A drenched Páirc Uí Rinn was the scene for a turn up for the books as a Brendan Maher-inspired Borris-Ileigh once again defied the odds to stun a vaunted Ballygunner side.
Watched by a 2,663 crowd, the poor conditions contributed to a contest played at three-quarter pace until a dramatic final quarter when the lead was exchanged three times, and Maher sent over four points including the winning score.
From the inside, Borris-Ileigh players spoke of belief. From the outside, it had all the hallmarks of stubbornness. A refusal to budge. Three points down at half-time, 0-9 to 0-6, Ballygunner’s only difficulty was profligacy in front of the Borris-Ileigh goal to the extent that players in scoring range were put off taking on the shot. Dessie Hutchinson was the exception and threatened to be the match-winner but those scoring opportunities dried up in the second half.
The elements hadn’t helped either team in the first half but Borris-Ileigh struggled with them more. With only two points from play, they were reliant on Brendan Maher’s free-taking to keep in touch. Barry Coughlan was ruling the roost at the edge of the square too, smothering any chance James Devaney had of making a difference. Even when the more physically imposing Conor Kenny was in there, he struggled to make the ball stick.
It didn’t help that for all the possession Brendan Maher and Dan McCormack had, they weren’t able to do much with it behind their own midfield. While Hutchinson was profiting from good diagonal ball put in front of him, the likes of Devaney were having to duel centrally and were coming off second best.
A change of approach was required and it came in the form of Devaney and Kevin Maher coming out to forage in the half-forward line while freeing up space closer to goal. Against the wind, Stephen O’Keeffe couldn’t send puckouts long and as Ballygunner attempted to build up attacks Borris-Ileigh’s forwards pounced.
“When you look at Ballygunner, they like to build from the back and play ball around and they did that, they strung us across the pitch on numerous occasions,” revealed Borris-Ileigh manager Johnny Kelly.
“We were very conscious of the fact that you have to anticipate the next out-ball. We did that to a relatively good standard and we’re delighted for them because we got our just reward there. We were very much in the game all through. Half-time, three points down, that’s not a big lead in conditions like that. You just believe in yourself and find a way.”
For Kieran Maher’s 45th-minute goal, which levelled the game, there was space for Ray McCormack to exploit but he still had to fend off a couple of Ballygunner players prior to passing the ball off the Maher.
“He’s a great guy, he has that in his locker,” said Kelly of the 19-year-old: “I said that to Ray to do that as much as he could because it’s very hard to stop a guy like that with thundering pace and physique as well. When he does that, he’s very effective.”
Maher’s goal was followed by an immense Brendan Maher point that will be replayed over and over again. His reading of a ruck was perfect before he fired over not only from a sizeable distance but an acute angle.
He followed that up with a free but just when the initiative had become warm in Borris-Ileigh’s hands Ballygunner snatched it back in the 51st minute. Hutchinson’s vision picked out an unmarked Barry O’Sullivan and he tucked his shot under James McCormack to send Ballygunner back into the lead.
The dexterity of Jerry Kelly to send over the next score at the other end denied the Waterford men the chance to build on the goal although Hutchinson was again involved in putting his side ahead a minute later when he supplied Conor Sheahan.
However, that 53rd-minute point turned out to be Ballygunner’s last score of the game. Brendan Maher squared the game again in the 56th minute when Devaney was fouled. Three minutes later and after Niall Kenny was pulled back, Maher converted another short-range free with what turned out to be the winner.
Paddy Stapleton, who coped as well as most could against the in-form Hutchinson, never doubted his team could see out the remaining four minutes.
“They say winning breeds confidence and I really felt we could win it — even when it was one point up and then one point down. I just felt that 14 other lads weren’t going to leave it, no one’s mentality is going to go out the window because it’s a tight game.
“It was every ball and you know yourself, sometimes you’re on a team and you don’t know that. The 15 lads out there and the lad that came in, that mentality is there and it comes right from the top from Johnny to us.”
From a county that has routinely failed to deliver at senior level in the province — Borris-Ileigh are the first since Thurles Sarsfields in 2012 to claim Munster — but for a club that has struggled to back its pedigree for so long, this victory can only inspire.
“It just proves what can happen if guys believe in themselves and work hard and give everything to the cause,” remarked Kelly. You have to put in the work and if they’re coachable, you’ll get a lot out of guys.”
Scorers for Borris-Ileigh: B. Maher (0-7, 6 frees); Kieran Maher (1-0); J. Kelly (0-3, 1 sideline); Kevin Maher, C. Kenny (0-1 each).
Scorers for Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony (0-5, 4 frees); D. Hutchinson (0-3); B. O’Sullivan (1-0); B. O’Keeffe, P. Leavy, C. Sheahan (0-1 each).
BORRIS-ILEIGH: J. McCormack; L. Ryan, S. Burke, P. Stapleton; S. McCormack (j-c), B. Maher, R. McCormack; T. Ryan, D. McCormack; C. Kenny (j-c), J. Kelly, Kieran Maher; Kevin Maher, J. Devaney, N. Kenny.
Sub for Borris-Ileigh: J. Hogan for T. Ryan (25).
BALLYGUNNER: S. O’Keeffe; E. Hayden, B. Coughlan, I. Kenny; B. O’Keeffe, Philip Mahony (j-c), S. O’Sullivan; P. Leavy, C. Sheahan; M. Mahony, Pauric Mahony, B. O’Sullivan; D. Hutchinson, P. Hogan, T. O’Sullivan.
Sub for Ballygunner: C. Power (j-c) for P. Hogan (43); J.J. Hutchinson for T. O’Sullivan (55).
Referee: J. Murphy (Limerick).