Ballygunner back with a bang

Red and black were the colours on the trophy yesterday as Ballygunner made it a first Munster club senior hurling title since 2001, an emotional victory for the Waterford men. They had lost to yesterday’s opponents, Na Piarsaigh of Limerick, twice at this stage in the previous three years, and their determination to break that series of defeats was clear in Semple Stadium.

Ballygunner back with a bang

Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) 2-8 Ballygunner (Waterford) 2-14 

By Michael Moynihan

Red and black were the colours on the trophy yesterday as Ballygunner made it a first Munster club senior hurling title since 2001, an emotional victory for the Waterford men. They had lost to yesterday’s opponents, Na Piarsaigh of Limerick, twice at this stage in the previous three years, and their determination to break that series of defeats was clear in Semple Stadium.

“This wasn’t a one-year project,” said Ballygunner manager Fergal Hartley afterwards.

“This has arguably been a seven-or eight-year project. We were beaten last year, came up short – just weren’t good enough.

“We had to go back to the drawing board and I won’t quite say start again, but we realised we weren’t going to win a Munster with the same performance as last year and we took it game by game.

“At the back of our mind this was where we wanted to be. We wanted another crack at Na Piarsaigh. They’d beaten us in two Munster finals. You could argue that this was a 17-year crusade but this is what the lads wanted. They’re an incredible bunch – they really are – and I think you could see that again there.”

They needed to be, because it didn’t look good for Ballygunner early on. The 3,339 in Semple Stadium saw Na Piarsaigh’s Kevin Downes slalom through for a second-minute goal and it was 1-4 to 0-2 after 11 minutes.

The Limerick men were cruising, with Ronan Lynch and Will O’Donoghue providing the platform in the middle of the field and the Gunners barely hanging on. Brian O’Sullivan had a sight of goal for them but keeper Padraig Kennedy saved well, and that sparked the comeback.

With Pauric Mahony finding his range from frees Ballygunner reeled their opponents in before Brian O’Sullivan won a penalty on 27 minutes. Stephen O’Keeffe made the long journey up from goal, and with his name being chanted by the supporters in red and black, he made no mistake with his shot.

A late, late Mahony free left Ballygunner ahead, somewhat surprisingly, 1-7 to 1-6 at the interval.

“There was a reasonably strong breeze there and we always play against it when we can,” said Hartley afterwards.

“But we were a little bit nervous about that because we know that if Na Piarsaigh open you up, you could go in at half-time and the game is over ,so we were nervous. Still, we stuck to our guns and won the toss, decided to go against the breeze and see if we could hold them up to half-time.

“We came in a point up at half-time thanks to the lads grinding it out. There were stages I suppose in the first half when it looked like it might be slipping away from us, when we were five points down. We needed to respond and that’s what we did.”

On the resumption it was all Ballygunner, as they rolled forward in waves. They hit four points on the spin before Shane Dowling responded with a free on 41 minutes.

Mahony responded with a point and then, from his own half, dropped another long-range free into the opposition square, where it squirted to the net. When he added yet another free, it was 2-13 to 1-7 turning into the final quarter.

At that stage Na Piarsaigh required a complete collapse from their opponents to have any chance, and that was never likely.

Stephen O’Keeffe had to save smartly from Dowling with ten minutes left, and three minutes later Dowling somehow found the net from a close-range free, but Ballygunner looked reasonably comfortable as they defended late on.

The experience of Philip Mahony and Wayne Hutchinson in particular came to the fore as Na Piarsaigh came looking for goals, only to find the Waterford men defending cleverly: the six point winning margin didn’t flatter them.

“It’s very hard to figure out,” said a downcast Paul Beary afterwards. The Na Piarsaigh boss added: “I might be wrong but I think it was 1-4 to 0-2 after about ten minutes. We got off to a great start, but we only scored 1-4 between that and the end of the match.

“It just didn’t really happen. We got balls in to the inside forward line but we just didn’t penetrate the way we have done this season.

“In fairness it was a very dogged Ballygunner team, they showed huge desire, huge workrate, they scrapped for every ball and hats off to them, we fully congratulate them on their victory.” The comparisons between Ballygunner’s testing Munster campaign - a dogged battle against Midleton of Cork and a double-extra-time epic victory over Clare’s Ballyea - and Na Piarsaigh’s progress to the final were being made soon after the final whistle.

The Limerick men had comfortable enough wins over Doon in the Limerick decider and Clonoulty-Rossmore in the Munster semi-final, and a battle-hardened Ballygunner were clearly unfazed by conceding an early goal.

They stuck to their task and came good when it mattered, even if their second goal - from Mahony’s free - was a touch lucky. No matter. After seventeen years hunting another outing in the All-Ireland, they’ll argue that they were entitled to one break. How far can they go now?

Scorers for Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony (1-6, 1-5 frees); S. O’Keeffe (pen)(1-0), Brian O’Sullivan (0-3); Barry O’Sullivan (0-2); H. Barnes, C. Power, S. O’Sullivan (0-1 each).

Scorers for Na Piarsaigh: S. Dowling (1-4, 1-3 frees); K. Downes (1-0); R. Lynch (0-2); A. Dempsey, A. Breen (0-1 each).

BALLYGUNNER: S. O’Keeffe (JC), E. Hayden, B. Coughlan, I. Kenny, W. Hutchinson, Philip Mahony, H. Barnes, B. O’Keeffe, S. O’Sullivan (JC), Barry O’Sullivan, Pauric Mahony, P. Hogan, T. O’Sullivan, Brian O’Sullivan, C. Power.

Subs: M. Mahony for T. O’Sullivan (58); JJ Hutchinson for Power (60).

NA PIARSAIGH: P. Kennedy, J. Boylan, M. Casey, C. King, R. Lynch, W. O’Donoghue (c), T. Grimes, A. Dempsey, G. Brown, D. Dempsey, S. Dowling, C. Boylan, A. Breen, K. Downes, P. Casey.

Subs: M. Foley for O’Donoghue (blood, 31-3); M. Foley for Grimes (43); K. Ryan for Breen (50).

Referee: N. Wall (Cork).

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