The title of Senior hurling champions is up for grabs this Sunday at Walsh Park in the ultimate East versus West battle. Old foes, Ballygunner and Lismore will meet in the final for the third time and a rip-roaring contest is in prospect.
It is now eight long years since Ballygunner and Lismore met in a county final. On that occasion, the final was also played in Walsh Park and the Gunners emerged victorious on a scoreline of 4-12 to 1-16 on a day when an injured Paul Flynn was plucked from the bench after 20 minutes.
This time one imagines that an in-form Flynn will start in the full-forward where he will be marked by a former colleague on the county team in James O’Connor. Indeed, there are several intriguing match-ups all over the field. Two stars of Waterford’s underage adventures may go head to head with Philip Mahony likely to be given the onerous task of picking up Lismore’s star forward Maurice Shanahan.
It is nigh on impossible to imagine a Lismore team where Dan Shanahan is not the key forward but such has been the impression made by young Maurice that Dan is merely playing back up as ‘Muiris’ has blazed a trail through this championship.
However, there were glimpses in the semi-final victory over Ballyduff Upper, and particularly the quarter-final win against Abbeyside that Dan is coming into form at just the right time.
Another player who is reaching something approaching full fitness is Dave Bennett. The former Waterford midfielder has been struggling with a leg injury for the majority of the summer but he came on as a sub against Abbeyside, scoring two points and he started against Ballyduff.
Lismore have a nice blend of youth and experience all through their side. Aside from the two big names in Bennett and Shanahan senior, Brendan Landers will start between the posts for the Westerners. His credentials as a goalkeeper have never been in doubt and the opinion in many quarters is that he was discarded much too early by Justin McCarthy.
Speaking of the veteran Landers, brings us nicely on to a goalkeeper at the other end of his career. The impact made by Ballygunner No1 Stephen O’Keeffe has been unprecedented this season. Some of the saves he has made seem to defy the laws of physics as well as belief. There used to be a rule of thumb that you can’t have a teenager between the sticks but O’Keeffe has blown this theory out of the water.
Lismore seem to have the more settled full-back line coming into this final. The corner-backs, Eoin and Shane Bennett, have really caught the eye in recent games and one wonders how good a corner-back, Eoin could have become if he had been placed there earlier in his career.
The aforementioned James “Joxer” O’Connor, captain of the Waterford Under-21 team that won the Munster title 15 years ago, completes the full-back line and brings tremendous experience and solidity to the position.
Ballygunner have used a multitude of players in the full-back line this season but seemed to have settled on the trio of Vinny Molloy, Willie Kiely and Philip Mahony – although Mahony, as mentioned, may be detailed to follow Maurice Shanahan.
However, Rory O’Sullivan performed very well when he came on as a substitute against Mount Sion and may be in contention for a starting spot.
The half-back lines are likely to be critical in deciding where the Cup resides come Sunday evening. Lismore’s half-back line of David O’Gorman, Shane Kearney and Paul Fennessy has a very settled look to it. Kearney, in particular, has had an outstanding season and if he lacks the height of a traditional centre-back he more than makes up for it in hurling ability and sheer determination.
Ballygunner are likely to start with a half-back division comprising Wayne Hutchinson, Shane Walsh and Colin Kehoe. It seems strange to be talking about a Ballygunner half-back line that does not include Fergal Hartley. The 2002 All Star picked up an injury in the drawn game against De La Salle and hasn’t figured since. However, if he is any way right, I would expect him to figure at some stage.
Hartley’s regular number 6 jersey will be filled by Shane Walsh who seems to have found a new lease of life since moving to defence and his battle with Dave Bennett could be crucial to the outcome.
With all goalkeepers now able to land puck outs on the opposing half-back line, centre-field is not the key battle zone it once was. In saying that, in the modern game it is not unusual for a midfielder to score three or four points per match. And Sunday’s decider features four midfielders who are all well capable of making their presence felt on the scoreboard.
Ballygunner are likely to start with Andy Moloney and Tommy Power in this sector, while Lismore will probably have a young and old partnership of John Prendergast and David Howard. Prendergast is another member of the Munster-winning Waterford minor team that will be in action, while the experienced Howard has been in and around county panels for many years.
The calibre of Andy Moloney is no secret, for here is a player who has seen and done it all. He has won Munster titles with both Waterford and his native Tipperary, captained WIT to 2 Fitzgibbon cups and was also the Ballygunner skipper when they won the county championship in 2005. He was impressive in the semi-final win over Mount Sion.
Tommy Power was a star in the making from a very young age. He played on the Tony Forristal team for an unprecedented three years and is one of the most natural and skilful hurlers on the Gunners’ panel. Power has really caught the eye with his long-range free-taking in recent weeks.
Of course, it’s scores that win games and both teams have sets of forwards capable of keeping the Walsh Park scoreboard keepers busy for an hour.
Ballygunner have arguably the best set of forwards in the county on paper. However, as the old adage goes, hurling is played on grass, and once players cross that white line they, as Johnny Giles would say, ‘have to do their stuff’.
In certain games on their march to this county final the Ballygunner attack has been doing just about enough to win games.
In their last two matches combined they have only scored 11 points from play. This is an area that will certainly have to be improved upon if the silverware is to travel out the Dunmore Road.
In Paul Flynn, the McGinn Park club possess one of the most talented hurlers ever to wield a stick. Even now, in the twilight of his career, Flynn is capable of turning this game on its head with one piece of magic.
Beside him, young Brian O’Sullivan seems to have the same streak of devilment and unpredictability. One score in particular against Mount Sion was very reminiscent of Flynn in his pomp.
Another forward who has really caught the eye this season is young Pauric Mahony and he is likely to start in the other corner. De La Salle’s Harty cup hero of two years ago, Steven Power may be kept in reserve at the start but he is another who is well capable of grabbing a goal.
There is a physical look to the half-forward line where Shane O’Sullivan is likely to be on the ‘40’ with a converted defender in Alan Kirwan on one side and the pacy Gearoid O’Connor on the other wing.
Many of Lismore’s forwards need no introduction. Dave Bennett and Dan Shanahan have been on the scene since the mid-’90s when Lismore were challenging for honours every year.
Alongside those two, young Maurice Shanahan is already a household name thanks to his efforts with the Waterford Under-21 team and Blackwater Community School in the Harty Cup. Young Padraig Prendergast, a player with Croke Park experience in 2009 with the Waterford minors will take up one corner forward position with Chris O’Gorman in the other. If Dave Bennett plays at centre-forward as expected, Stephen O’Keeffe may shift across to the wing.
All in all, an exciting contest awaits the thousands who will make the journey, short or long, to Keanes Road this Sunday. Like so many other games in the 2009 championship this one is impossible to predict and a draw cannot be ruled out.
A lot has been made at the number of minors on both sides but people seem to forget that these are lads who have won Munster minor medals and played in Croke Park. Having said that, it is often the experienced heads who come to the fore in county finals and in Dan Shanahan, Dave Bennett and James O’Connor Lismore may have the men to finally banish the Ballygunner hoodoo.