Ballygunner 0-12 (12) Na Piarsaigh 3-9 (18)

The gaps between games are an endless source of grist to the mill of those discussing Gaelic games. If a losing team waited a few weeks more than their opponents then they came into the match cold (see: Waterford v Clare 2000). If a losing team played successive matches in a short space of time then they tired from going to the well once too often (see: Waterford v Limerick 2007). Which was which is naturally only clear after the game, yet is clung to by the person promoting the idea as if it were the wisdom of Solomon. The only constant is that it always seems to be the Waterford team that gets bitten by it (see: this game).

If you coherently believe in either philosophy as opposed to wearing it as a badge of post-match convenience then this match would have been a good argument for staying fresh. Not only were Na Piarsaigh without a match since the Limerick county final but they also came out onto the pitch at 1350, giving them about five minutes to warm up. Even the most buff of sportsmen has to limber up before action so you would have thought this would county against them. The earliest exchanges suggested not, with Na Piarsaigh earning an early free in a scoreable position which was hit wide by Shane Dowling.

The wind was firm and in Ballygunner’s favour so they were going to need to impose themselves early on but Na Piarsiagh held their own to begin with. Shane O’Sullivan gave Ballygunner the lead with a fine effort from way out and a poor puckout from Padraic Kennedy gave him a chance for another score after being teed up by David O’Sullivan but dragged his shot across the face of the goal. Na Piarsaigh struck back with a point from Kevin Ryan – first point in Munster championship hurling etc –  only for Ballygunner to hit straight back, a delightful ball from Shane Walsh (who had a fantastic game in the half-back line) picking out JJ Hutchinson to score. Na Piarsaigh seemed to be over-complicating things at times with lots of short puckouts that Ballygunner seemed content for them to take to little great effect, but keeping it tight can have its moments as they worked the ball cleverly up the field for Ryan to score his second point and level matters.

The wind was obviously going to be a factor, a puckout from Stephen O’Keeffe going to between the half and full-forward lines and while David O’Sullivan could only hit the chance wide Ballygunner started to show some of the form they were going to need to win this. Stephen Power had a goal chance after another long clearance eluded everyone and ran through to him in the full-forward line but he elected to pull first-time on the ball that was on a surface one step above quagmire proportions and the chance was gone, although Pauric Mahony followed up with a point to put Ballygunner back in front. Mahony then benefited from a rather soft free after a foul on Power to stretch the lead to two.

With Walsh and Harley Barnes beginning to assert themselves in the half-back line and midfield Ballygunner were now on top, Shane O’Sullivan getting another point from play after a neat exchange of passes, and there was an encouraging moment at the other end when Kevin Ryan seemed about to get clear but was hustled out by the Ballygunner backs without giving way a free. A galloping run by Shane O’Sullivan was abruptly brought to a halt and Pauric Mahony did the needful moving the Gunners four points clear. They were definitely in the ascendancy and another goal chance presented itself to Power as he managed to barrel his way through the defence. It was begging to be kicked to the net but this was always going to be tricky on the surface and Na Piarsaigh had enough bodies back to get it clear but only as far as Brian O’Sullivan who notched Ballygunner’s seventh point of the game.

Na Piarsaigh were living on scraps, and you thought they couldn’t afford to spurn simple chances like Shane Dowling did when put into space by Kevin Downes (remember him?). On the other hand much the same could be said of Ballygunner with that wind blowing down towards the Keanes Road end and they hit two poor wides, the first when JJ Hutchinson tried an effort from an acute angle, then David O’Sullivan shooting wide from miles out when there was time to advance into a better scoring position. Na Piarsaigh persisted with the short puckouts and Ballygunner generally behaved as if this wasn’t something to worry about, much to the chagrin of the crowd. And generally they seemed to be right, a point from Adrian Breen after a knockdown from Downes not being obviously linked to policy of short puckouts. Ballygunner were going to win this one by playing their own game and to hell with the opposition’s best-laid plans, right? When you see points as good as David O’Sullivan’s score, picking up the ball in oceans of space after some stirring hurling from Wayne Hutchinson then the answer has to be hell, yes!

