A winter’s tale elevated by the majesty of Brendan Maher

In years to come, when the memory of this game sparks a grimace on the outskirts of Waterford city and warm smiles in northern Tipperary, one name will dominate discussion of this Munster club final.

A winter’s tale elevated by the majesty of Brendan Maher

In years to come, when the memory of this game sparks a grimace on the outskirts of Waterford city and warm smiles in northern Tipperary, one name will dominate discussion of this Munster club final.

Borris-Illeigh overcame a fancied Ballygunner by the narrowest of margins in Páirc Uí Rinn, with the Tipperary champions driven on by their centre-back, Brendan Maher. He has starred for Tipperary for a decade, winning All-Star awards and captaining his county, but his hour in the maroon and white of Borris this afternoon will surely be the key passage on his highlight reel.

Maher anchored the defence and hit seven points, including the winner. Any analysis would point to his quality as the difference between winning and losing a dour encounter, the terms of combat dictated by the conditions.

All of the seasonal terms were in operation in Páirc Uí Rinn, by the way. Not so much Yuletide greetings as those automatically-generated descriptions which belong to winter hurling. When you have a couple of weeks off work you probably put the auto-reply on your email; it’s the same with winter hurling. Those descriptions come without a second thought.

Tough conditions. Guts and determination. Grinding it out.

We’ve come to associate the summer sport with the winter months as the calendar becomes an increasingly flexible concept, with season-appropriate games shunted to sidings which are not as amenable as the optimum dates in the high summer.

As a result, we’ve also come to associate the club finals with a particular setting — the soft yielding ground, the wintry showers, and above all the bobble-caps — and with a particular type of contest, one in which the battle and the appetite take precedence over everything. Today was no different.

The fall-back position sees the casual follower favouring the side with more inter-county players, which is an understandable bias. Ballygunner had a heavy advantage over Borris-Illeigh on those grounds (though the keen follower can also finesse those terms in another direction: which is the club with more quality among its non-county players?).

Other metrics favoured Ballygunner as well. Their defeat of Patrickswell of Limerick, for instance, relied heavily on their ability to create space on a heavy field; even allowing for subsequent events which may hint at a certain lack of focus among some of the ‘Well players, the Waterford side were able to make room, particularly down the wings, and they duly shot their way to victory.

Against Borris, the Gunners found that more difficult, but they were still able to do something every GAA manager aspires to: they were able to get their scores more easily. The Tipperary champions were relying on centre-back Maher’s accuracy from placed balls to stay in touch, which didn’t seem a strategy for long-term success.

Ballygunner had the forward of the day in Dessie Hutchinson, who hit three in the first half: his last point before the break was the classiest touch of the opening half-hour, and the Waterford men led by three at the half, 0-9 to 0-6.

The game was transformed by a run of events halfway through the second half. First, Borris’ Kieran Maher got the game’s first goal: Maher bore down on goal at an angle and from a long way out, long enough for doubt to enter his mind as the target approached, but his finish was cool.

His namesake Brendan chipped in with an inspirational point from play — steaming onto a loose ball and striking from his left on the run before adding a free: 1-9 to 0-10 on 48 minutes.

Two minutes after that Hutchinson’s sumptuous cross field ball found Barry O’Sullivan lonely as a lifebuoy on the 20-metre line: 1-10 to 1-9.

Borris dug in, however, and hit three of the last four points. Inevitably, it was Brendan Maher who struck the winner from a free. The requisite ‘scenes of jubilation’ — another hardy annual which flowers around this time of the year — duly ensued at the final whistle.

“It’s just dreams,” said Brendan Maher afterwards.

“We came in here at 4/1, nobody expecting anything from us, we were delighted.

The conditions— it mightn’t have looked as hard as it was, the hurley was slipping out of your hand, a greasy surface — it was as tough conditions as I’ve played in this year.

“We missed a few chances and I thought we were going to regret that, but thankfully we came up with the goods.”

His manager tried to pick his way through the game even as the cup was being presented.

“It’s a great one to win, a Munster final isn’t easily won,” said Johnny Kelly.

“I haven’t got the words at the moment, but the heart and determination . . . I thought when they got the goal we could have disappeared, but no, we stayed at it.

“This team is built on resilience and no little heart. We set up in a specific way, we went long and didn’t want them to break from the back, the source of their attacks.

“It didn’t always work for us, and sometimes it isn’t pretty, but we make up for that in heart and determination.”

Kelly had a word for Ballygunner, too: “They’re an excellent team, if you give them time on the ball their stickwork, their passing . . . they’re littered with county players all over the field, and if you give them time and space they’ll inflict severe damage. We just couldn’t allow that to happen and we didn’t.

“We’re going into an All-Ireland semi-final and we’ll be playing a team from Galway, that won’t be easy, but we’re still here and we’ll give it everything.”

That won’t be until the new year, of course. From here the winter hurling - God bless the mark - moves immediately to the inter-county scene, with the Munster Senior League throwing in next month.

Presumably the Waterford and Tipperary managers will spare anyone who played today in Pairc Ui Rinn that particular engagement. Unless the Marquis de Sade was recently appointed to the backroom teams.

In the meantime warm yourself with the memory of a display which carried on the tradition of the Devanneys and the Kennys and the Stakelums: the 2019 club final will always be known as the Brendan Maher game.

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