Tallow couldn’t be happier heading into this Senior Championship Final. Their younger guns will be buoyed by their Minor Final draw in Cois Bhride colours last Saturday, and will draw huge confidence from taking on a Ballygunner side in such a fixture and proving their worth.
And they’ll also draw solace from their previous Championship encounter with the champions in their final Group One clash on September 12th, when just four points separated the sides at full-time, having been locked on 0-8 apiece at the break.
With only 12 minutes remaining in that clash at Bushy Park, just a point separated the teams, but a strong finish from the News & Star Cup holders assured them of a table-topping success.
However, they’ll be cognisant that their six-point win over Mount Sion come the quarter-final was aided and abetted by some dreadful shooting by the Monastery men, who created more than enough chances to take the spoils on the day.
And, as Brian Flannery pointed out in his semi-final match report, Ballygunner’s attack is looking somewhat “anaemic” by the club’s high standards, due primarily to the absence of creator in chief Pauric Mahony.
What cannot be discounted either is the fact that manager Denis Walsh has not had Wayne Huthchinson or Alan Kirwan to call upon for this year’s campaign, two stalwarts of several Championship-winning seasons. So there is no doubting the fact that, this time around, Ballygunner are not as strong as they were 12 months ago. And with that in mind, they go into Sunday’s SHC Final as favourites to retain the title, but they’re far from locked in when it comes to holding onto their crown.
A mark of a good side, however, remains their ability to win even when not too many trees are being pulled up.
Over seven matches, Ballygunner have only slipped up once – to De La Salle – whose need for a win come round three was significantly greater than the holders, not that the red and black were anything other than disappointed by the result.
But where they’ve shown their real excellence has been in defence, having coughed up only two goals in seven hours of hurling and limiting their opposition to an average of 13 scores per match.
At the heart of that has been the outstanding Philip Mahony, a player Tallow would be wise to not leave as a spare man as Mount Sion did in their quarter-final meeting.
The All-Star nominee, speaking to WLRfm in the wake of Sunday night’s win over Fourmilewater, is looking forward to taking on Tallow, cognisant that the Gunners have rarely hurled in cruise control this season.
“We’ll be putting everything into it, because you never know, your career could be over in four or five years’ time so we want to make the most of this now. I remember being beaten by Tallow in a quarter-final a few years ago, and as I’ve said previously, they’re probably the form team in the Championship, coming good at the right time. We haven’t really set fire this year in terms of the type of hurling we were producing last year but I suppose we’ve been getting results and that’s the main thing.”
While Philip’s line about Tallow’s form might be seen as a traditional pre-match fop to the opposition, such an observation is not without its merits. In two lightening fast passages of play in both their quarter-final and semi-final wins over Dungarvan and Ballyduff Upper, Tallow demonstrated a weapon they’ve not always had at their disposal: finishing power.
Thomas Ryan has, at times, looked a man reborn in attack this year, hurling with the sort of incisiveness that made him such a standout performer in Waterford’s 2009 Under-21 Championship campaign.
And he’s not been alone in the scoring stakes, with promising minor Ryan Grey, along with William Henley, Evan Sheehan and Paul Kearney all regularly contributing to the Bridesiders’ tallies throughout the campaign. And when you’ve an attack with four forwards scoring regularly, then you’ve always got a chance.
Consider too that Tallow have found the net 11 times in this year’s Championship: proof positive that they do pose a genuine threat inside the 21-metre line.
But what they have to do is produce more sustained levels of offensive ingenuity, and force Mahony and Ian Kenny into uncomfortable areas.
And unless they can reproduce the two-goal heroics of the closing moments against Dungarvan in a two to three-minute spell of devastating play, getting past Ballygunner looks like a tall order. But this is no home and hosed job for the holders by any means.
The venue will surely help the Gunners too. If this decider was being played in Fraher Field, a ground Tallow are altogether more familiar with than Walsh Park, then the odds on an upset would be considerably shorter.
Routine is, after all, a huge element in any player’s matchday preparation. Tallow will be forced to travel good and early on Sunday morning to loosen up the limbs after the spin from the west.
In contrast, Ballygunner will have the option of a pre-noon puck around on their own pitch before making the short drive to Keane’s Road on what is effectively home terrain. And these little details can and do tend to matter.
Tallow haven’t tasted senior glory since their back-to-back victories in 1984 and 85 and when they last reached the final in 2011, they suffered a 14-point defeat to Ballygunner.
While one doesn’t anticipate anything so one-sided this Sunday, history and geography favours the holders in a city ground. So expect Ballygunner to retain their crown this Sunday, but not without some difficulty from a Tallow side worthy of their place in the biggest match of the Deise club calendar.