Then again, you can only go on so long not taking the bait and Brian O’Sullivan caught Cathal King in possession after yet another short puckout And you just knew that David Copps was going to five a free-out. The man beside me opined that Cork refs have a down on Waterford teams, which is possible I guess. Personally I think refs seems curiously reluctant to give a free-in in those positions, as if it’s depriving the defence of a ‘fair’ chance of getting the ball away rather than a just punishment for acting the maggot. Worse still he then gave Ballygunner a cheap free for a hard-to-spot tug on a red-and-black shirt, thus cravenly making up for his previous behaviour. Pauric Mahony slotted over the free and we soon saw the value of a reliable freetaker. Shane Dowling scored one free after a blatant high tackle on Pat Gleeson, but he then missed another relatively easy free after Downes had been fouled. It was a poor effort from a player who clearly comes from the Paul Flynn school of closing your eyes and hitting the free as hard as possible through your waist. Mahony showed him how it was done moments later with a monster effort from way out and the half-time whistle went with the feeling of a two-point swing in favour of the Gunners. It was a handy lead for a sixty-minute game and you felt that if Ballygunner could get a goal at any stage they’d be home and hosed.

I’m reluctant to explain the second half debacle on the basis that Ballygunner took it easy or were too casual as one the usual knowitalls would say when they were in full retreat late in the second half – it also seems ‘goals win games’; free insight that would be a bargain at twice the price. But with the benefit of hindsight an incident early in the second half takes on greater significance. Wayne Hutchinson won the ball and having shrugged off his marker turned to see who to pick out. And while Shane O’Neill drifted up behind in the wrong part of the field altogether it was more surprising that no-one on Ballygunner’s side, either on the pitch or the stand, felt the need to warn Hutchinson of the danger. Complacency? Perhaps. It was hard to see how Na Piarsaigh would turn this around, wind or not. They would not register a single score in the first ten minutes of the second half and on three occasions would hopelessly overhit balls into the full-forward line, twice seeing the ball cross the endline with just one bounce. Fouling Shane O’Sullivan when he was heading away from their goal spoke of a team who didn’t know what they were doing. Another free from Mahony after Brian O’Sullivan had put the head down and drawn the foul stretched the lead to seven and at this rate by the time they’d adjusted to the conditions Ballygunner would be out of sight.

One thing I can say for certain without the benefit of hindsight is that I didn’t think much of Shane Dowling’s free-taking (see: above).When Alan Dempsey drew a foul right underneath us in the middle of the stand I didn’t worry too much when Dowling came trotting back to take it. So it was quite the jolt to see him launch the ball over the middle of the black spot with plenty to spare. Moments later Pauric Mahony was the victim of a bizarre piece of refereeing on the halfway line, penalised for overcarrying when he had barely set out on his run and this one went the same way, a Herculean strike that led to the kind of  ‘cult hero’ fist-pumping that is great when one of your own does it and a colossal irritant when the opposition do it. Although not as irritating as the way Ballygunner suddenly began flapping around like a beached whale, Shane O’Sullivan squandering a decent chance for a score then fouling Kevin Downes at a range that even Dowling, with his dodgy mid-range targeting system, could not miss.

How had this become a four-point game? Ballygunner were totally rattled, evidenced by Stephen Power trying to charge through then seeming to decide in mid-stride that they needed a score and being completely off-balance as he spooned the ball wide. This flub was nothing though compared to the calamity that came next. A long ball drifted through to Stephen O’Keeffe who got himself into all kinds of bother as he tried to slalom past the Na Piarsaigh full-forward and ended up stumbling as he tried to flick the ball to safety – it looked like a trip but the lack of outrage from his teammates suggested otherwise. The ball fell to the now-energised Shane Dowling who still had a lot of work to do despite the goalie being on the ground. He smashed a brilliant shot high into the net past the helpless backs who had tried to cover and now it was one-point game.

