Rural club that became city slickers looking to extend Deise dominance
Published 12/11/2011 | 05:00
THESE are changed times in Ballygunner, whose bid for a second Munster SHC title starts in earnest at Walsh Park tomorrow.
It's 10 years since the club that has garnered four Waterford senior titles since 2001 won that famous provincial crown.
Current manager Niall O'Donnell was playing then in a team that included county greats like Paul Flynn, Fergal Hartley and Stephen Frampton.
But that generation has now been firmly replaced by a new generation of heavy-hitting young 'Gunners.
When they take on Limerick champions Na Piarsaigh tomorrow, ex-Tipperary senior Andy Moloney and corner-back Alan Kirwan will be the only survivors of the team of '01.
Like tomorrow's opponents, their starters are now heavily populated by a crew of young hurlers whose music taste is undoubtedly more Rihanna and Calvin Harris than Rod Stewart and Johnny Cash.
The big names that now dominate the team are Mahony, O'Sullivan and Hutchinson, yet the club continues to drive on and expand.
A country club that has been swallowed up by one of the more affluent of Waterford city's suburbs, Ballygunner now has an Astro Turf pitch and a hurling alley and are in the throes of completing their county's first indoor hurling arena.
Yet club stalwart and senior selector Jim O'Keeffe says none of it could have been achieved without their underage focus.
"We have put a lot of work into juvenile hurling -- it has always been our priority and I suppose that has paid off as we have a good group of young players coming through now and hope to continue that.
"Twenty years ago we'd have been regarded as a rural club, but the city grew out our way," he explains.
"There was a lot of development in our area but your community can develop all the housing it likes and that means nothing if people aren't getting involved and putting in the work.
"Thank-fully we've had great people at the club and managed to stayed competitive but it's something we have to work very hard at, now more than ever."
Ballygunner's investment in youth has paid dividends.
Last year, managed by Mick Mahony, they won their third Waterford minor title in four years.
Mick's sons Philip and Pauric are two of the club and county's rising stars and, at club and county senior level, they now play alongside their uncle Shane O'Sullivan.
Many of their successful recent minors are still U-21s who are still in line for a county U-21 three in-a-row.
That final, against Cappoquin, is still outstanding because so many of their U-21s are involved with the seniors, which indicates the team's youthful age-profile.
Yet many of them were already part of Davy Fitzgerald's new-look Waterford senior side this year and young players like the Mahonys, David and Brian O'Sullivan (sons of orthopaedic surgeon Tadhg, who has restored many an inter-county knee to full health), Robbie Cunningham, Stephen O'Keeffe and Harley Barnes have already amassed experience way beyond their years.
Ironically, given their huge rivalry with cross-city club De La Salle, it was in the De La Salle school that many of them had their first big breakthrough, as part of the team that won DLS's first All-Ireland schools (Croke Cup) title in '07 and repeated it in '08.
Tomorrow's opponents Na Piarsaigh have, coincidentally, similarly benefited from the recent schools' success of Limerick's Ardscoil Ris.
Throw in experienced men like Shane Walsh, Shane O'Sullivan, Moloney, Kirwan and Wayne Hutchinson and there's a healthy blend of age and experience that Ballygunner hope will keep them in rude health for the next decade at least.
The pressure is on them to continue a proud tradition for Waterford clubs in Munster.
Since Ballygunner's victory in '01, Mt Sion ('02) and De La Salle ('08 and 2010) have also won the provincial title and in the past decade Decies clubs have the best record in the provincials, losing only seven of 25 games and winning 17 of them.