GALWAY may have sent new and inexperienced suitors to pursue their love affair with the AIB All-Ireland club hurling championship but the romance continued to to flourish in Thurles yesterday as Clarinbridge set up a hot final date with Birr on St Patrick's Day.
CLARINBRIDGE 1-15; BALLYGUNNER 2-8
GALWAY may have sent new and inexperienced suitors to pursue their love affair with the AIB All-Ireland club hurling championship but the romance continued to flourish in Thurles yesterday as Clarinbridge set up a hot final date with Birr on St Patrick's Day.
Athenry, Sarsfields and Kiltormer have brought the All-Ireland club title back to Galway six times in the last ten years and as Clarinbridge fans in the 10,400 crowd streamed out of Semple Stadium, their optimism detectors were on full alert.
They had witnessed a performance which was so full of vigour, craft and structure that it portrayed a highly-rated Ballygunner side as little more than enthusiastic triers, who couldn't quicken to thoroughbred speed.
Clarinbridge's excellence comes into an more impressive context when X-rayed against some relevant considerations, not least the fact that they played the final 23 minutes with 14 men after left corner-back Gerry Spelman was sent off for a second bookable offence.
It looked like a potentially fatal wound as Ballygunner, who had the light wind behind them in the second half, cut the deficit to two points (1-9 to 1-7) from the resultant free.
Ballygunner fans expected their side to gradually overpower Clarinbridge from there on but, instead, it was the Galway champions who asserted a winning stranglehold.
Manager John McIntyre despatched Alan Kerins into defensive mode, a responsibility he warmed to very quickly. He had scored 1-2 in the opening 21 minutes and now set about restricting Ballygunner's openings as they lunged forward.
With Kerins operating as an emergency defender, Clarinbridge's five-man attack faced new challenges. It called for high levels of personal sacrifice and effort, qualities they possessed in glorious abundance. Their running was quick and direct, their passes usually found the target and their finishing was of a sufficiently high standard to increase the frustration layers for Ballygunner.
Clarinbridge whipped over six points between the 38th and 58th minutes, interrupted only by a pointed free from Paul Flynn in the 54th minute. It was very comfortable for Clarinbridge who were already looking forward to their first All-Ireland final appearance when Billy O'Sullivan scored Ballygunner's consolation goal deep in injury time.
Ballygunner, who had built an impressive reputation after beating the Clare, Tipperary and Cork champions in the Munster campaign, really had no answers to Clarinbridge's power surges. The Waterford side were bigger physically but could never get to play the game on their terms.
Clarinbridge were programmed for speed and constant movement, leaving Ballygunner as chasers rather than leaders all day.
Ballygunner led briefly early on after Paul Flynn had placed Billy O'Sullivan for a point but once Alan Kerins hoisted Clarinbridge's first flag in the third minute, a pattern quickly emerged.
Flynn, who started at centre-forward, was regarded as Ballygunner's most important reference point in attack but apart from a few early bursts never really looked like uprooting Clarinbridge's defensive anchors, which were founded on the enduring excellence of centre-back and captain Michael Donoghue.
He was an inspiring presence all through but particularly when the toughest questions were asked after Spelman's dismissal. Michael Spelman and Aidan Quinn also defended resolutely.
Midfielder Darragh Coen contributed seven vital points from frees on a day which helped banish memories of a disappointing afternoon with Galway against Waterford in the 1998 All-Ireland quarter-final.
He landed some great strikes while up front Alan Kerins (in the first half), David Donoghue and David Forde all set standards which Ballygunner couldn't reach on this occasion.
Donoghue played Kerins in for Clarinbridge's goal in the 19th minute and by the 22nd minute, the lead had been extended to six points (1-7 to 0-3). Ballygunner made what looked like a significant breakthrough six minutes later when Paul Foley beat impressive Clarinbridge goalkeeper Liam Donoghue from close range to cut the half-time gap to four points (1-7 to 1-3).
The wind dropped in the second half but Ballygunner won't be offering that as an excuse. Similar to Ireland's predicament in Twickenham on Saturday, Ballygunner couldn't cope with the pace and space-creating activities of a Clarinbridge side who decorated those crucial attributes with a consistently sound first touch.
Fergal Hartley, Rory O'Sullivan, Paul Power, Paul Foley, Paul Flynn and Billy O'Sullivan all had some productive moments for Ballygunner but, in terms of a team effort, they were a distant second to Clarinbridge, whose superiority was far more apparent than the winning margin suggests.
It was all so bitterly disappointing for Ballygunner who were bidding to become the first Waterford side to reach the All-Ireland final since 1982. It's a habit Galway clubs have acquired and while Clarinbridge will again be outsiders against Birr in the All-Ireland final, they won't be complaining. As Ballygunner discovered yesterday, an odds-on rating provides no immunity against Clarinbridge's very impressive package.
MAN OF THE MATCH M Donoghue (Clarinbridge).
SCORERS Clarinbridge: D Coen 0-7 (7f), A Kerins 1-2, D Donoghue 0-2, M Kerins, B Carr, P Coen, D Forde 0-1 each. Ballygunner: B O'Sullivan, P Foley 1-1 each; P Flynn 0-4 (2f, 1'65'), P Carroll, P Power 0-1 each.
CLARINBRIDGE L Donoghue; M Spelman, A Quinn, G Spelman; J Cannon, M Donoghue, L Madden; D Coen, B Carr; P Coen, M Kerins, A Kerins; C Coen, D Forde, D Donoghue. Sub: S Burke for C Coen (58).
BALLYGUNNER R Whitty; N O'Donnell, A Kirwan, R O'Sullivan; S Frampton, F Hartley, C Kehoe; T Fives, P Power; M Mahony, P Flynn, A Moloney; B O'Sullivan, P Foley, T Carroll. Subs: D O'Sullivan for Mahony (51), A Hearne for P Foley (51).
REF B Kelly (Westmeath).