You wouldn’t have taken any odds at his point on Ballygunner hanging onto the lead, their hopes lying with the player who mysteriously hit the deck just after the goal. It spoke volumes about my future expectations that I huffily noted the ref probably wouldn’t add the injury time accumulated while he got treatment- there I was, hoping for more time even though they were in front! Not for long though. Na Piarsaigh’s second goal featured several assists from Ballygunner as they worked the ball backwards, each player increasingly fearful of trying something creative. Eventually Kevin Ryan dispossessed a Ballygunner back, carved a path through the defence and played in Dowling who had the simple task of drilling the ball past the exposed O’Keeffe.

Remember that comment about a Ballygunner goal surely sealing the deal? Now you felt they needed a goal at all costs just to insulate themselves against the score Na Piarsaigh were likely to get. Substitute Barry O’Sullivan tried for a point only to see the ball drop into the goalkeeper’s  lap from where JJ Hutchinson managed to force a 65. Mahony magnificently pointed against the wind but the riposte from Na Piarsaigh was instant, Pat Gleeson hoiking the ball over from the halfway line and inducing more of nauseating yahooing.

Ballygunner had a glimmer of a chance when Power attempted to double on dropping ball from Mahony. It was exactly the kind of foolhardy gesture that was needed and had he connected with it right it would have been the type of netbuster upon which Homeric sagas are written. Sadly he didn’t connect right, and after Kennedy recovered from being fouled – don’t forget to add the time, Mr Referee! – Na Piarsaigh landed the killer blow. Or, more pertinently, Ballygunner shot themselves in the foot once more. More indecisiveness in defence allowed Na Piarsaigh to get the ball across the face of the goal where we were treated to the agonising sight of Downes letting Ballygunner off the hook with his airshot only for Ryan to follow up to prod the ball to the net. When they’re literally queuing up to have a go, you know you’re licked.

Ballygunner tried until the end. Maybe they were complacent – I certainly was – but you can’t accuse them of giving up. They repeatedly tried to jink their way through the Na Piarsaigh rearguard but the only time they threatened was when Brian O’Sullivan managed to get clear in the right corner only to be given a free, as useless an award as you can imagine because the free was in no way a goalscoring chance. Stephen Power had a lash anyway but it was cleared. The last score went to half-back Brian Hartnett, a fine effort from distance typical of the kind of thing that goes over when the champagne is flowing. And with that, a run of three successive Munster final appearances by Waterford teams came to an end.

It was a dispiriting defeat. The big picture was bad. The ejection of the Kilkenny county champions and the presence of so many relative newcomers on the All-Ireland stage meant a path was opening up for Ballygunner and they couldn’t take it. The little picture was worse. 3-5 to 0-1 in the last twenty minutes is a hammering by any stretch of the imagination. And it feeds back into the big picture of Waterford teams lacking what it takes to go all the way. Michael Ryan has a lot to mull over during the bleak, hurling-less (for Waterford anyway) winter months.

Ballygunner: Stephen O’Keeffe, Alan Kirwan, Willie Kiely, Barry Coughlin, Philip Mahony, Wayne Hutchinson, Shane Walsh, Harley Barnes, David O’Sullivan (0-1), Pauric Mahony (0-7, 0-5f, 0-1 65), Shane O’Sullivan (capt, 0-2), Andy Maloney (Barry O’Sullivan), Brian O’Sullivan (0-1), Stephen Power, JJ Hutchinson (0-1)

Na Piarsaigh: Padraic Kennedy, Cathal King, Kieran Breen, Kieran Bermingham (capt), Alan Dempsey, James O’Brien (0-1), Brian Hartnett (Aidan Hennessy), Adrian Breen (0-2), Pat Gleeson, Kieran Kennedy, David Breen, Shane O’Neill, Shane Dowling (2-3, 0-3f)), Kevin Downes, Kevin Ryan (1-2)

HT: Ballygunner 0-10 Na Piarsaigh 0-4

Referee: David Copps (Cork)