DRAMA in Walsh Park yesterday as visitors Na Piarsaigh of Limerick hammered three late goals past Waterford champions Ballygunner to book a place in the Munster club SHC final.
Fresh from their first county title on Shannonside, Na Piarsaigh were outsiders and trailed by six points at half-time, but they overturned that deficit to win by six at the finish.
As might be expected, Ballygunner, with the wind in the first-half, adapted to their local venue better than the visitors, with early points from captain Shane O’Sullivan and JJ Hutchinson. Na Piarsaigh were relying on corner-forward Kevin Ryan to do their early scoring, and he chipped in with two fine points in reply.
Na Piarsaigh’s main strike forward, Limerick senior star Kevin Downes, overcame a dose of flu to line out but was isolated for much of the first half, with Na Piarsaigh withdrawing Shane Dowling outfield. They struggled with their shooting into the breeze, however, as Ballygunner did in the second-half.
On nine minutes, however, Pádraic Mahony hit a fine point from distance to signal a period of Ballygunnner supremacy: their half-backs began to dominate and Na Piarsaigh came under sustained pressure.
In the following ten minutes Mahony added two frees, and Shane O’Sullivan, JJ Hutchinson and Brian O’Sullivan pointed from play: the last point might have been a goal, with JJ Hutchinson heading through before losing the ball under pressure. Adrian Breen ended Na Piarsaigh’s drought with a 23rd-minute point, making it seven points to three.
David O’Sullivan and Mahony (free) made it nine for Ballygunner before Shane Dowling added another point (from a free) for the visitors. Mahony, however, had the last word of the half with a fine free from his own 65 metre line – ten points to four at the break.
The first score of the second-half was always going to be crucial, with Pádraic Mahony doing the honours from a close-in free. By contrast, Na Piarsaigh hit three poor wides, but their hopes were raised by two monster Shane Dowling frees and one close-in effort, which cut the deficit to 0-11 to 0-7 at the three-quarter stage.
The Gunners looked set to close the game out, but on 48 minutes it went into the melting-pot when an attempted clearance by ‘Gunners keeper Stephen O’Keeffe was blocked and fell to Dowling, who buried it: 1-7 to 0-11 and all to play for.
Two minutes later it happened again: Ballygunner tried to work the ball out but Kevin Ryan intercepted, made ground and then placed Dowling with a fine pass, and the corner-forward finished well from a narrowing angle, putting Na Piarsaigh two points ahead.
Mahony and Pat Gleeson swapped points as the clock wound down, thus preserving the Limerick men’s two-point lead, and incredibly, Na Piarsaigh managed one more smash-and-grab raid. With two minutes left David Breen intercepted a Ballygunner handpass near the home side’s goal and had enough time to take two swipes at the sliotar before rattling the net for the Shannonsiders’ third goal.
Star defender Brian Hartnett’s injury-time point was the icing on the cake, pushing the winning margin to five.
“I thought we gave an exhibition in the first half,” said Na Piarsaigh manager Sean Stack.
“We took short puck-outs, we drew frees, but the conditions were terrible – we were lucky the sod was dry, but the gale made it a different game to a dry, calm day. If we’d been down nine points at half-time you could have overcome it, because with the wind puck-outs were going to the other 21-metre line.
“The six-week break gave us a huge advantage – we celebrated well but then got back to work, and now we’re a totally different team to what we were in Limerick, but that’s typical of first-time champions.”
His opposite number, Niall O’Donnell of Ballygunner, had no excuses.
“We didn’t underestimate Na Piarsaigh at all, we gave them all the respect that they deserved. We prepared thinking we’d have a right hard battle, and that’s how it went.
“Look, they deserved it today. If you get three goals in a match you’ll rarely lose.”
Scorers for Ballygunner: P. Mahony 0-7 (0-5 fs, 0-1 65); S. O’Sullivan 0-2; B. O’Sullivan, JJ Hutchinson, D. O’Sullivan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Na Piarsaigh: S. Dowling 2-4 (0-4 fs); D. Breen 1-0; K. Ryan 0-2; A. Breen, P. Gleeson, B. Hartnett, 0-1.
BALLYGUNNER: S. O’Keeffe, A. Kirwan, W. Kiely, B. Coughlin, P. Mahony, W. Hutchinson, S. Walsh, H. Barnes, D. O’Sullivan, P. Mahony, S. O’Sullivan (c), A. Maloney, B. O’Sullivan, JJ Hutchinson, S. Power.
Subs: Barry O’Sullivan for Maloney (39).
NA PIARSAIGH: P. Kennedy C. King, K. Breen, K. Bermingham (c), A. Dempsey, J. O’Brien, B. Hartnett, A. Breen, P. Gleeson, K. Kennedy, D. Breen, S. O’Neill, S. Dowling, K. Downes, K. Ryan.
Subs: A. Hennessy for A. Breen, 49.
Referee: D Copps (Cork)
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