Na Piarsaigh shift gear and take the fast lane

Third Munster title in five years for Limerick club as battling Ballygunner are left behind

Na Piarsaigh 2-18 Ballygunner 2-11

The AIB Munster club hurling final in Thurles was won for the third time in five years by Limerick's Na Piarsaigh. Given that they were favourites there was no surprise in the outcome although Ballygunner pushed as hard as they could to upset the form book before a small attendance of 2,320 at Semple Stadium.

In capturing the title Na Piarsaigh extended their remarkable run in the province where all three of their campaigns have been completed without defeat.

Anyone following the new champions in the current campaign will be familiar with their apparent addiction to near-death experiences. The final didn’t follow that pattern in that Ballygunner for all their feistiness were unable to exert serious pressure on the scoreboard when on top for a phase in the first half.

Three points up, 1-7 to 1-4, was as good as it got for the Waterford team who were missing two of their top players, the O'Mahony brothers Páraic, injured until next year, and the suspended Philip. Furthermore, once again their talented minor Peter Hogan had to depart before half-time after a recurrence of the hamstring injury that forced him off in the semi-final.

Na Piarsaigh always looked to have that extra gear and if they were just ticking over in the first half, they began to motor on the resumption, attacking the match with more urgency and striking a sequence of scores, nine points - some of them exhibition shots - with just one in reply, that broke the back of the Waterford side’s challenge.

They had to field without Kevin Downes but the earlier-than-expected return of David Breen after injury was a major lift in the second half.

“Fantastic feeling,” was the reaction of winning manager Shane O’Neill afterwards.

“I’m kind of stuck for words at the moment. Again, we put in a second half performance. You’d nearly want your second halves in the first half but Ballygunner, being the club that they are, we actually spoke about it.

“They have serious tradition so we knew what they were going to bring to the party and even when we looked to have a bit of momentum after half-time, they came back again and got a couple of scores, trying to put a bit of doubt in our minds but then our guys pushed on again. You can’t beat experience - over the last five years to win three Munster clubs is just a phenomenal achievement.”

The first half was fitful and as time ticked by, Ballygunner became as emboldened as any underdogs when the match isn’t running away from them in the early stages.

Steady free taking by Brian O'Sullivan and a whopping strike from his own half by 'keeper Stephen O'Keeffe was supplemented by a great point after Stephen Power did very well to keep a dropping ball in play and hit it over the bar.

The early work was undone in the 20th minute after Ronan Lynch, who had a fine afternoon - crowned with a majestic point from over 60 metres on the right sideline - passed to Mike Foley whose long strike ran into the patch of David Dempsey. He had time to adjust his body position and clip the ball past O'Keeffe to give Na Piarsaigh a one-point lead.

To their credit the Waterford side weren’t done and Tim O’Sullivan got a goal, exploiting sloppiness in Na Piarsaigh’s defence, just before the break which added to by Brian O’Sullivan’s 65 gave them the three-point half-time lead.

The third-quarter barrage was decisive. Shane Dowling delivered a ramped-up performance and that urgency was reflected all around the field. Peter Casey and Kevin Ryan sniped for points and the unexpected appearance of David Breen also made an impact.

“He’s a big boy,” said his manager, “and we felt that Peter (Casey) wasn’t in the game because the quality of ball going into him was poor. David in there broke it open and then Peter came alive inside.

“It was a fair bit ahead of schedule. He only got the pins out on Wednesday but that’s David for you. He’s been a leader of this team since 2011. I played beside him in 2011 and he just gets the job done. His work rate is phenomenal. He won three line balls in a row from sheer work rate. That’s what he brings to it.”

Ballygunner resisted the inevitable but any time they strung together a couple of scores, back came their opponents - Brian O’Sullivan diverting Conor Power’s shot past Podge Kennedy and following it into the net.

That cut the margin to two, 1-15 to 2-10, but the Limerick champions responded with an unanswered 1-3; Dowling cutting in along the endline in the last minute and nearly taking the stanchion out with his shot.

"We said to the lads at half-time that the seven or eight minutes after the break would be the winning or losing of the game," was the response of Ballygunner manager Denis Walsh, "and from our point of view it was the losing of it, they must have hit seven or eight points in ten minutes.

“They were able to move up a gear, and we weren’t able to move up a gear with them. They’re the hard facts of it.”

NA PIARSAIGH: P Kennedy; M Casey, K Breen, K Kennedy; M Foley (0-1), R Lynch (0-2, one free), C King (capt); A Dempsey (0-2), W O'Donoghue (0-1); S Dowling (1-4, two frees), D Dempsey (1-2), K Ryan (0-2); P Gleeson, A Breen, P Casey (0-3). Subs: D Breen (0-1) for Gleeson (38 mins), T Grimes for Ryan (59 mins).

BALLYGUNNER: S O'Keeffe (0-01, one free); B Coughlan, E Hayden, I Kenny; H Barnes, D O'Sullivan (capt.), S Walsh; C Power, B O'Keeffe; Barry O'Sullivan, S O'Sullivan 0-1, S Power (0-2, one free); T O'Sullivan (1-0), Brian O'Sullivan (1-6, four frees, two 65s), P Hogan. Subs: JJ Hutchinson (0-1) for Hogan (21 mins), C Sheahan for O'Keeffe (50 mins), D Walsh for Hutchinson (59 mins).

Referee: D Kirwan (Cork).

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times