And so it was that a 14th senior hurling title was secured by Ballygunner at Walsh Park last Sunday, a win which saw them finally overtake Erin’s Own to solely occupy second position in the all-time honours list behind Mount Sion.
A sixth title this century, their ninth since 1995 and only the second time they’ve achieved back-to-back titles, there can be no doubting who rules the roost in Deise club hurling currently.
That this was neither a vintage performance nor a vintage campaign in the context of previous Championship victories will matter not a jot to manager Denis Walsh and his charges.
Given the retirement of Alan Kirwan, the transfer of Wayne Hutchinson, the injury to Pauric Mahony and the devastating loss of the late Paul Foley, this has not been the most straightforward of seasons for the Gunners. Not by a long shot.
Yet they completed the campaign as worthy champions, seeing off Tallow on a grey afternoon down Keane’s Road with a display which encapsulated their season: scoring opportunities aplenty, with too many efforts going ‘as láthair’ for their own liking but with the bonus of another clean sheet. Remarkably, they ended the Waterford club season with five shut-outs.
Only three goals were conceded in seven hours of Championship hurling, due in so small part to the excellence of netminder Stephen O’Keeffe, the growing prominence of full-back Barry Coughlan, the roaming Philip Mahony (Club Hurler of the Year?) and dynamic captain David O’Sullivan.
A dogged Tallow side, whose 30-year wait for the Deise’s top trophy continues, lost to the Gunners by four points for the second time this season, but scored only twice from play.
Their reliance on young free taker Ryan Grey was as indicative of Ballygunner’s lax discipline at times as it was to Tallow’s own lack of open play creativity.
At half-time, when analysing the action with Kieran O’Connor and Tomas McCarthy on WLRfm, I couldn’t help wondering what might happen if Tallow condensed the space around Philip Mahony, and supplied the dynamic Thomas Ryan with more ball.
After all, Ryan’s only two touches of note in the first half yielded converted frees for Ryan Grey, and he’s looked as sharp this year as he did back in his Deise Under-21 days.
But Ballygunner’s ability to ensure Ryan remained such a peripheral figure was as good as taking grip of the News & Star Cup in one hand.
And their overall, superior level of quality, when most it mattered, saw the red and black clasp a mitt on the other handle. The cup stays in McGinn Park for another 12 months.
Despite Ballygunner’s greater dominance of territory and possession, the sides were locked on eight points apiece at the break, with Tallow’s first score from play, a fine pivot and strike by Evan Sheehan, delivered on the stroke of half-time.
The free-taking of minor talent Ryan Grey had kept Tallow in the contest, while Ballygunner were left rueing a succession of wides, six in the second quarter alone, as they failed to make their greater quality count on the scoreboard.
Brian O’Sullivan’s free inside the opening minute was soon followed by a Shane O’Sullivan point as Ballygunner began brightly. But Grey’s brace of frees left the sides level after six minutes.
Points from Brian and Barry O’Sullivan edged Ballygunner ahead by the 12th minute but a Grey 65 kept the Bridesiders firmly in the contest at the end of the first quarter.
Between then and the break, Tallow enjoyed their best spell of the game, with Grey finding his range with three frees and a 65, and a fine score from corner-forward Evan Sheehan.
The Gunners, who struck 15 wides in total over the hour, added to their opening half tally via the O’Sullivans: Brian (who has stepped up in Pauric Mahony’s absence), David (man of the match) and Shane O’Sullivan (who ran himself to a standstill last Sunday).
And they ought to have goaled a minute from the break when Peter Hogan pulled his shot wide of Shaun O’Sullivan’s left-hand post from point-blank range, to audible gasps from the stand.
As anticipated, Ballygunner ramped things up after the break. They had to, but not before falling behind for the only time on Sunday afternoon courtesy of Ryan Grey’s 65. David O’Sullivan found his range again in the 37th minute and Brian O’Sullivan’s free five minutes later restored the holders’ advantage.
On the brink of the three-quarter mark, Billy O’Keeffe’s zipping shot was brilliantly saved, despite being seen late by Tallow goalkeeper Shaun O’Sullivan – and what a year the Tallow custodian can reflect on.
Tallow immediately went up the other end and equalised through Thomas Ryan, whose offensive qualities were never put to best use over the hour, due in no small part to the quality of Ballygunner’s defence.
David O’Sullivan landed his third superb point to edge the Gunners back in front, added to in the 47th minute by Peter Hogan, who was assisted in the build-up by the marauding Barry Coughlan and the superb O’Sullivan.
Within a minute, Conor Power found his range to send Ballygunner three clear, but Tallow refused to die, with Ryan Grey converting another free after Thomas Ryan’s run was illegally impeded in the 48th minute.
Ten minutes from time, Peter Hogan bisected Shaun O’Sullivan’s uprights before Brian O’Sullivan extended the Gunners’ lead to four points in the 53rd minute. With five minutes remaining, Ryan Grey turned over another free to leave just a score between the sides, but Tallow never seriously threatened Stephen O’Keeffe’s goalmouth.
And when substitute Tim O’Sullivan got another white flag waving at the Keane’s Road end in the 58th minute, one felt the contest had been settled. And it proved thus.
Come Sunday, November 1st, again at Walsh Park, the back to back Waterford champions will take on Cork kingpins Glen Rovers, featuring in the Munster Championship for the first time in 26 years. This hurling year has a tale or two yet to tell.
* Incidentally, last Sunday’s Final was the first since 1997 to feature no television coverage of any kind courtesy of TG4, be it live, deferred or highlighted after the broadcaster couldn’t secure an agreement to any form of screening with the County Board.
Ballygunner: Stephen O’Keeffe; Eddie Hayden, Barry Coughlan, Ian Kenny; Shane Walsh, Philip Mahony, Harley Barnes; Billy O’Keeffe, David O’Sullivan; JJ Hutchinson, Shane O’Sullivan, Conor Power; Peter Hogan, Barry O’Sullivan, Brian O’Sullivan.
Substitutes: Tim O’Sullivan for JJ Hutchinson (37 mins), Stephen Power for Billy O’Keeffe (55) and Conor Sheahan for Conor Power (59).
Scorers: Brian O’Sullivan (0-5; 0-2f, 0-1 65), David O’Sullivan (0-3), Peter Hogan, Shane O’Sullivan and Conor Power (0-2 each), Barry O’Sullivan and Tim O’Sullivan (0-1 each).
Tallow: Shaun O’Sullivan; Mark O’Brien, David O’Brien, Kenneth Kearney; Aidan Kearney, James Murray, Jake Neville; Paul O’Brien, Kieran Geary; William Henley, Thomas Ryan, Bob McCarthy; Evan Sheehan, Ryan Grey, Jordan Henley.
Substitutes: Paul Kearney for Bob McCarthy (42 mins), Brian McCarthy for Jake Neville (52), Shane Feeney for William Henley (57) and Jake Beecher for Jordan Henley (60).
Scorers: Ryan Grey (0-10; 0-8f, 0-2 65), Thomas Ryan and Evan Sheehan (0-1 each).
Referee: Thomas Walsh.