Ballygunner (Waterford) 1-23 Ballyea (Clare) 0-17
For decades this competition was a source of torment for Ballygunner, but their record as the team that has lost the greatest number of Munster finals is a dusty museum piece now. On Saturday in Thurles they gathered their third title in four years with another performance of implacable authority and sweeping precision.
Ballyea charged at the champions with hard heads and big hearts, but the kind of aggression they would have needed to unhinge Ballygunner was unsustainable for 60 minutes. There were short spells in the game when Ballygunner were disturbed from their rhythm, but not long enough for their coolness to crack or any vulnerability to appear.
Ballygunner trailed just twice in the match, but never surrendered the lead once Patrick Fitzgerald scored the only goal of the game 10 minutes before half-time. The teenager, in his first year out of minor, has been one of the sensations of the championship.
Ballygunner’s inside line accounted for 1-10 of their total, all from play, but Fitzgerald was responsible for 1-4 of that, and was unlucky not to add another goal just after half-time, when he bamboozled a couple of Ballyea defenders, 40 metres out, and flashed a shot across Barry Coote’s goal.
Fitzgerald’s vaulting reputation as a colleges player and a Waterford minor had preceded him into the senior ranks, but even brilliant minors often need time to acclimatise. In the Waterford championship he didn’t break into the starting team until the county final, but since then he has been electric, adding another layer of menace to a forward line already studded with intercounty players.
“He’s after slotting in very well,” said Stephen O’Keeffe, the Ballygunner goalkeeper. “A juvenile player, no matter how good they are underage, there are no guarantees how they’ll adjust to adult level. He’s come into the team in a tough forward line to get your place in. There’s a lot of competition for places up there. Fair play to him he does seem to be growing into the position in every game.
“He was finding his feet a little bit in the Waterford championship. Your first year of adult hurling, it took him a few games to get used to the physicalness of it, but you can see now he’s after adapting really well.”
By half-time all of Ballygunner’s starting forwards had scored from play; Ballyea simply didn’t have that cross-section of threat. Tony Kelly was heroic in defeat, and there was a spell in the middle of the first half when he rattled off five points in seven minutes to briefly give Ballyea the lead. Despite their ferocious intensity, Ballyea’s other starting forwards, though, could only muster five points between them.
Ballygunner led by three points after 10 minutes, and still led by three points at the break, after Fitzgerald’s goal had given them some comfort. Early in the build-up there was a suspicion of a thrown pass, but once the excellent Pauric Mahony received possession they had an overlap, and he delayed the scoring pass with optimum timing.
Ballygunner’s inside line is wired to probe for goals and if they had been clinical they should probably have scored another before half-time and at least another after the break. Dessie Hutchinson, who scored four terrific points and won his duel with Paul Flanagan, was guilty of not taking a couple of chances, and Fitzgerald forced a save from Coote in the second half when he should really have given the Ballyea goalkeeper no chance. On another day those misses might have been expensive.
“We were trying very hard to get a flow going” says O’Keeffe. “It was very stop-start I felt. We had a few goal chances and we only came away with one goal from three or four chances. You could feel the frustration building a little bit. It was never comfortable until maybe the last three or four minutes when we opened up a bit of a lead and we could sit back a little bit. We were managing to pick up one or two more scores on the counterattack.”
Ballyea kept pace with Ballygunner for most of the third quarter, and Kelly didn’t shoot his first wide until after his 10th point, a staggering return. But he missed a couple of long-range frees when Ballyea were starting to flag, and their exaggerated dependence on his productivity left them in a sticky position.
Ballygunner pulled five points clear with Mikey Mahony’s second point, 14 minutes from the end, and they outscored Ballyea by 0-6 to 0-2 in the final quarter.
Are Ballygunner a better team now, than they were last season. No, said O’Keeffe. Or yes. “It’s hard to say. I would say if we pointed to our performance in the Munster final last year I’d say it was better than this performance so it’s hard to know but I do think the panel has probably improved.
“I think the competition for places is definitely better than it was last year. That’s a good thing and I don’t think many of the players have taken a step back necessarily. So I’d probably say maybe we are a little bit [improved] yeah.”
Yes, he meant.
BALLYGUNNER: Stephen O’Keeffe; Ian Kenny, Barry Coughlan, Tadhg Foley; Shane O’Sullivan, Philip Mahony, Ronan Power; Conor Sheahan, Paddy Leavey; Pauric Mahony (0-10, six frees, one 65), Mikey Mahony (0-2), Peter Hogan (0-1); Dessie Hutchinson (0-4), Kevin Mahony (0-2), Patrick Fitzgerald (1-4).
Subs: Harry Ruddle for Kevin Mahony (55 mins), Billy O’Keeffe for Hogan (57), Tim O’Sullivan for Fitzgerald (59), Tom Gallagher for Power, Darragh O’Keeffe for Mikey Mahony (both 60+3).
BALLYEA: Barry Coote; Brandon O’Connell, Peter Casey, Paul Flanagan; Gearóid O’Connell, Jack Browne, James Murphy (0-1); Gary Brennan, Stan Lineen; Pearse Lillis (0-2), Tony Kelly (0-11, six frees, one 65), Cathal O’Connor; Mossy Gavin (0-1), Niall Deasy (0-2), Aaron Griffin.
Subs: Cillian Brennan for Flanagan (38-44 mins, blood) and for Lineen (52), Morgan Garry for O’Connor (41), Martin O’Leary for Griffin (48), Cathal Doohan for Gavin (55).
Referee: Michael Kennedy (Tipperary).