A first half full of stylish, expressive football was succeeded by a tetchier, more nervous second period, from which The Nire eventually emerged as the 2008 county champions.
Come Tommy O’Sullivan’s full-time whistle, the men in gold embraced each other while the men of Ballinacourty, who did their damnest despite running on fumes in the final quarter, slumped on the sod. At last, at long last, the football season was over.
While the defending champions battled all the way to the finish, there was little doubt that the better team had proven victorious on a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon.
The Nire successfully weathered the early typhoon which Ballinacourty had inflicted upon them and produced several excellent passages of play, yielding several fine scores.
Yet it was the defending champions who began much the brighter, combining pace with accuracy to race ahead, their two-in-row dreams firmly intact come half-time.
Inside the opening three minutes, three finely struck shots had zipped over Tom Flynn’s crossbar and Sean Guiry’s team must have been wondering what had hit them.
In the opening eight minutes of the match, it was one way traffic, as the champions threatened to over-run the challengers such was the ferociousness of their early effort.
Inspired by Deise footballer of the year Gary Hurney, Ballinacourty warmed to their task with immediate aplomb, but you knew there had to be a Nire response. And there was.
That early deficit had been wiped out by the quarter-hour mark, thanks to points from the outstanding midfield combination of Shane Walsh and Brian Wall.
A fisted point from Wall in the 22nd minute put The Nire into a lead that they were never to relinquish thereafter. They had done much more than steady the ship – they were now rowing with the tide firmly in their favour.
Delightfully, the match remained in the balance at half-time, as Ballinacourty, again inspired by Gary and Patrick Hurney, trailed by just a single point.
But they were left speechless after 25 minutes when Gary Hurney was undoubtedly impeded in a scoring position; the awarding of a penalty immediately looking like the logical outcome following Thomas O’Gorman’s indiscretion. Not so.
Instead, Tommy O’Sullivan opted for a throw-in, which had many an Abbeysider leaping from his seat in disgust. From the juncture of the press box, it appeared a baffling decision. By full-time, this decision was justly touted as the game’s turning point.
Over the half-time cup of tea, more than two voices in the Fraher Field enclosure muttered the words “stonewall” when discussing the non-award of the penalty.
But even that controversial incident hadn’t taken from the quality of the first half’s football. It had been that good a game, without any question.
That there had been 13 points registered on the scoreboard at the break was a credit to both teams, speaking volumes for their respective brands of football they produced despite the unforgiving surface.
Ballinacourty needed a strong start to the second half, but minus Richie Foley and Jamie O’Mahony (out through injury) and encountering The Nire’s defensive wall, that never materialised.
Gary Hurney, such an outstanding figure for his club all season long, needed a steady supply of ball from his half-backs – but that too never materialised.
Instead, The Nire, led marvellously by captain John Moore and with roaming playmaker Liam Lawlor shoring up and excellently distributing the ball, Ballinacourty found space at a premium.
The Wall/Walsh combination reaped rich rewards, with their shooting proving spectacularly accurate throughout the game.
Lawlor, one of the best footballers in the province, I’d argue, was yet again a joy to watch. He is a real ‘percentages’ player – never plays a team mate into danger, only passes the ball when a pass is on and rarely, if ever, looks flustered in possession.
He appears to do everything in slow motion such is his composure with the ball and command of his footballing brief. In short, he is a pleasure to watch, proof, as if any were needed, that there’s a lot more to GAA in Waterford than just the county hurling team.
It was always going to take something special to break The Nire’s grip during a commanding second half display, and the holders just couldn’t find that magic moment.
Ballinacourty’s shooting went askew, wildly at times, and a little more composure in their distribution could well have altered the outcome.
When the malaise spread to Gary Hurney’s trusted right boot in the 58th minute, putting wide the sort of free he’d normally convert with his eyes closed, you sensed this was The Nire’s day.
Hurney jumped highest to fist an effort towards goal just moments earlier, but Nire goalkeeper Tom Flynn was alive to the danger and parried the ball to safety. Ultimately, this was to prove Ballinacourty’s last chance to save their crown.
That Walsh was the most fluent footballer on show on Sunday cannot be argued with. He fired over a marvellous point in the 44th minute to put three points between the sides.
Five minutes later he put the locomotive-like Moore through on goal only for The Nire skipper to drag his shot wide. But Walsh saved the best until last, bisecting the Ballinacourty posts with a glorious 20-metre strike from the widest recesses of the left wing.
Defeat was, in many ways, rough justice on the vanquished, many of whom had played out long, protracted county campaigns only to fall at the final hurdle in both codes.
But there was no denying that the better team walked away with the Conway Cup on Sunday. It’s just a shame that they won’t get a chance to show their Munster rivals just how good they are.