Ballygunner hope that it's their turn for better provincial fortunes
Waterford champions have been trying to turn county dominance into Munster success
It’s only a Munster quarter-final, but Sunday’s clash between Thurles Sarsfields and Ballygunner in Walsh Park has the sense of something more significant. Last year they met and only a point separated them in Semple Stadium, with the home side edging the verdict by a point.
This time Ballygunner have home advantage and, having reeled off a fourth successive Waterford title, the club knows that chances to add to their solitary 2001 provincial title may not keep coming.
Then again they could be forgiven for being blase about that as, since winning a first county championship since the 1960s in 1992, the club has literally taken half of all the titles since.
Ballygunner chair Gerry Cullinan says that the club, founded in 1954, has expanded its reach as Waterford city, about three miles away, has extended its reach to arrive at the threshold of the club.
“It’s a very small village: a church and a few houses, but now the city has expanded in our direction and a lot of the housing estates are within our catchment area. But the problem in Waterford is that there are no real boundaries as such, and even though we’ve a clear run out here, there are individuals with other clubs living in our area.
Cullinan, originally from west Waterford, is in a tradition of outsiders who have made contributions to their adopted home. Current selector and former player Pádraig Connolly settled in the area having come from Wicklow, and the man who founded the club was also an immigrant.
“It was founded by Jimmy McGinn, ” says Cullinan, “who came from Dundalk and was probably more of a soccer man, but he decided that hurling would be the best game for the youth of the area and that’s really where it started. It took from there.
“He didn’t involve himself in the running at first because of the ban; he was involved with soccer as well at the time. So the original committee was very young, mostly teenagers I think, and the decision was taken to field a minor team and [they] won the county championship in the first year.”
They wouldn’t win another for 38 years, but that season in 1992 saw a minor-senior double and the start of the club’s era of dominance.
“We have three adult teams,” he continues, “senior, intermediate and junior with maybe 30 on the junior panel. We’re probably the only club in Waterford which fields two teams in practically all of the under-age groups. We’ve a very big juvenile population. It hasn’t always been like that. When the three-in-a-row team in the 1960s got old, they were relegated and had lean years.”
Ballygunner supplied four of Waterford’s All-Ireland finalists in September: goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe, full back Barry Coughlan and the Mahony brothers, wing back Philip and wing forward Pauric. All except Coughlan have been nominated for All Stars.
On the subject of the poor strike rate at provincial level – one title from 16 attempts if you include the unofficial championship of the 1960s – Cullinan attempts to explain.
“People say that we have failed in Munster and the same about Thurles, but there are all sorts of reasons. We had a great team in the 1990s but we ran into a number of exceptionally strong teams from Clare, like Sixmilebridge and Doora-Barefield who won All-Irelands.
“I could go back to the first year [2014)]of the current team. We had a player sent off against Cratloe and the following year we reached the final against Na Piarsaigh, who went on to win the All-Ireland, without Wayne Hutchinson, who had taken a year out, and both of the Mahonys – Pauric missed the championship with serious injury and Philip was suspended. They were big losses.
“Then last year we lost by a point. You do need a little bit of good fortune. We’re hopeful that we’ll do well this year but no one’s looking beyond Saturday. We know Thurles are by all accounts better than last year but we would feel that we are as well – purely because of a growing maturity.”
Shane Dowling to miss Na Piarsaigh’s Munster championship bid
Thursday’s Limerick Leader reports that 2014 All Star Shane Dowling will miss his club Na Piarsaigh’s Munster championship campaign because of a knee injury picked up in the county final win over Kilmallock. The club have won the provincial title in each of the three years they have entered it but will be without their main scorer until the new year.