Ballygunner shoot down brave Ballyea in marathon battle
Ballygunner 2-26 Ballyea 2-23
A dark, dreary winter afternoon in Walsh Park but Ballygunner and Ballyea did their best to sprinkle some of the magic dust that decorated so many hurling fields last summer.
They succeeded too in an enthralling game, which refused to be settled by either normal time or 20 minutes of extra-time. On it went for another ten minutes, during which Ballygunner finally wore down the Clare champions, outscoring them by 0-3 to 0-0.
And so Fergal Hartley's men are back in the Munster final for a re-run of last year's decider where they lost to Na Piarsaigh.
It was a target they seemed unlikely to reach when Ballyea led by three points in the closing seconds of normal time, but in a final shot at salvation Ballygunner pounced for the equalising goal.
Philip Mahony got the crucial flick to a cross from Conor Power, who had earlier scored 1-2, to send the game into extra-time.
That too failed to break the deadlock (each side scored 0-6), but it was advantage Ballygunner in the next ten minutes.
It wasn't that their stamina or effort levels dropped but with Ballygunner winning more possession all over the field, Ballyea found it difficult to generate scoring chances.
"The guys will be very disappointed, but when you lose by giving everything you've lost fairly," said Ballyea manager Kevin Sheehan.
All very mature and magnanimous of him, even if he would be fully entitled to query why it was deemed necessary to see the game to a conclusion when there's a two-week gap before the Munster final.
Forcing players to slog through 90 minutes (the outcome would have been decided on a free-taking competition if the sides were still level after the second period of extra-time) at this time of year seems somewhat unreasonable, especially when the stakes are so high.
All of which is now irrelevant to Ballygunner, who were having their second outing in a week. The quarter-final clash with Midleton, which they won by two points, was very demanding physically but nothing like yesterday's encounter, which will have left them with a lot of weary bodies.
Getting the recovery process right will be important before they head into the final against an ultra-impressive Na Piarsaigh outfit, who beat them by eight points in last year's Munster decider.
Still, it's a challenge they will embrace enthusiastically as there were times yesterday when it looked as if they were on their way out.
The most worrying phase for their supporters was in the third quarter when Ballyea extended their three-point (1-9 to 0-9) half-time lead to six points (1-13 to 0-10).
Ballygunner's resolve faced a massive challenge and, in fairness, their response was impressive. Corner-forward Conor Power, who had a frustrating first half in an under-manned full-forward line, asserted himself and struck for 1-2 in a two-minute burst which re-ignited Ballygunner's challenge.
They took the lead in the 52nd minute and were two points clear four minutes later before Ballyea struck for a goal from man of the match Niall Deasy. They added two points in what looked like a match-winning burst but Ballygunner refused to yield and were rewarded with Philip Mahony's equalising goal.
It was another example of Ballygunner's great resilience, a quality which thrilled Hartley.
"Abbeyside put it up to us in the county final and we responded too. The character is there all the time but just because we're winning some games by margins of more than a point, that's probably not recognised. Any time you're playing the champions of another county they're trying to knock you down.
"We come up against teams going full throttle against us and we respond every day. I couldn't say enough good about the lads in terms of their character," he said.
They had several star performers, led by Pauric Mahony, who scored 0-14 (0-6 from open play) while Power, Ian Kenny, Harley Barnes, Shane O'Sullivan and Philip Mahony also stood up when it was most needed.
Deasy was Ballyea's main man, scoring 2-10 (2-4 from open play), while Martin O'Leary, Tony Kelly, Gary Brennan, Jack Browne and Aonghus Keane also did well.
Harley said that so much happened in a frantic contest that it was difficult to put any context on it.
"We've never had a game that went to two periods of extra-time and won by a single score. It was chaos out there at times. I certainly don't remember a game like it in the history of Ballygunner and I'm involved in the club for 27 years. Great stuff but there are no medals being given out today," he said.
That comes on Sunday week in a game where Ballygunner will start as long-priced outsiders.
"We're under no illusion about the scale of the challenge. It's generally accepted that Na Piarsaigh are the best club team in the country.
"What we can do? I don't know at the moment is the honest answer but the next couple of days will probably tell a lot in that regard," he said.