Sunday 15 September 2019

Ballygunner bid to lose bridesmaid tag

Ballygunner’s JJ Hutchinson celebrates his side’s epic Munster semi-final victory over Ballyea. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ballygunner’s JJ Hutchinson celebrates his side’s epic Munster semi-final victory over Ballyea. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In the beginning they were innocents abroad. Twenty-four hours after winning a first county senior championship in 24 years, Ballygunner hurlers travelled to Sixmilebridge to play the hosts in their maiden Munster Championship game in November 1992. They remained competitive until half-time, a goal from Danny Chaplin helping the home team to a 1-5 to 0-3 lead. Another goal from Eamonn Healy eight minutes into the second half snapped Ballygunner's resistance.

The current manager Fergal Hartley was centre-back. Paul Flynn, in the same year he dazzled as a county minor, roved about in the attack. Stephen Frampton slotted in beside Hartley at wing-back and Mick Mahony captained the team, having received the cup from the county chairman Eamon Murphy the day before, the first Ballygunner hurler to have that honour since 1968.

Mahony's two sons, Pauric and Philip, play in today's Munster final, bringing to a close the club's 14th provincial campaign since Mahony senior led them out to their short-lived first. All these years later, Frampton easily recalls the trip to Clare on that maiden Munster voyage.

"I'll never forget, because I broke my bloody arm up in Sixmilebridge and it was a really, really bad break," he says. "That was in November I think and I still had a cast on me the following April. I kind of got forced back to play and that was the infamous year in '93 that we (Waterford) lost to Kerry. It was my first match back and I really shouldn't have played. I ended up playing corner-back. Anyway, that's the reason I remember it."

Frampton had been a Waterford championship hurler since 1990 and a senior club player since 1986 when in his teens. He went on to win a Munster club medal in 2001 and was retired when they reached the provincial final again four years later.

Of the 13 Munster Championships completed by Ballygunner from that first tentative start up to now, 2001 was the only time they managed to conquer the province. In other years they've suffered six final defeats, four semi-final losses and two more eliminations in the quarter-finals. For the talent they've had on board they would have to regard that as a poor return and today, on the back of a fifth successive county championship win, they've reached their third final against Na Piarsaigh, their conquerors in two recent finals including last year's.

Even in Na Piarsaigh's maiden year in the province in 2011, they overcame Ballygunner in the semi-final. Na Piarsaigh's record in Munster is without blemish, an impeccable run of form that has seen them winning the competition in all three previous expeditions. Each run has included a defeat over Ballygunner.

"In the cold light, looking at the statistics, you have said it all there," says Frampton. "It looks quite poor. Now, as always, I can make plenty of excuses. In my other two Munster finals we lost one by a point (to Wolfe Tones in 1996). And the way I look at it, the match against Ballyea the last day, it was a typical Munster Championship game at this time of the year, scores are at such a premium, you don't see teams running away with matches because it is so difficult to score. I just think a lot of the games we played in, there was very little in the games. You can say there must be something wrong when we lost so many of them but the margin of loss wasn't great in a lot of matches. I really don't think we had a whole lot of luck either."

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He recalls a chat he had two weeks ago with Ballyea's Niall Deasy, who was awarded the man of the match prize by Frampton after the Munster semi-final which went to extra-time after a last-ditch goal from Philip Mahony. "You could say we were really jammed to get the equaliser," says Frampton. "That could have been another losing statistic."

Off camera he joked with Deasy, also an AIB employee, about how he would now be available to play against the Army in their upcoming annual fixture. "He was saying that they (Ballyea) kind of robbed a Munster Championship two years ago, that was their first time in it. That's the difference really. And we could even look to our own rivals. De La Salle have two Munster Championships, from three attempts, it came very easy to them. So you can be lucky. And sometimes you aren't."

In the 1990s, Ballygunner put three county titles back-to-back and embarked on their first prolonged adventure in Munster. In 1995, they had their first win, over Cork's Na Piarsaigh in a replay, before losing to Sixmilebridge again who went on the win the All-Ireland the following March. The next year they went a step further, reaching their first Munster final, going down 4-8 to 4-9 to Wolfe Tones, the Clare champions. Wolfe Tones led by 12 points in the second half but a Paul Flynn-inspired rally reduced the deficit to just one.

"We probably should have had Gordon Ryan (one of their goal scorers) on earlier in that match," laments Frampton. "That was heartbreaking. We were so close, we should have won that game. Our problem in the '90s was that Clare club hurling was on a high."

The following year, their third straight expedition, ended in a semi-final loss to Clarecastle at Thurles, 0-16 to 1-16.

Even on that first excursion in '92, Frampton says they did not take their mission lightly. "Look, from memory, we had a few drinks (after the county final) but we didn't go bananas. In Ballygunner we have always taken that kind of responsibility very seriously. When we've gone into Munster we are very conscious that we are representing Waterford. That's not paper talk. We really have."

