Ballygunner fall to Ralph's do-or-die shot


Like any meeting of two well-matched sides, yesterday's AIB Munster club hurling semi-final at Semple Stadium swung on very little. Midway through the second half, Clarecastle's full forward Kenny Ralph addressed a close-in free. It had been awarded for a foul on Danny Scanlan by Ballygunner's Stephen Frampton, who had been having a fine afternoon and he disputed the referee's decision. The detail of what happened next isn't clear. His team trailing by only a point, Ralph disdained the equaliser and drilled the ball into the net. Afterwards he said "I had it in my mind to go for goal. I saw Ollie Plunkett (a selector) going (he makes a downwards gesture) and so I had a shot. It took them by surprise."

Team manager Roger McMahon had a different version and was prepared to assign all the credit to his player. "You have to admire him. He took it in himself. Ah yeah, we'd have forgiven him - if we'd won."

It is most unlikely that they would have won had Ralph's attempt been blocked. Bolstered by the goal, the Clare champions pulled away to lead 1-15 to 0-12 with less than 10 minutes left and survived a furious comeback by their desperate opponents.

Only hearts of stone wouldn't feel for Ballygunner. This was their third defeat in successive years at the hands of Clare clubs and for the second year running, the meeting produced a gripping afternoon's hurling. Twelve months ago, Wolfe Tones of Shannon had a 12-point lead whittled away to the narrowest margin possible.

This time it was Clarecastle who got too far ahead on the scoreboard but again the Waterford club fought furiously to recover the match and in so doing, provided a warming spectacle for the small attendance of 3,289 at a wintry Thurles.

At the heart of Clarecastle's success was the amount of possession they harvested around midfield. Even when Victor O'Loughlin, who was having another stormer (Seamus Hayes of the Clare Champion says the former county player and brother of the Sparrow O'Loughlin hasn't been as fit in years), had to retire injured shortly into the second half, his replacement, James Healy emulated county final form with an aggressive display.

Despite this advantage in gaining possession, Clarecastle made Las Vegas look like a centre of good husbandry and accumulated five wides within the first 10 minutes, nine by half-time and 14 overall. In addition, two plain chances for goal were fluffed - one after a Sparrow O'Loughlin shot had come invitingly down off the post for Ralph, but his attempt was blocked.

This trend looked potentially dangerous at the interval when the teams were level, 0-7 each, because Ballygunner's forwards showed a more economical streak and had hit only three wides.

Compared to last year's Munster final team, Ballygunner were steady. After his generosity had so benefited Shannon last season, goalkeeper Ray Whitty was impressive under a barrage of dropping ball and saved well from Ralph. The rest of the defence was solid. Niall Warren bustled effectively at full back and in front of him Fergal Hartley, Frampton and Raymond O'Sullivan kept things tidy.

Midfield was the main problem. Tom Fives wasn't having a great afternoon and was replaced in the second half. Up front, there was plenty of danger for Clarecastle. Paul Flynn and Billy O'Sullivan were obvious threats - although neither came into their own until the second half - but Tommy Carroll, Paul Power and Cormac Sweeney took clever points and must have impressed on Clarecastle that they were dealing with a unit.

Unfortunately for Ballygunner, Clarecastle proved themselves a more rounded side than Wolfe Tones a year ago. They mightn't have been able to cash in on defensive errors but their backs were very assured.

Martin Sheedy at full back won the first three contested balls comfortably and in front him, brother Stephen was a strong influence. Together with Anthony Daly, he struck a range of lengthy clearances. Most importantly for the team, however, was the display of Ger Canny, whose tight marking greatly restricted Flynn's influence.

Last year, Flynn scored 2-4 during the great second-half comeback but this time his contribution was largely confined to accurate use of the placed ball.

Flynn proved his menace when Ballygunner came roaring back at the end of the match. The only time he got away from Canny, the ball flew into the side netting. Billy O'Sullivan was the more productive of the big names and his four points included the two that closed the margin to three points with only three minutes left.

In fairness to Clarecastle's attack, they were more focused in the second half and five of the six forwards got on the scoreboard from play. Sparrow O'Loughlin switched to full forward and exploited the move by taking two points, whereas Alan Neville added to his well-taken brace from the first half.

County player Fergie Tuohy played consistently and used his pace both on the wing and at centre forward to make inroads in Ballygunner's defence. Afterwards he looked forward to next week's final against Limerick's Patrickswell, also at Thurles.

"Shannon and the Bridge (Sixmilebridge, All-Ireland champions in 1996) have paved the way and it puts pressure on us against the Well. It's only a week away but at this time of the year, you're better keeping momentum going."

Or as Clare captain Anthony Daly put it: "It's great to be hurling at this time of the year. Otherwise we'd only be putting on a big gut."

Clarecastle: T Hegarty; G Canny, M Sheedy (capt.), B Scanlan; P Healy, S Sheedy, A Daly; V O'Loughlin, K Morrissey; F Tuohy (0- 2), A Neville (0-3), D Scanlan; R Fitzgerald (0- 1), K Ralph (1-7, one goal and six points from frees), G O'Loughlin (0-2). Subs: J Healy (0-1, a free) for O'Loughlin (35 mins); J Pyne for Fitzgerald (55 mins).

Ballygunner: R Whitty; S Lyons, N Warren, G Cullinane; S Frampton, F Hartley (capt.), R O'Sullivan; L Whitty, T Fives; B O'Sullivan (0- 4), M O'Mahony (0-1), T Carroll (0-2); C Sweeney (0-1), P Power (0-1), P Flynn (0-6, four frees, one 65). Subs: D Fitzpatrick for Fives; D O'Sullivan (0-1) for Sweeney.

Referee: J McDonnell (Tipperary).