing the game to its constituent elements would be like an abridged version of the Odyssey: here are some but certainly not all the highlights.
Ballygunner settled well and led early on, but once Tony Kelly found his rhythm Ballyea came at them hard. The home side were grateful for Pauric Mahony’s metronomic accuracy from frees, particularly when Niall Deasy slalomed in the end line before slapping a terrific finish to the net: 1-7 to 0-9 at the half.
Deasy was an easy choice for TG4’s man of the match, and Sheehan said they had a specific role in mind for him: “We saw Barry Coughlan (Ballygunner full-back) on (Conor) Lehane. It’s funny sometimes with strong lads, sometimes teams give up strong full-backs - they spend their whole careers without being tested so we felt we’d try Niall Deasy in there to take him on physically, and he did.
“What an outlet he’s been the last few games. If we’d had a bit more luck on the spin we might have gotten another goal before half-time, more of a cushion, but that’s just life.” Ballyea were six up early in the second half before Conor Power struck 1-1 for Ballygunner to bring them back into contention. Mahony’s frees nudged them ahead and they looked good until Ballyea got a second goal with five minutes left, Pearse Lillis touching a Tadgh Lynch delivery to the net: 2-17 to 1-17.
Ballygunner were left with a hail Mary effort from Pauric Mahony in injury time to try to rescue the game; Ballyea threw the attack back but Conor Power retrieved the ball and dinked it across for Philip Mahony, an unlikely goalscorer, to finish to the net. Level.
Neither team could seize the initiative in injury time, with Deasy and Mahony swapping frees. They were level at half-time, 2-20 apiece, but Ballygunner, significantly, were getting a better return from subs such as Barry O’Sullivan. They were leading late in injury time but Deasy held his nerve to convert a 65 and level the game again: more injury time.
By now both sides were struggling. Players were dropping with cramp and exhaustion and mistakes due to tiredness, unsurprisingly, became rife. Credit Ballygynner, however, who found those three precious points to separate the teams, from Barry O’Sullivan, Pauric Mahony and Conor Sheehan.
“We were lucky,” said Hartley.
“We got the rub of the green and Ballyea will probably feel very hard done by on that basis. It was flick of a coin stuff.
“I know it’s a cliché but no-one should have lost that. My heart goes out to Ballyea – huge team, huge club and the legendary Tony Kelly but we’re just happy to come out the right side of it.” His word were echoed by Kevin Sheehan: “That’s sport, and that’s the reason we love it. We love it because it’s cruel.” Yesterday could hardly have been crueler. Or sweeter, depending on your colours.
Scorers for Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony (0-13, 8 frees); C. Power (1-2); Barry O’Sullivan (0-4); Brian O’Sullivan (0-3), P. Mahony (1-0); B. O’Keeffe, I. Kenny, P. Hogan, C. Sheehan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Ballyea: N. Deasy (1-10, 4 frees, 1 65); P. Lillis (1-2); M. O’Leary (0-4); T. Kelly (0-3, 1 sideline); G. Brennan, T. Lynch (0-2 each).
BALLYGUNNER: S. O’Keeffe (JC), E. Hayden, B. Coughlan, I. Kenny, Philip Mahony, W. Hutchinson, B. O’Keeffe, H. Barnes, S. O’Sullivan (JC), Pauric Mahony, P. Hogan, Brian O’Sullivan, T. O’Sullivan, M. Mahony, C. Power.
Subs: Barry O’Sullivan for M. Mahony (HT); JJ Hutchinson for B. O’Keeffe (40); S. Power for T. O’Sullivan (60); T. O’Sullivan for S. Power (Start ET); S. Power for M. Mahony (HT ET); B. O’Keeffe for W. Hutchinson (73); C. Sheehan for Hogan (77); D. Sheehan for Neylon (77).
BALLYEA: B. Coote, J. Neylon, B. Carrigg, B. O’Connell, J. Murphy, J. Browne, A. Keane, T. Lynch, T. Kelly (c), P. Lillis, N. Deasy, C. Brennan, M. O’Leary, G. Brennan, R. Griffin.
Subs: E. Donnellan for Griffin (54); G. Flynn for Carrigg (59); A. Griffin for C. Brennan (60); C. Brennan for A. Griffin (ET); B. Casey for B. O’Connell (72); C. Brennan for A. Griffin (75).
Referee: F. Horgan (Tipperary).