Munster SHC club final
Within minutes of presiding over Na Piarsaigh's second Munster club triumph in three seasons, manager Sean Stack was already focusing on bigger targets for the ambitious Limerick champions.
Indeed, he could have begun to look ahead to the All-Ireland semi-final clash with Portumna next February shortly after half-time in Cusack Park, Ennis, yesterday. Na Piarsaigh led by 2-9 to 0-5 after 33 minutes, having hit Sixmilebridge for 1-1 on the restart.
The goal came in the first minute when Shane Dowling's mishit shot for a point dropped short and was diverted into the net with a deft flick from Kevin Ryan. It was a mirror image of the opening minute of the first half when Na Piarsaigh made the first crucial incision, thanks to Dowling's accurate pass which played Kevin Downes in for their first goal.
Conceding two goals so early in either half was a severe setback for Sixmilebridge, but their problems extended well beyond that on a day when they never came close to replicating the form which won the Clare title and beat Midleton in the Munster semi-final.
Indeed, their hectic schedule in recent weeks may have left them flat, a handicap which was always likely to be exposed by ultra-efficient opponents.
"Our seventh game in eight weeks – maybe that's an excuse but it is a lot of matches for myself anyway whatever about the younger lads," said Sixmilebridge's venerable veteran Niall Gilligan.
"I think anyone who watched us over the last number of weeks would say that we're better than what we played today."
He and his attacking colleagues had a most frustrating afternoon, scrapping for limited possession against a Na Piarsaigh defence in which Cathal King, Kieran and David Breen solved most of the problems that confronted them.
Na Piarsaigh led by 1-5 to 0-1 after 20 minutes and while Sixmilebridge improved somewhat over the next 10 minutes, they still trailed by six points (1-8 to 0-5) at the interval.
"We felt that if we could get a few scores early in the second half we would be back in business, but that early goal was a killer. It was a long way back after that," said Gilligan.
Adrian Breen scored Na Piarsaigh's third goal in the 44th minute, leaving them 14 points ahead going into the final quarter, which they saw out quite comfortably. Sixmilebridge's miserable day delivered one last knock when they conceded a fourth goal to sub David Sheppard in the final minute.
It was certainly an impressive performance by Na Piarsaigh but it's likely Sixmilebridge's busy campaign drained them of vital energy, which was always going to be required in such high-class company, a point also made by manager John O'Meara.
"The seven games in the last eight weeks probably caught up with us. Seven knock-out matches as well. We asked the lads during the week could they go to the well one more time and unfortunately when we went to the well, it was dry," he said.
"Na Piarsaigh are a very good team. They're a bit further down the road than we are and we wish them the best in the All-Ireland series. But if you'd told me back on May 18 after we lost the first round of the Clare championship that we'd be here contesting the Munster club final, we'd have been absolutely thrilled.
"Our lads have had a great year and I couldn't be complimentary enough about them."
It was an emotional day for Na Piarsaigh manager Stack as he steered the Limerick men to success over his home club in far easier circumstances than he could have possibly envisaged.
While returning to the Munster peak brings the season to a rewarding end, Stack made it clear that pursuing the All-Ireland title would move to the top of their agenda very quickly.
Na Piarsaigh lost in extra-time to Loughgiel in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final and then looked on enviously as the Antrim champions won the title.
"We went to Parnell Park (to play Loughgiel) with weaknesses we don't have now. The confines of Parnell Park caught us, and so did the intensity that Loughgiel brought. We had underperformers that day. But we're back in it now, against Portumna, and we're going to give this a right go," said Stack.
Sixmilebridge's inability to rise to the impressive tempo set by Na Piarsaigh left them facing a battle they could never win on a day when just about everything went against them.
That included leaking goals at the start of either half, conceding a point from a free after goalkeeper Derek Fahy was penalised for over-carrying and having a 20-metre free from Gilligan blocked in the 41st minute .
They were trailing by 10 points at that stage and in desperate need of a goal, but Gilligan didn't strike the ball as sweetly as he would have liked, leaving it relatively easy for the packed Na Piarsaigh defence to make the block.
"I suppose the goal that killed us was the one just after half-time. We felt in the last 10 minutes before half-time we were beginning to come into it but to be hit with 1-1 so quickly was a killer. I didn't see the goal – I wasn't even out of the dressing-room," said O'Meara.
It remains to be seen if he will have Gilligan aboard next year as the 37-year-old hinted that this might be his final outing.
"After the match there I feel like I won't (be back). We'll see what happens but look, we're thrilled to have won the county title for the first time in 11 years," he said.
As for Na Piarsaigh, they completed an excellent year for Limerick hurling with both the Munster senior inter-county and club championships wintering on Shannonside. The attendance was 3,689.
Scorers – Na Piarsaigh: K Ryan 1-3, A Breen 1-2, S Dowling 0-5 (4fs), D Sheppard, K Downes 1-0 each, A Dempsey 0-2, D Dempsey, P Gleeson 0-1 each. Sixmilebridge: N Gilligan 0-3 (3fs), S Golden 0-2, K Lynch, C Morey (f), J Shanahan (f) 0-1 each.
Na Piarsaigh – P Kennedy; C King, K Breen, M Casey; N Buckley, D Breen, J O'Brien; A Dempsey, P Gleeson; W O'Donoghue, K Downes, D Dempsey; K Ryan, S Dowling, A Breen. Subs: K Kennedy for Buckley (42), J Madden for D Dempsey (49), D Sheppard for A Breen (55), B Hartnett for O'Brien (58), D Quigley for Downes (59).
Sixmilebridge – D Fahy; B Carey, P Fitzpatrick, A Quilligan; J Fennessy, C Morey, N Purcell; K Lynch, S Morey; R Shanahan, S Golden, J Shanahan; P Sheehan, N Gilligan, A Mulready. Subs: C Deasy for Mulready (41), S O'Sullivan for P Sheehan (49).
Ref – C Lyons (Cork)