FOR MANY YEARS, Semple Stadium proved the graveyard for the dreams and ambitions of Ballygunner teams.
Between 1996 and 2017, the club lost six Munster senior club finals in Thurles. They squeezed in a landmark victory at the venue in the 2001 final against Blackrock, but largely the pitch was a site for pain and disappointment for the Waterford outfit.
It is difficult to reconcile that past pattern of results with what we are now witnessing. Yesterday they made history by completing three-in-a-row, a feat no other club has managed in Munster. It is an unprecedented level of dominance and factor in the 2018 breakthrough for this group, it makes for four title wins in the last five championships.
Three of those victories in deciders have occurred in Semple Stadium. If there was any hex, it has been truly banished. Displays like yesterday’s crushing win over Clonlara, achieved with 13 points to spare and with 2-24 posted on the board, rubbish any theories like that.
“It is amazing to be where we are as a club,” summarised Ballygunner boss Darragh O’Sullivan.
“To be alongside Blackrock now for most Munster titles. And when I was playing we couldn’t win one. And we couldn’t get over the Clare teams.
“Huge achievement for the lads.”
O’Sullivan touched on a salient point. Ballygunner made five forays into Munster action in the ’90s and were knocked out each time by Clare opposition, four different clubs pushing them to the exit door. They had to overcome the doubts that trend of losses generated before they finally made that 2001 breakthrough.
For Ballygunner club stalwarts like O’Sullivan, successive Munster final wins over Clare champions are to be savoured – this latest triumph following up on last December’s nine-point victory against Ballyea.
The current playing group can relate to a cycle of frustration and setbacks. They were locked into that for so long, Na Piarsaigh most prominently applying the suffering, that it seemed like they had cracked the code when at last taking the Limerick kingpins down in the 2018 final. Then twelve months later they were handed off by a point by Borris-Ileigh on a Páirc Uí Rinn surface hammered by relentless rain, and the old doubts about Ballygunner began to circulate once more.
Covid knocked the 2020 Munster championship off their radar but Ballygunnner’s complete domination of the Waterford club scene presented more opportunities further afield.
And now they have started to take them, picking up three Munster crowns and an All-Ireland title in the last 23 months. It is a stunning rate of success.
There are two periods in the development of this team that are worth considering. Between 2017 and 2019, Ballygunner played nine Munster championship games and won seven of them, by an average margin of just under five points.
From October 2021 to December 2023, they have also played nine times in Munster, a perfect unbeaten record, and their average winning margin has swelled to 11 points.
In that 2017-19 period they had only one victory by a double-digit margin, in this more recent period they have enjoyed five – Ballyea (17), Kilmallock (14), Kilruane MacDonaghs (17), Sarsfields (17) and Clonlara (13).
The team has grown and developed. In their attack it is Pauric Mahony and Dessie Hutchison who often hoard the plaudits, but yesterday it was Peter Hogan (0-4) and Kevin Mahony (1-4) who were in simply sensational form. Facing Ballygunner, the threats are fired at teams from all angles.
All over the pitch their gameplan has become so slick and refined, they work in sync and are not deterred by setbacks. Teams in Munster have been blown away, Ballygunner smashing home 19 goals in the last three provincial campaigns and only once, when facing Na Piarsaigh a fortnight ago, have they failed to raise a green flag.
The next challenge looms large. Where once Ballygunner were interrogated for their attempts to parlay Waterford titles into Munsters, now the focus is on landing All-Ireland wins.
Their efforts on the national scene have been framed by Ballyhale Shamrocks. Ballygunner have played four games in the All-Ireland series since 2018, three of those against the Kilkenny powerhouse. They lost two semi-finals, those games sandwiching their famous success in February 2022 that was achieved through Harry Ruddle’s moment of late magic.
With Ballyhale removed from this season’s equation after the Kilkenny county final, Ballygunner’s credentials for favouritism have hardened. The race has been whittled down to four contenders after the provincial action, that position remains unchallenged as they head a chasing pack of O’Loughlin Gaels, St Thomas and Cushendall.
St Thomas have their own blend of experience and class from a string of Galway final victories. The Ballygunner class of 2002 came up short at the hands of Galway opposition in Clarinbridge.
The Ballygunner class of 2023 carry serious form and momentum into the national arena.
No Munster club outside the traditional Big Three from Cork City have won more than one All-Ireland senior hurling championship.
Ballygunner have mastered Munster, now there is a bigger stage to conquer.2023-12-04T06:31:11Z dg43tfdfdgfd