Defiant Gunners sink champions to end final misery
Ballygunner 2-14 Na Piarsaigh 2-8
There comes a time in every team's journey when enough really is enough.
That point was reached for Ballygunner in Semple Stadium yesterday when they faced an early five-point deficit against a team that had inflicted so much misery on them in two of the previous three Munster senior club hurling finals.
Kevin Downes had rounded Barry Coughlan so easily in the second minute for Na Piarsaigh's opening goal - helping to establish a 1-4 to 0-2 lead by the ninth minute - that it pointed to only one possible outcome.
A team that had never lost a provincial championship game in 12, against one which had lost eight of their nine previous finals and the last four since their only win in 2001. It could only go one way, couldn't it?
But once they absorbed those early blows and settled into a pattern, Ballygunner's defiance manifested in just about every contest and the collective impact of that was evident as the game wore on. They just weren't going to yield this time.
Na Piarsaigh just couldn't match their desire or find a way around the half-back dominance of Philip Mahony and Wayne Hutchinson, who closed down the space in front of Downes, Peter Casey and Adrian Breen, so effectively.
It left Na Piarsaigh tasting defeat for the first time in 13 matches, having won 11 and drawn one of their previous 12.
Manager Paul Beary pointed to a long season, incorporating an All-Ireland club final replay in March and the involvement of some of their squad with Limerick over the summer.
"We knew a big push was needed," he reflected. "But they've (Ballygunner) been on the receiving end so many times we knew it was going to be a massive battle. Maybe it was one battle too many - 2-8 is a poor return from us. That's our lowest score for quite a while.
"It's been a long year for Na Piarsaigh and a long year for our lads with Limerick, so maybe it was one step too far, but we'll be back."
That Breen was withdrawn late on without a score, having done so much damage in the corresponding game 12 months earlier, was a testament to the Ballygunner defence.
Up front Conor Power and Peter Hogan sparked impressively for Ballygunner, creating openings with their pace and elusiveness.
Hogan teed up Barry O'Sullivan on 13 minutes to draw a good save from Na Piarsaigh goalkeeper Podge Kennedy, but they got parity, 1-6 each, on 27 minutes when Barry O'Sullivan was fouled and Stephen O'Keeffe placed the resultant penalty sweetly.
They led by 1-7 to 1-6 at the break and built on that on the restart, as a Na Piarsaigh surge failed to materialise.
The lead stretched to five points, 1-11 to 1-6 by the 39th minute and they were still five clear when a Pauric Mahony free deceived Kennedy and the Na Piarsaigh defence for their second goal on 47 minutes.
Shane Dowling gave the champions a remote lifeline when he blasted a goal from close range on 53 minutes, having been denied by O'Keeffe just two minutes earlier.
But Ballygunner made every subsequent tackle count in the closing stages, with Hutchinson and Philip Mahony pouncing on everything.
They reduced Na Piarsaigh to just one score from play, through Ronan Lynch, in the final 40 minutes. Their only other two scores in that period were a goal and a point from Dowling frees as they found almost every avenue closed off to them.
Late on, sub Conor Houlihan blazed wide after good approach work by the impressive Ronan Lynch, but even that would have been too little too late.
No doubt Ballygunner's more competitive route to the final stood to them in comparison to Na Piarsaigh, who demolished most of their rivals.
Ballygunner joint-captain O'Keeffe hailed his colleagues' resilience afterwards, recalling how he had "bawled my eyes out" after the 2017 defeat.
"When you lose two Munster finals, you kind of say what else is there to lose and you just go at it full whack and really never give up until the final whistle.
"Finally, we're after getting to where we want to go. You work so hard and you get your heart broken. You come back again and you get so close and you get your heart broken again.
"So to finally get up the steps, it's the proudest moment I've had on a hurling pitch.
"The two games we played against Midleton and Ballyea really stood to us. When you come up to the Munster final and you're playing a team that has beaten you twice in the last three years and then suddenly they get a goal in the first two minutes, the natural thing would be to drop the head.
"But because we were in the position in the last two games, we were down after conceding goals in the first-half of both games - four down in both at half-time - I think that does build a bit of resilience."
Ballygunner boss Fergal Hartley, a key man on the 2001 side, described winning Munster as a "crusade".
"This wasn't a one-year project, this has arguably been a seven- or eight-year project. We were beaten last year, came up short - just weren't good enough. We had to go back to the drawing board and I won't quite say start again, but we realised we weren't going to win a Munster with the same performance as last year."
Scorers - Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony 1-6 (1-5f), Brian O'Sullivan 0-3, S O'Keeffe 1-0 (pen), Barry O'Sullivan 0-2, B O'Keeffe, S O'Sullivan, C Power all 0-1 each.
Na Piarsaigh: S Dowling 1-4 (1-3fs), K Downes 1-0, R Lynch 0-2, D Dempsey, A Dempsey 0-1 each.
Ballygunner - S O'Keeffe; I Kenny, B Coughlan, E Hayden; W Hutchinson, Philip Mahony, H Barnes; B O'Keeffe, Barry O'Sullivan; S O'Sullivan, Pauric Mahony, P Hogan; T O'Sullivan, Brian O'Sullivan, C Power. Subs: M Mahony for T O'Sullivan (57), JJ Hutchinson for Power (61).
Na Piarsaigh: P Kennedy; J Boylan, M Casey, C King; R Lynch, W O'Donoghue, T Grimes; A Dempsey, G Brown; D Dempsey, S Dowling, C Boylan; A Breen, K Downes, P Casey. Subs: M Foley for Grimes (42), C Houlihan for Breen (50).
ref - N Wall (Cork).