Ballygunner will hope to keep the Munster Club Hurling title in Waterford for the second successive year when taking on Cork kingpins Newtownshandrum in Semple Stadium next Sunday.
But the Gunners, aiming to emulate De La Sa
lle’s success last winter, go into Sunday’s decider as rank outsiders with Paddy Power offering odds of 7/2 on the Deise’s finest.
It also affords Ballygunner legends Fergal Hartley and Paul Flynn an opportunity another run-out at the scene of some of their greatest days in hurling.
This final is a rematch of the 2005 decider which the Cork side won by a solitary point after a controversial finish, when referee Ambrose Heagney declined the Gunners a free that would have tied the game.
With that in mind, Ballygunner will go into this year’s final attempting to right the injustice of four years ago.
But the present Ballygunner vintage are no strangers to going into big games as underdogs.
In this year’s county quarter-final this year, they were the less fancied side heading into their meeting with champions De La Salle.
Even though De La Salle were without talisman John Mullane from the 12th minute, Ballygunner couldn’t put the 14 men away and the match went to a replay.
With De La Salle starting the replay with the full compliment of 15 men, the general consensus was that Ballygunner may have missed the boat.
While events off the field gained most of the headlines following that replay, the Gunners produced a tremendous display to eliminate the holders and advance to a semi-final with rivals Mount Sion.
Against Jim Greene’s revitalised Cnoc Síon, the Gunners were, yet again, not expected to prevail given Sion’s resurgence following a 2008 they were pleased to see the back of.
Indeed, some bookmakers were offering odds as high as 4/1 on a Ballygunner victory.
Some out Ballygunner way may well have filled their pockets at those odds and, aided by a brilliant Paul Flynn goal (the latest in a glorious collection), they were duly rewarded for their loyalty.
Come the final against the Shanahan-inspired Lismore, Ballygunner wore the favourites tag, which didn’t rest well on them when they trailed by 10 points after 25 minutes.
But boosted by second half goals from Gearoid O’Connor, Shane O’Sullivan and Pauric Mahony, Ballygunner managed to force a draw and bring the county final to a replay for the first time since 1988.
As in the drawn game, Ballygunner played second fiddle for long periods but managed to stay in the game thanks to a Brian O’Sullivan goal and the unerring free-taking of Paul Flynn.
In the final quarter, Andy Moloney, who has been one of the club’s star performers this season, fired over the crucial points to bring glory back to Ballygunner.
On Sunday week last, Ballygunner were put to the pin of their collar before overcoming an excellent Cratloe (Clare) side in an end-to-end Munster semi-final at Walsh Park.
A goal from super-sub Barry Mullane proved the difference between the sides in the end as Ballygunner held on for a victory on a scoreline of 1-14 to 0-15.
One would expect that Ger Cunningham will not make too many changes to his starting 15 for next Sunday’s decider.
That means that once again, teenage goalkeeping sensation, Stephen O’Keeffe will line out between the posts.
In front of the youthful netminder, team captain, Alan Kirwan will probably line out at full-back where he will be flanked on one side by a minor in Philip Mahony and an Under-21 in Vinny Molloy.
One cannot rule out the possibility that Kirwan may be assigned the task of keeping tabs on Ben O’Connor which he did to great effect in the 2005 game.
In the half-back line, the great Fergal Hartley will be aided by the man of the match from the semi-final, Wayne Hutchinson and Tommy Power.
Shane O’Sullivan is likely to be deployed at midfield for this particular battle as the unlucky Shane Walsh misses out with a hamstring injury.
O’Sullivan will be partnered by the long-serving Colin Kehoe as they attempt to curb the influence of Newtownshandrum’s midfield partnership of Jerry O’Connor and Cathal Naughton.
The shifting of Shane O’Sullivan to midfield and the fact that Gearoid O’Connor is in America will necessitate a dramatic re-shuffle of the forward line.
JJ Hutchinson, who was very influential when coming on as a second half substitute in the semi-final, may be rewarded with a starting position for the final.
Andy Moloney, in such a rich vein of form, will probably get the nod at centre-forward where he will do battle with Pat Mulcahy.
The other wing-forward role may be filled by the youthful Pauric Mahony, fresh from leading De La Salle College to the Quarter-Finals of the Harty Cup.
If Ballygunner require goals to win on Sunday, they may be able to rely on their full-forward line which contains three proven goal-scorers.
With the wizardry and pace of Brian O’Sullivan in one corner with the strength and poaching ability of Stephen Power in the other, Ballygunner have the firepower to trouble any backline.
Of course, the man at full-forward will need no introduction to any hurling fans and on the evidence of the last few months; Paul Flynn, like Moloney, has produced his best hurling for a couple of years.
And that’s probably just as well, for if Ballygunner are to win on Sunday, Flynn may well be needed to reproduce some of his magical deeds of old in Tom Semple’s famous field.
One feels that Ballygunner might just have enough in them to cause a mild surprise and bring the Munster cup back to James McGinn Park for the second time in their history. But given the calibre of Sunday’s opposition, it’s a title that’s going to take some winning.