Na Piarsaigh maintain Munster mastery
Munster club SHC final: Na Piarsaigh 3-15 Ballygunner 2-10
Who could have thought that when Na Piarsaigh scored just three points against an all-conquering Adare team in their first ever Limerick final eight years ago that they would go to dominate, not just their own county, but their province in such a manner?
The context of what they have achieved in Semple Stadium yesterday should be set against the background of the province's storied roll of honour.
Blackrock lead with five Munster titles but there just behind them are Na Piarsaigh, level with those other Cork city giants of the club game, St Finbarr's, and one ahead of other pillar clubs such as Glen Rovers, Toomevara and Sixmilebridge.
In their Caherdavin clubhouse last night the need to pinch themselves to appreciate that the last six years or so are real had to have been prevalent. This was an 11th game in Munster club hurling that they have not lost in four campaigns. Phenomenal.
In contrast, it was a seventh Munster club final defeat for the Gunners who have now reeled off a four-in-a-row in Waterford without being able to capitalise beyond that.
As much as Na Piarsaigh are a polished group of hurlers they are a team of deep character too. That much was in evidence in a most attritional final. The exchanges were tough and very liberally policed by referee Rory McGann who incurred the wrath of both sets of supporters among the 3,319 crowd for failing to blow for some obvious frees. But, in fairness to the Clare official, he was balanced about it and sought to let it flow.
Twice the Waterford champions forged four points clear and when they did it the second time, with three points in quick succession just after half-time to lead by 1-7 to 0-6, it looked like they were about to break Na Piarsaigh's spirit.
But the tougher it is the more they seem to appreciate it and eventually their superior physical power kicked in.
Ballygunner had to have been disappointed not to have led by more than just a point, 1-4 to 0-6, at the break, their goal coming from Conor Power who availed of a 10th-minute slip from Na Piarsaigh corner-back Jerome Boylan.
They were defiant and dominant in most of the rucks and 50/50 collisions that manifested, a sure sign of their willingness not to leave another one behind. Philip Mahony was superb in the nuts and bolts of defensive work at times.
When Ian Kenny blocked an Adrian Breen shot with his head and Stephen O'Keeffe saved from Conor Boylan in the follow-up, they must have felt like it could be their day, just 18 minutes in. Ronan Lynch converted the subsequent '65 but Na Piarsaigh could sense the ball was not running for them.
"We looked jittery, we were dropping balls that we were first to. We weren't winning clean possession around the half-forward line, we weren't winning breaks around the middle of the field. When you are not winning primary possession you are on the back foot straight away," suggested Na Piarsaigh manager Shane O'Neill.
Pauric Mahony repeatedly left them off the hook too. Mahony has carried Ballygunner and Waterford teams to victory on the back of his accuracy from placed balls but this was a day when his radar and measurement tools were off.
True, most of the six frees (three short, three wide) that he left out there from were from between the two 65-metre lines. But that's a range from which there is expectation of Mahony. Into the bargain there were two further wides from play.
In his last three games alone he has contributed 0-11, 1-11 and 0-9. Those statistics alone illustrate where the shortfall was.
Naturally, there was nothing but praise for Mahony from Ballygunner manager Fergal Hartley. "A huge amount of his frees were difficult frees on a day with a wet ball. There are plenty of other factors in fairness. Pauric Mahony probably got us here. So many days he has pulled us out of the fire."
Eventually responsibility passed on to Billy O'Keeffe who landed one from one, albeit from a close range. By then Na Piarsaigh were at full throttle. Adrian Breen was a touchstone for everything producitive, hitting 1-5 and even his pressuring of two Ballygunner defenders created the opening for Kevin Downes to spin away and set up David Breen for their opening goal on 35 minutes to restore parity at 1-7 each.
The ball was back in the Limerick champions' court now and, overcoming the absence of Shane Dowling once more, Adrian Breen and Kevin Downes tagged on fine scores to create some distance.
By the 58th minute it was 1-13 to 1-9, Na Piarsaigh defenders like Mike Casey and Niall Buckley closing down every avenue of opportunity.
But then Buckley came under pressure and his offload to Ronan Lynch, who had steered over two wonderful sidelines, put the midfielder in trouble and with possession falling to Peter Hogan Ballygunner had the tonic of a goal.
But the physical force of Na Piarsaigh was overwhelming and from Alan Dempsey's speculative ball into the Ballygunner goalmouth a minute later David Breen broke and brother Adrian snapped sharply for a second goal.
In the dying light they piled it on and with Barry Coughlan red-carded, having previously been yellow-carded, for an off-the-ball offence involving David Breen, Ballygunner got ragged. David Breen had the final say, planting a magnificent goal on the run.
"Crazy" is how O'Neill described the last six years that has included the 2016 All-Ireland title. "Winning four Munster club titles, it's a phenomenal achievement. The only other club we're behind now is Blackrock, who are one of the greatest teams ever to play, be it at county or club level. For our guys to be only one behind them and to win as much as we've won since 2011 just shows how ambitious they guys are.
"It's more than pinching ourselves we have to do! Up to 2011 we were trying so hard just to break through in the county but what has happened over the last six or seven years, it's crazy really."
"To be fair we have no complaints," conceded Hartley. "They left everything on the field and they did their best. That's all you can ask of fellas every day they go out.
"They are a huge physical team and we knew that. And we feel we are a physical team too and we are able for that.
"But some of the contact there was huge and, in that respect, it was a great game to watch. In fairness to the referee, there were some decisions that both teams would have felt would have gone their way but he left it run and at least if he is consistent I think it is the best way to play hurling.
As to whether they could bounce back, Hartley acknowledged another Munster club final was "a long way away".
"If you think what you have to do to get here in the first place, beat the likes of Thurles Sars, Sixmilebridge, De La Salle, Lismore, Mount Sion. It just seems like a hell of a long way away again."
Scorers - Na Piarsaigh: A Breen 1-5, D Breen 2-0, P Casey, R Lynch (2 sls, 1 65) 0-3 each, K Downes 0-2, T Grimes, C Boylan 0-1 each. Ballygunner: P Hogan 1-2, B O'Keeffe (1f) 0-4, C Power 1-0, D O'Sullivan, Pauric Mahony (1f) 0-2 each.
Na Piarsaigh - P Kennedy; J Boylan, M Casey, N Buckley; A Dempsey, C King, T Grimes; R Lynch, W O'Donoghue; C Boylan, D Breen, D Dempsey; P Casey, K Downes, A Breen. Subs: K Ryan for D Dempsey inj (43), G Brown for Boylan (60).
Ballygunner - S O'Keeffe; I Kenny, B Coughlan, E Hayden; W Hutchinson, Philip Mahony, S Walsh; H Barnes, S O'Sullivan; D O'Sullivan, Pauric Mahony, B O'Keeffe; P Hogan, JJ Hutchinson, C Power. Subs: C Sheehan for Power blood (19-23), Barry O'Sullivan for Walsh (53), C O'Sullivan for Power (60) C Sheehan for D O'Sullivan (62).
Ref - R McGann (Clare)