Ballygunner edge Thurles Sarsfields in epic Munster SHC clash
Winning manager Hartley hails ‘best game Ballygunner have ever been involved in’
Ballygunner 1-21 Thurles Sarsfields 1-19
The widespread conviction that there’d be little in this match was not disappointed. For an absorbing hour and a taut period of extra time, there was less than a score between the teams in this AIB Munster club hurling quarter-final at Walsh Park, Waterford.
Ballygunner deserved to win. They had looked the more likely side all through ordinary time - Thurles led just once in the entire match - before getting caught at the very end, but they set about winning the extended contest with a stoic efficiency, which was ultimately rewarded.
Thurles couldn’t quite get their noses in front. A long-range free by the elemental Pádraic Maher tied up the scores with minutes to go but they couldn’t strike for home.
It was Ballygunner replacement JJ Hutchinson who pushed the Waterford champions ahead in the last minute and with their opponents unable to contrive an opening to equalise, it was left to Pauric Mahony to drive down the left wing in the dying seconds and belt over a point that gilded the lily of a memorable success.
On a lovely autumn afternoon before a modest attendance of 2,864 the two clubs renewed acquaintance from last year when in Thurles, what few atoms from a bus ticket separated them favoured the Tippperary champions.
“The Munster club championship has brought out some great games over the years, and that’s as good as any I can remember,” was the radiant reaction of winning manager Fergal Hartley.
“It was probably the best game Ballygunner have ever been involved in, and I know that’s not going to be much consolation to the Tipp people and the Thurles Sars people, coming out on the wrong side of it, but Sars died with their boots on.”
Ballygunner started with more urgency. They maintained an aggressive attacking line and with Pauric Mahony his customary clinical self they kept the scoreboard moving. Their accuracy wasn’t always what they’d have wanted and although Thurles found it difficult to establish position against Ballygunner’s in-form half backs, they were more economical with the chances they had.
A sense of unease for the Tipperary champions radiated out however from the 20th minute when Pauric Mahony’s free faded and looked like dropping short but as Pádraic Maher went up to take it under the bar, it somehow squirted out of his grasp - which otherwise was Velcro safe as usual all afternoon - and into the net.
The cagey exchanges up until then changed. Thurles began to exhibit signs of anxiety. Shots were snatched at whereas Ballygunner maintained pressure and composure. Billy McCarthy had a chance for a responding goal but Stephen O’Keeffe saved well. A later chance went a begging when John Maher’s ball into Conor Stakelum was cut out by Harley Barnes.
Trailing by three at half-time, 0-8 to 1-8, Thurles started more purposefully but Ballygunner were able to keep them at arm’s length by hitting back immediately after the first three scores from the Tipp champions.
Another O’Keeffe save from McCarthy popped up nicely for Stakelum to give Thurles the lead, 1-12 to 1-11, for the only time. The match remained neck and neck until the end.
Normal time concluded in a welter of excitement when in quick succession in injury-time, Shane O’Sullivan and Peter Hogan pushed the Waterford champions two points clear, the match looked to have settled itself.
For a side that had been forced to chase for much of the match, Thurles’s response was impressive, as Stephen Cahill and the veteran Larry Corbett dragged the match back into play.
Pádraic Maher was doing his best to win the match for Thurles single-handedly but it wasn’t enough to head off the winners whose main concern after eight successive weeks in action is that Brian O’Sullivan dislocated his shoulder in the second half.
“We showed a lot of character at that point,” said Thurles coach Paddy McCormack. “Two points down and we looked to be gone. They fought their way back and even in extra time when they were three points ahead we fought our way back again. It was a puck of the ball that could have gone either way.
“I said it all the week, no matter how good you are in life you need a little bit of luck along the way. We had it last year, they had it this year, and fair play to them, they got more scores than us and won the match. We congratulate them and wish them well they’re a great club team and fought so hard out there.”
BALLYGUNNER: S O’Keeffe; E Hayden, B Coughlan, I Kenny; Philip Mahony, W Hutchinson, S Walsh (jt. capt.); H Barnes, S O’Sullivan (0-1); D O’Sullivan (0-2), Pauric Mahony (jt. capt; 1-10, goal and five points frees), B O’Keeffe (0-1); C Power (0-1), Brian O’Sullivan (0-1), P Horgan (0-2). Subs: D Walsh (0-1) for Brian O’Sullivan (43 mins), Barry O’Sullivan (0-1) for O’Keeffe (58 mins), JJ Hutchinson (0-1) for B O’Keeffe (59 mins), T O’Sullivan for Hogan (69 mins), C Sheahan for Walsh (78 mins), B O’Keeffe for Barnes (81 mins).
THURLES SARSFIELDS: P McCormack; S Maher, R Maher, M Cahill; P Maher (capt; 0-2, one free), C Moloney, S Lillis (0-2); J Maher, S Cahill (0-1); B McCarthy (0-1), A McCormack (0-3, one free), D Maher (0-3); C Stakelum (1-0), P Bourke (0-3, two frees), L Corbett (0-4). Subs: T Doyle for Bourke (49 mins), M O’Brien for Stakelum (56 mins), C Stakleum for D Maher (69 mins), K O’Gorman for S Maher (70 mins), P Bourke for Corbett (73 mins).
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork).