A devastating second half showing assured Ballygunner of a third successive Waterford Senior Hurling Championship at Walsh Park on Sunday last, on an afternoon when they simply had too much for neighbours Passage.
In front of a 3,811-strong attendance (with a gate in excess of €25,000), and inspired by another outstanding display by the talismanic Pauric Mahony, the Gunners emulated the feats of their 1960s and 90s predecessors in securing this three-in-a-row success.
As it was in their semi-final win over Mount Sion, Ballygunner were just too good for Passage, appearing in their second decider in four seasons.
This was a victory which rested more in the winners’ abundance of talent and know-how as opposed to a treatise of any major hurling deficiency on Passage’s behalf.
As Deise boss Derek McGrath told Kieran O’Connor on WLR in the minutes before Michael O’Brien’s throw-in, Ballygunner negotiated their way to this Final while largely operating in second gear. In truth, having weathered a sticky opening quarter, Denis Walsh’s charges reclaimed the News & Star Cup with cruise control hurling.
Perhaps that gear they’ve not yet clicked into will be required at Semple Stadium next Sunday when they take on Tipperary kingpins Thurles Sarsfields in their own back yard.
And should they overcome that Paraic Maher-sized obstacle, it’ll be a brave punter who’d wager against the Gunners emulating their sole Munster title success, recorded back in 2001.
But Denis Walsh and his men won’t be losing the run of themselves this week, which gives them a great chance of maintaining their unbeaten record in Championship hurling come Sunday next.
The final score suggests a wholly one-sided contest, which this was not – at least, not during the opening half – when Passage, attacking the Keane’s Road goal, hurled with the gale to their backs.
Following an ill-tempered scuffle between Eoin Kelly and Barry Coughlan, which resulted in both receiving yellow cards, Passage settled into their task with relish, with the outstanding Noel Connors the first to point after six minutes.
Peter Queally’s men doubled their advantage through roaming wing-back Adam Roche, with another Connors – this time Owen – slotting over another point within a minute.
By the 10th minute, the men in red were four clear as Thomas Connors added to the list of familial point scorers after fine assistance by the veteran Conor Carey.
And within a minute, Passage were five clear, as the advancing Jason Roche finished off a fine move instigated by Owen Connors.
Ballygunner finally blotted their copybook with some ink through an 11th minute free by the excellent Pauric Mahony, with the lively Peter Hogan doubling their tally from their very next attack.
Demonstrating the extent of the wind blowing towards the Keane’s Road end, Killian Fitzgerald bisected the uprights from his own 45-metre line, before Eoin Kelly plundered from a poor short puck-out to restore Passage’s five-point advantage.
But that was really as good as it got in the opening half from Passage’s perspective, as Denis Walsh’s side tagged on 2-4 during a dominant second quarter, which foreshadowed Ballygunner’s post-interval dominance.
Tim O’Sullivan, fed in by Peter Hogan, and Billy O’Keeffe again assisted by the dangerous Hogan, found the Passage net to put the holders into a commanding position. Between those goals, Eddie Hayden excellently blocked Thomas Connors’ goal attempt, with Killian Fitzgerald sending the subsequent 65 wide.
Said Gunners captain Brian O’Sullivan: “It was tough to score into that breeze, so Tim and Billy’s two goals were huge for us; we were a bit worried after 10 minutes when we were four or five points down and they’d had a bit of a run at us, but we kept going, our discipline was huge, and we didn’t panic.”
Passage, spurred on by both Noel and Thomas Connors, stayed in touch thanks to a brace of Killian Fitzgerald frees, along with a converted Owen Connors free, landed from inside his own 45.
At half-time, the holders led by 2-5 to 0-10 and even by then, one sensed the News & Star Cup wasn’t going anywhere other than back to McGinn Park. And that proved the case, during a dominant second half showing which read 2-15 to 1-3 in their favour.
Thomas Connors (a free) and Pauric Mahony traded the opening points after the interval, with Brian O’Sullivan’s 39th minute point followed by a brace of Mahony frees.
As the three quarter mark approached, Passage needed a big score, and Conor Carey, released by Sean Hogan and Thomas Connors’ interplay, looked like he was about to tick that box, only to see his shot brilliantly saved by the diving Stephen O’Keeffe.
Owen Connors’ 65 sailed wide, as did Passage’s hopes of emulating their 2013 heroics. Brian O’Sullivan and another Pauric Mahony brace sent Ballygunner 2-12 to 0-11 clear, and in command.
Peter Hogan, not yet 20 lest we forget, and Owen Connors traded points before Gunners substitute Stephen Power again demonstrated his goalscoring knack with a tremendous 51st minute finish.