A second Munster final loss followed in 1999, to St Joseph's Doora-Barefield, 3-8 to 4-9, before they were crowned champions in 2001. That year Andy Moloney, the Tipperary native, joined the team and his two goals were critical in defeating Toomevara in a replayed semi-final at Walsh Park. In the quarter-final they put out St Joseph's Doora-Barefield. On December 2 at Thurles they made history by winning their first Munster title, defeating Blackrock 2-14 to 0-12. They were fancied to defeat Clarinbridge in the All-Ireland semi-final the following February, but ended up losing 2-8 to 1-15, despite playing with an extra man from the seventh minute of the second half and having the wind advantage.

"The first year we won Munster, we thought we would win it every year then," says Moloney. "It doesn't always work out that way." Moloney played up to 2011. After winning in 2001, he was on the team that lost a Munster final in their next campaign in 2005, by which time Frampton was a team selector.

They beat Garryspillane by four points, Clarecastle by seven and lost by a point to Newtownshandrum, 0-16 to 1-12, on December 4 in Semple Stadium. Hartley won the man of the match. Moloney, the team captain, had three points from play but the Cork champions were a powerful force at the time, having won the All-Ireland in 2004.

Moloney experienced another Munster final loss to Newtownshandrum in 2009, by two points, having trailed by ten points 14 minutes into the second half. In the next 11 minutes they scored 2-4 without reply and drew level. But two Ben O'Connor points in stoppage time brought Newtownshandrum another title.

In Moloney's final Munster venture before retiring, in 2011, they met Na Piarsaigh of Limerick for the first time. Ballygunner led by six points at half-time but eventually lost by six, 0-12 to 3-9. A three-year gap led onto their current five-year spell of unbroken county dominance.

Expectation of adding to their solitary provincial title is ever present but tempered by past defeats.

In 2014, they lost to Cratloe in the first match, and lost the final to Na Piarsaigh, the eventual All-Ireland champions, the next year by seven points. Thurles Sarsfields defeated them in the opening match in 2016 by one point and last year they reversed that result, then overcame Sixmilebridge and lost in the final again to today's opponents. Ballygunner led at half-time and started the second half better, but a David Breen goal was one of three for Na Piarsaigh after the interval. They finished 3-15 to 2-10 winners in Thurles.

Moloney went into management for a couple of years before the current county winning streak began. He later went on to take over Ballyhale Shamrocks, enjoying greater success. "That day in 2011 (Munster semi-final loss to Na Piarsaigh), we were cruising and all of sudden we made mistakes and they got three goals," he says. "That Na Piarsaigh team was a transitional team. I know if we got over Na Piarsaigh we would have won that Munster Championship.

"They have met Na Piarsaigh twice since in Munster finals and been beaten. You would be hoping it will be third time lucky. They are going to have to give it their best. I think if Ballyguner hit form, they will need every one of the lads to play up to scratch, and if they do they are more than capable of beating them. They have lost two very good players in David O'Sullivan and Shane Walsh from last year."

Moloney is now looking after a juvenile team in the club, having had a spell recently with Oulart-The Ballagh. He loved playing outside the county. "Sometimes you are going into the unknown and the shackles come off. I remember myself playing, you would be going well in club hurling and come up against teams you would know and fellas you are marking for the last four or five years and they'd have your number or not, and you had to go through all this again, but when out of it in Munster you could go out and hurl.

"The ground was softer. The current team probably wouldn't be as big physically as we were but they're probably faster. We kind of enjoyed it, the fast fellas have a tendency to slow down at this time of year. When you are all big lads it was great when the ball was a little bit slower. It was great to be able to get in close to a fella and shake him up a little bit."

Colin Kehoe hurled in three of their Munster finals, 2001, '05 and '09, and was on the panel for the Munster final in '99. He remembers the loss of Moloney through injury - though he came back on - being a major setback in the 2009 final loss to Newtownshandrum. But for all the disappointments and regrets, he loved playing in that arena. "We played some of our best hurling in Munster," says Kehoe. "When you are playing guys you know day in, day out, it's different."

His dad died at just 45 when he was a boy, and before that he had exposed the children to regular Kilkenny club matches due to his origins in Glenmore. When Ballygunner won in 2001 the day had added meaning for Kehoe, his mother and four brothers, after what they had been through. Now, like Moloney, he is involved coaching underage teams in the club, giving something back for all those years he enjoyed being in the thick of it.

He travels with much the same guarded hopes as most Ballygunner people today. They appreciate the quality of the opposition. "They really are going to have to perform to their absolute max to match them," he says. "They (Na Piarsaigh) look to be a very serious team. I would love to see them do it."

With Ballygunner, anything is possible but entertainment is always guaranteed.

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