There was a time for Ballygunner when playing Clare opposition in Munster competition was always one match too far, but those days of serial defeat to the best of the Banner have been well and truly ended these past three years.
The Waterford kingpins had edged the ‘Bridge by the minimum in their 2017 semi-final in Walsh Park, just as they lasted the course for an epic three-point win over Ballyea after extra-time at the same venue last term.
However, in bringing up the hat-trick with this 12-point rout inside Sixmilebridge’s lair, the Deise’s six-in-a-row champions proved that the bogeys of old are long laid to rest as they moved confidently towards a semi-final showdown with Patrickswell next Sunday.
A brilliant display of markmanship by county star Pauric Mahony that yielded 0-10 and a first-half contribution of 1-2 from Dessie Hutchinson as he terrorised the ‘Bridge defence proved the twin-pillars on which this hugely impressive victory was constructed.
“The lads were great,” gushed joint-manager Darragh O’Sullivan. “You could see the intensity they brought to it and how composed they were in possession. We knew we were up against it coming down here, but they relished it. They’re a serious bunch and coming into this environment and getting a result like that is a testament to them — they met the challenge head on,” he added.
And, in the process they blew Sixmilebridge away, with a fast start that saw them race into a 0-7 to 0-2 lead after just ten minutes as Hutchinson and Peter Hogan scored as they pleased being the early point of no return for the under-siege hosts.
The Davy Fitzgerald-coached Clare champions did hang in there in the first half when playing against the breeze largely thanks to a hat-trick of points from play by Conor Deasy and the accuracy of Alex Morey from played balls, but with key figures like county men Shane Golden, Cathal Malone and Jamie Shanahan being peripheral, their race was run by half-time as Ballygunner thundered into a 1-13 to 0-7 lead.
The goal in injury time sealed matters when a brilliant 70-yard run by full-back Barry Coughlan carved open the ‘Bridge defence — his shot was saved by an alert Derek Fahy only for Hutchinson to mop up the afters from ten yards.
This nine-point interval advantage was never threatened once the ‘Gunners responded to an early ‘Bridge rally with the wind at their backs that yielded points from Alex Morey and Shanahan with white flags of their own from Conor Power and Mahony’s sixth free.
Thereafter, the remainder of proceedings was about nothing more than what the margin of victory would be as a below par ‘Bridge side crashed to their third successive opening round exit in Munster since 2015.
“It was a dose of reality,” admitted Sixmilebridge manager Tim Crowe afterwards. "Ballygunner have evolved their game to a very high level. You’d like to clutch at straws and say the goal before half-time was crucial, but in reality it wasn’t. From the word go, they opened us up. It is a wake-up call for us as a club and for Clare teams in general to see if we can reach Mount Everest,” he added.
It was the precision of Ballgunner’s passing game on a glue-pot pitch as they negated the Sixmilebridge sweeper system that impressed most as they scaled this first challenge of their Munster title defence.
Equally noteworthy was the way they bossed the physical exchanges thanks to the spine provided in defence by Barry Coughlan and Philip Mahony, while the strength of Barry O’Sullivan and Pauric Mahony in attack allowed Dessie Hutchinson, Peter Hogan, Conor Sheehan and Paddy Leavy revel in loose play.
“It will be a big ask for us to go back at it next Sunday against Patrickswell,” said Darragh O’Sullivan. “Playing in the heavy ground we have a few wounded bodies, but to win a Munster championship you have to earn it. We are going to have to take on a formidable Patrickwell team, but we are looking forward to that challenge. We have them at home,” he added.
Scorers for Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony (0-10, 9f), D Hutchinson (1-2), P Hogan (0-3), C Power (0-2), C Sheehan (0-1), M Mahony (0-1), T O’Sullivan (0-1), B O’Keeffe (0-1f).
Scorers for Sixmilebridge: A Morey (0-5, 4f), C Deasy (0-3), C Morey (0-2, 1f, 1 ’65), B Corry (0-1), J Shanahan (0-1).
BALLYGUNNER: S O’Keeffe; E Hayden, B Coughlan, I Kenny; S O’Sullivan, Philip Mahony, B O’Keeffe; C Sheehan, P Leavy; B O’Sullivan Pauric Mahony, M Mahony; T O’Sullivan, P Hogan, D Hutchinson.
Subs: C Power for Hogan (37), JJ Hutchinson for T O’Sullivan (56), W Hutchinson for Pauric Mahony (59), K Mahony for Hayden (61), T Gallagher for Sheehan (63).
SIXMILEBRIDGE: D Fahy; Brian Carey, B Fitzpatrick, N Purcell; P Mulready, C Morey, S Morey; S Golden, E McInerney; P Fitzpatrick, C Deasy, J Shanahan; C Malone, A Morey, B Corry.
Subs: C Lynch for Carey (28), A Mulready for McInerney (HT), J Loughnane for Corry (54).
Referee: Kevin Jordan (Tipperary)