Gunners strike late to maintain momentum
Ballygunner 1-18 Sixmilebridge 1-17
At last Ballygunner have earned a short break. Whether they really want one or not is a different story.
After immersion in championship action for eight successive weekends - to facilitate the Waterford champions' Munster club quarter-final involvement - they now have two weeks to a provincial final renewal with Na Piarsaigh, their seven-point conquerors in the 2015 decider.
Ballygunner manager Fergal Hartley wasn't sure what way to take the prospect of an extra week to prepare for a game.
After eight wins in eight weeks to underpin this team's mental resolve - including another Walsh Park match yesterday against provincial big-hitters that went down to the wire - maybe momentum will now ebb away from them a little.
They lost it here for much of the first-half against a Sixmilebridge side that threw everything at them and, by Hartley's admission, were entitled to lead by three or four more points than the five they had in hand at the interval.
That might be a little generous, as Ballygunner, playing into the wind, had double the amount of wides (six) and Conor Power had squeezed a smart save in the 17th minute out of Bridge goalkeeper Derek Fahy. There was little doubt, though, as to who had generated the more intense approach.
Seven days on from their extra-time win over Thurles Sarsfields, the toll of weekly activity looked to be weighing heavily.
However, the switch of ends brought a change in mindset and, within nine minutes of the restart, Ballygunner had restored parity with six of the opening seven points.
They brought more pace, power and pressure to every aspect of their game. A defence that struggled with the physicality of Cathal Malone and the sorcery of Niall Gilligan - at 41 years young - in the opening half, began to force themselves much more impressively on their opponents, with Barry Coughlan and Wayne Hutchinson in particular setting a better tone.
After Pauric Mahony's 39th-minute equaliser, to make it 0-13 each, the expectation was that Ballygunner would win comfortably, given how quickly they were able to wipe out the cushion.
But the Clare champions resisted; Jamie Shanahan keeping them in touch with an impressive midfield effort that featured 0-8, with three points from play, the last of which pushed them into a lead for the last time on 57 minutes.
Just when it looked like Ballygunner would be heading for extra-time again, JJ Hutchinson popped up to snatch a goal and exploit an advantage played by referee Johnny Murphy.
With points to follow from Billy O'Keeffe and JJ Hutchinson again - as he brought his tally to 1-3 to make the most of Brian O'Sullivan's withdrawal before the match through injury - the game looked safe for the home side.
There was still a twist, though, with Séadna Morey, on firefighting duties against some of Ballygunner's quicker players all afternoon, pushing up to beat Stephen O'Keeffe in a desperate late attempt. But there was time for no more.
Hartley acknowledged there may have been some mental fatigue after a first-half that saw them trail by 0-11 to 0-6.
"It was backs to the wall stuff. We looked gone at half-time," he admitted.
"It looked like there might be no way back. Sixmilebridge were better than us in the first-half. We should have been eight, maybe even nine points behind at half-time. We were lucky to be just five off them. The boys turned it around. We had a few words at half-time," he said.
"It's not the legs, it's in the head. It's the mental fatigue, getting to that pitch again and again. It wasn't just last week, it was the week before for a county final and even the semi-final against Lismore was the toughest battle we had all year.
"When you are trying to get to that pitch, that's difficult. This is probably the most difficult week of all, particularly after the Thurles game last week."
Once again it was the consistency of Mahony's free-taking that kept them in touch, his 0-11 haul just a goal short of what he had delivered the previous week.
Hartley expressed delight for JJ Hutchinson, who has not made many starting teams this year.
"He's an old dog, he showed his experience, guile and craft. He's put in a savage effort since January 27. He got his chance. An ill wind blows good for someone," he said.
Hartley's sideline rival John O'Meara always felt the first goal would make the critical difference.
"We had a sniff of goal and so did Ballygunner, but whoever got the first goal, it was always going t o be a massive score, and they got it. It gave them huge momentum," he said.
"They died with their boots on. Our focus coming down was to get the performance out of ourselves and if that was good enough, that was good enough, and if it wasn't, it wasn't."
All six starting Bridge forwards and both midfielders scored from play, while Shane Golden drew a great save from All Star goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe on 40 minutes that denied them momentum when they needed it badly, though Malone did grab a point.
The Bridge might be aggrieved with some of the frees that Murphy awarded to Ballygunner in the first-half that handed them territory and scores.
Twice in the second-half linesman Cathal McAllister intervened to advise against a free he had awarded, but Murphy's call on the late advantage worked well in Ballygunner's favour.
Scorers - Ballygunner: Pauric Mahony 0-11 (9fs, 1 65), JJ Hutchinson 1-3, B O'Keeffe 0-3, S O'Sullivan 0-1.
Sixmilebridge: J Shanahan 0-9 (6fs), S Morey 1-0, N Gilligan 0-2, C Deasy, B Corry, S Golden, A Mulready, A Morey, C Malone 0-1 each.
Ballygunner: S O'Keeffe; E Hayden, B Coughlan, I Kenny; W Hutchinson, Philip Mahony, S Walsh; H Barnes, S O'Sullivan; D O'Sullivan, Pauric Mahony, B O'Keeffe; C Power, JJ Hutchinson, P Hogan. Subs: B O'Sullivan for Walsh (47), D Walsh for Hogan (59).
Sixmilebridge: D Fahy; N Purcell, A Quiligan, B Fitzpatrick; C Morey, S Morey, E McInerney; J Shanahan, C Deasy; C Malone, N Gilligan, A Morey; B Corry, S Golden, A Mulready. Subs: K Lynch for Mulready (54), B Carey for McInerney (57).
Ref - J Murphy (LImerick).