A REAL test of resolve yesterday for the 3,000 dedicated fans who made the journey to Thurles for this Munster final, defying the sleet and biting wind to support their teams.
And it proved a real test of resolve for Newtownshandrum also, taken to the brink by a resurgent Ballygunner team that only came to life in the final quarter.
Having won the toss the Gunners opted to play with the strong wind, but, in the first three quarters, looked a pale shadow of the side that had chiselled out a Waterford title just six weeks ago. Against a well-oiled Newtown side that was firing on every cylinder, Ballygunner trailed at the break by six points, 1-7 to 0-4, and their situation had worsened 14 minutes into the second half, as the deficit had stretched to ten, 2-9 to 0-5.
Even in the dark depths of winter, however, how quickly it can all still change in a game of hurling. 2-4 the Gunners fired in the next 11 minutes without a reply from the stunned Cork champions, leaving the game tied and nicely balanced as we headed into injury-time.
Huge credit to Newtownshandrum, then, that they managed to turn what appeared an unstoppable tide, and two points in those closing minutes from the evergreen and ever-reliable Ben O’Connor was just enough to see them home.
“A small bit of showboating,” was selector Patsy Morrissey’s explanation for the dip in Newtownshandrum’s performance during that torrid final quarter. “And we nearly got caught because of it – it’s a huge lesson for us. When you’re ten points up it’s very hard for players to believe they can then be beaten, and they took their foot off the accelerator. But, there’s fierce heart in this team, they dug deep, and their fitness probably told in the end, for which great credit must go to Cian O’Neill and Will McCormack (team trainers).”
Were it not for the grit they showed in the final minutes Newtown would indeed have lost this one, a game which they were comfortably in control.
Ballygunner began well, were two points to the good inside six minutes as Newtown struggled to come to grips with the wind. A blood injury to centre-forward Andy Moloney, however, (at the receiving end of an accidental swipe from Newtown wing-back Phillip Noonan) seemed to disrupt the Gunners’ rhythm, and when Moloney returned after ten minutes of attention, Newtown were well on top.
Every defender was winning his individual battle, Jerry O’Mahony (outstanding all through), Brendan Mulcahy and captain Dermot Gleeson were watertight at the back while Sean O’Riordan, Pat Mulcahy and Phillip Noonan were supreme in the half-back line. In midfield, the pacy pair of PJ Copse and Cathal Naughton were causing havoc, while up front, and even into that strong and biting wind, every forward looked capable of scoring. The hard-working Ryan Clifford had two points, Jerry O’Connor had one, Ben had three – two from frees and one from a sweet acute-angle line-ball. The score of the day, however, and contender for goal of the season, came from full-forward James Bowles. It came in the 26th minute with Newtown leading by 0-6 to 0-3 and it was the kind of multi-pass score that defines this team. It began with a well-placed clearance from Dermot Gleeson to Ryan Clifford, thence to Sean O’Riordan who sent a long ball to the corner for Jamie Coughlan to chase. The youngster did just that, bamboozled his marker with a bit of ball/stick magic, but then – an easy point there for the taking – Jamie went for the jugular. His short stick-pass inside found Bowles who had stolen half a yard on Willie Kiely. In a blur the ball was in the net and Newtown were in the driving-seat.
Three minutes into the second half it was young Coughlan who was rattling the rigging with a ground shot from close range leaving Newtown ten points clear and one hand firmly on the cup.
Then came the Ballygunner revival and/or the Newtown valley period. It started with yet another Paul Flynn pointed free, was given huge momentum by two goals in two minutes from the two Ballygunner subs, Stephen Power and Barry Mullane, and ended with a hat-trick of frees by Flynn.
The sides were locked on 2-9 apiece with seven minutes to be played and the momentum very much with the Gunners, but – as stated by Patsy Morrissey – Newtown had the heart to recover, and two points from Ben ended the contest. “Isn’t it great to be Munster champions,” said Patsy, “And still have plenty to work on?” Isn’t it just – four times Cork champions this decade, three times kings of Munster, the Newtownshandrum fairy-tale continues.
Scorers for Newtownshandrum: B. O’Connor 0-5 (0-2 frees, 0-1 65, 0-1 s/l); J. Bowles 1-0; J. Coughlan 1-0; R. Clifford 0-2; C. Naughton 0-2; PJ Copse, Jerry O’Connor, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Ballygunner: P. Flynn 0-8 (all frees); S. Power 1-0; B. Mullane 1-0; B. O’Sullivan 0-1.
NEWTOWNSHANDRUM: W. Biggane; J. O’Mahony, B. Mulcahy, D. Gleeson (c); S. O’Riordan, P. Mulcahy, P. Noonan; PJ Copse, C. Naughton; R. Clifford, Jerry O’Connor, M. Bowles; J. Coughlan, J. Bowles, B. O’Connor.
Subs: J. Herlihy (M. Bowles 26); JP King (Clifford 54); John O’Connor (Copse 58).
BALLYGUNNER: S. O’Keeffe; A. Kirwan (c); W. Kiely, V. Molloy; Phillip Mahoney, F. Hartley, W. Hutchinson; C. Kehoe, S. O’Sullivan; JJ Hutchinson, A. Moloney, Pauric Mahoney; B. O’Sullivan, P. Flynn, G. O’Connor.
Subs: B. Mullane (JJ Hutchinson 38); S. Power (Moloney inj. 46 – blood sub ditto, 8/17).
Referee: D. O’Driscoll (Ballinacurra Gaels, Limerick).
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