Friday, 15th December 2017
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Gunners to launch on Munster

Sunday next will be a red letter day for both Waterford Senior Hurling Champions Ballygunner and their Limerick counterparts Na Piarsaigh. Both clubs enter the fray of Munster Senior Club Hurling final with a target of reclaiming the Provincial title and with it, to advance further in the All-Ireland competition. The Waterford club who won the championship in 2001 will be facing a team with a rich pedigree in recent years having annexed the title on the three previous occasions (2011, 2013, 2015) that they reached the final. Incidentally they beat the Waterford outfit in that 2015 decider 2-18 to 2-11, so it is fair to say that the Knockboy manager Fergal Hartley and his charges will be fully charged to reverse that result.

The Gunners go into this game on the back of a string of unbeaten games. Indeed it is noticeable that they have become "battle hardened" such has been the intensity of the campaign since the championship has come back on stream after the All-Ireland. Week on week the team from Knockboy have produced the goods against both domestic and Provincial opposition and there must surely be a high level of confidence as they seek to reclaim the O'Neill Cup for the second time. Actually the trophy for the winning team was originally donated to Munster Council by the Sarsfields club in Cork in 1972. It commemorates the memory on one of their founding members Billy O'Neill.

Ballygunner themselves are a reasonably young club having been founded in 1954 by the late Jimmy McGinn a teacher in the local school. Mr

McGinn saw his charges beat title laden Mount Sion to annex their first title in 1966, the first of a three in a row for the fledgling Ballygunner club. The club then saw a number of lean years, even being relegated to the Intermediate grade in the eighties. However from their return to the Senior ranks in 1984 it has been all an upward curve for the club that has seen them claim thirteen titles since 1992. Indeed the first title in 1992 was under the management of Michael Gaffney who was subsequently manager in winning three titles in the following five years.

The year 2001 will always be remembered by both Ballygunner and indeed Waterford folk alike as the year when a Munster Senior Hurling Club championship was finally brought across the Suir, before Mount Sion followed up in 2002. The team who beat both St Josephs Doora/Bearefield and Toomevara on the way, achieved the dream when they beat Blackrock of Cork 2-14 to 0-12 in the final and, many believe that this present team is well on the way to competing another "slam" in Munster.

Make no mistake Fergal Hartley and his Ballygunner team were dealt a huge blow before the semi-final against Sixmilebridge when dangerman

Brian O'Sullivan, who had been superb at full forward, was forced out with a shoulder injury. That said it probably showed the strength of the panel as Fergal and his management team made the necessary changes and secured the win to see them safely through to Sunday's final. Following their tight win over Thurles Sarsfields (1-21 to 1-19) in the previous round it also gave a clear indication that Ballygunner are very capable of grinding out a win when the need arises.

The Gunners have a team brim full of experience and youth. Six changes from the side beaten by Na Piarsaigh in 2015 gives one some idea of how the young players have gelled into this team. The goalkeeping duty will again be entrusted to Stephen O'Keeffe. An all-star award for his displays with Waterford throughout 2017 tells it's own story. The best shot stopper in the game at present. In front of O'Keeffe is fellow intercounty player Barry Coughlan at full back with both Eddie Hayden and Ian Kenny manning the corners. The latter two players have been superb throughout and will make life very, very difficult for the Na Piarsaigh front line. The Ballygunner half back line has had a superb season. Wayne Hutchinson has been imperious at centre back with both county man Philip Mahony (man of the match on a number of occasions) and joint captain Shane Walsh cutting off the channels.

The midfield pairing will see evergreen Shane O'Sullivan man the engine room with the youthful Harley Barnes. Both players have, in all their outings thus far, seized control of the vitally important middle of the field and their drive has created the chances for the exceptionally fleet footed forwards to produce the scores. Peter Hogan, David O'Sullivan and the amazingly accurate Pauric Mahony will land the pivotal scores given a reasonable supply of ball while inside the pace of JJ Hutchinson, Conor Power and Billy O'Keeffe will ensure that any lapse of concentration in the Limerick defence will be punished.

WHAT OF NA PIARSAIGH?

There is no doubt but this is a huge challenge for both sides. Indeed there is every reason to believe that the winner will be shortlisted for ultimate All-Ireland honours. The Caherdavin club which was founded in 1968 are in a rich vein of form over recent years. They achieved senior status in 1994 but had to wait until 2011 to land their first senior title. Indeed that win was followed by three more in 2013,2015, 2017 along with an All-Ireland club title in 2016. Their under 21 record also stands up to scrutiny having won the Limerick championship for the past six years. Coached by former Limerick senior Shane O'Neill the team was hugely impressive in their semi-final as they beat Blackrock 2-26 to 0-10, the game being virtually over at half time with the winners ahead 2-11 to 0-6.

This Na Piarsaigh outfit, like Ballygunner, carry a wealth of experience and youth. Twelve of their panel have represented the county at senior level while they have also blended youth into the equation with three of their defensive line, Jerome Boylan, Niall Buckley and Thomas Grimes coming into the starting lineup. Goalkeeper Padraig Kennedy gives tremendous confidence to his backline where Mike Casey will man the edge of the square with Cathal King and Alan Dempsey in the half back line. The Limerick champions will more than likely not have the excellent free scoring Shane Dowling back for this final although reports suggest that the Limerick county man is back in training. That said midfield will probably see William O'Donoghue partnered with Ronan Lynch and substitute Gordan Browne or Conor Boylan making the first fifteen in place of the afforementioned Dowling. Speaking of Lynch, it is vitally important that Ballygunner refrain from fouling as the Na Piarsaigh man showed that as the designated free taker in that win over Blackrock he is extremely accurate from dead ball situations (13 from 15). The Caherdavin side are a freescoring forward division with David Breen, David Dempsey, Adrian Breen, Kevin Downes and Peter Casey all capable of taking advantage of scoring opportunities.

In conclusion I see Ballygunner winning this although it will take a supreme effort. The Gunners have a well laid plan and their devastating speed up front could well prove the answer in the end.

Best of luck to the Gunners and hopefully they will be celebrating out Knockboy way on Sunday night in preparation for an All-Ireland semi-final joust with Slaughtneil of Derry in the New Year

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