Seconds later, Pauric Mahony crowned a magnificent year when slotting home, albeit via a Darragh Lynch deflection, as the Passage challenge well and truly foundered.
But they never for one moment threw in the towel, with Thomas Connors’s 53rd minute goal a reward for his ceaseless valour over the course of the hour in what proved their final score of 2016.
In the closing six-plus minutes, the Gunners kept their foot to the floor, adding points through braces from Pauric Mahony (both frees) and Brian O’Sullivan, along with singles from Stephen Power and David O’Sullivan.
Few titles, right from the opening round of the Championship, even taking the night the lights went out against Abbeyside into account, have ever been worn with such complete command and authority. Ballygunner are worthy champions, but they must kick on from here against Thurles if they’re to stake a claim as the greatest group of players the club has ever produced.
“It was a dream of this group of players to match what Ballygunner teams had achieved in the 60s and 90s,” according to Brian O’Sullivan, “and we’ve done it today, and it was nice to get one back on Passage today after what happened in 2013.”
Ballygunner: Stephen O’Keeffe; Eddie Hayden, Barry Coughlan, Ian Kenny; Harley Barnes, Philip Mahony, Shane Walsh; Peter Hogan, Shane O’Sullivan; David O’Sullivan (0-1), Billy O’Keeffe, Pauric Mahony; Conor Power, Brian O’Sullivan (0-4), Tim O’Sullivan.
Substitutes: Wayne Hutchinson for Billy O’Keeffe (44 mins), Stephen Power for Harley Barnes (48), Michael Mahony for Conor Power (52), JJ Hutchinson for Tim O’Sullivan (54) and Johnny McCarthy for Peter Hogan (55).
Blood substitute: Wayne Hutchinson for Barry Coughlan (2-8 mins).
Scorers: Pauric Mahony (1-11; 0-7f), Brian O’Sullivan (0-4), Stephen Power (1-1), Peter Hogan (0-3), Tim O’Sullivan and Billy O’Keeffe (1-0 each) and David O’Sullivan (0-1).
Passage: Eddie Lynch; Darragh Lynch, Jason Flood, Adam Roche; Stephen Mason, Noel Connors, Jason Roche; Pa Walsh, Sean Hogan; Owen Connors, Thomas Connors, Killian Fitzgerald; Conor Carey, Eoin Kelly, Gary Cullinane.
Substitutes: John Whitty for Gary Cullinane (HT), Richard Hurley for Conor Carey (54 mins), Callum O’Neill for Killian Fitzgerald (60+), Patrick Flynn for Stephen Mason (60+) and Paul Donnellan for Adam Roche (60+).
Scorers: Killian Fitzgerald (0-4; 0-3f), Thomas Connors (1-1), Owen Connors and Eoin Kelly (0-2; 0-1f each), Adam Roche, Jason Roche and Noel Connors (0-1 each).
Referee: Michael O’Brien (Portlaw).
Just over a year ago, Pauric Mahony broke his leg in the first round of the Senior Hurling Championship.
I was in Fraher Field that night. A late challenge had felled Pauric and within moments, everyone in attendance knew it was serious as he lay motionless on the ground: this is a guy who doesn’t stay down without just cause.
Some Ballygunner players couldn’t watch and had to walk away from the distressing scene. It quickly became obvious that the county star had suffered a serious injury. An ambulance was called and mercilessly arrived quickly. A leg break was confirmed.
Just a week prior to that horrific injury, Pauric Mahony had helped Waterford win the League title and was performing at an All-Star level. And then, in one cruel moment, the ceiling fell in on his season.
With a couple of minutes remaining in last Sunday’s Senior Final, County PRO Owen Savage popped his head into the Press Room. “Man-of-the-match lads,” Savo asked. The response was unanimous.
The striking ability of Pauric Mahony is immense. The county man hit 1-11 in total, 1-4 of that from play.
I sometimes think we take excellent free taking for granted. On Sunday, Mahony struck frees from all angles and all distances. He hit one in the second half from inside his own 45-metre line as if it was a routine attempt. It’s the effortless nature of his striking that catches the eye most. It’s all timing and precision rather the brute force.
Whether from 20 metres or from his own half, the mechanics are the same. One a carbon copy of the other.
The Ballygunner talisman also performs with a massive degree of hurling intelligence. Pauric Mahony frequently oscillates between the different lines of combat from half-back to half-forward, snaring possession an offering an outlet to under pressure colleagues. Arriving to the correct position at just the right time is a trademark of this great attacking mind.
When Pauric Mahony netted his side’s fourth goal in the 52nd minute you could feel the sense the joy as the memory of a missed season faded all the further. The best player on the field? The man of the match? Pauric Mahony. It could only be Pauric Mahony.