FOR ALL THE titles they’ve accumulated over the past decade, it’s the pain of defeat that turned Ballygunner into a ruthless winning machine.
The club won Munster in 2001 and endured four final defeats before they next claimed provincial honours in 2018. For the then five-in-a-row Waterford champions, getting over the final hurdle in Munster turned into a team crusade.
They finally shook off serial tormentors Na Piarsaigh three years ago and it was then that their sights turned to the All-Ireland. Just as Clarinbridge had done in early 2002, Ballyhale Shamrocks ousted them at the semi-final stage.
Ballyhale won by five points in a game that swung on Eoin Cody’s 44th minute goal. Moments earlier, Conor Power’s goal bound flick got stuck in the mud on the line, as did Tim O’Sullivan’s follow-up, to deny Ballygunner a three-pointer at a key stage.
Ballygunner’s bid to reach a maiden All-Ireland final the following campaign saw them upset by Borris-Ileigh in the Munster decider. Another year, another opportunity to claim the Tommy Moore Cup gone.
It was a defeat that badly stung Ballygunner, as did the talk that they were bullied by the Tipperary men.
Covid struck in 2020, ruling out a shot at provincial and All-Ireland glory. Time kept ticking on.
Ballygunner’s 2021/22 campaign has had more substance to it. They breezed through Munster, gunning down Limerick champions Kilmallock by 14 points in the final at Semple Stadium.
Sunday’s assignment against Slaughtneil brought a different test. Beating the physical and hard-working Derry side in a dogfight on the tight confines of Parnell Park proved that Ballygunner can mix the flashy hurling with the steely stuff.
They’re no longer a team that can be bullied.
“The physicality was there from the minute the ball was thrown in,” reflected centre-back Philip Mahony.
“In fairness we knew it was going to be like that. It’s an All-Ireland semi-final against Slaughtneil, they’re a great club they’ve won Ulster championships in football and hurling.
“They keep going every week and anytime you come up against a team like them you know it’s going to be really tough. You’ve got to put it up to them too in those kind of situations. They never went away which we knew they wouldn’t but we’re just delighted to get the win it’s the only thing that matters in a semi-final.
“We’re used to playing in tight pitches like this. It’s very similar to Walsh Park and Fraher Field which are the fields we play on most of the time.
“There’s a lot of experience from lads playing against Dublin in various different games, underage and even playing challenge games against Dublin you’d usually be playing here. So we knew exactly what it was going to be like and we were prepared for that.”
There was plenty of trash talking going on between both sides throughout the hour.
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Ballygunner showed their cute side when it was required too. Shane O’Sullivan and Pauric Mahony dragged down Slaughtneil forwards Sé McGuigan and Shane McGuigan as they chased a goal near the end.
To reach the first final in their history was a big thing for the players, but Mahony admitted “unless we win now it doesn’t mean too much.”
“We’ve been trying hard for a number of years, we lost two semi-finals previously to Clarinbridge and Ballyhale,” he continued. “We’ll just knuckle down for the next two or three weeks again.”
They’ll play Shamrocks in the All-Ireland series for the second time since 2018. Ballyhale are well used to lining out at Croke Park, but a host of Ballygunner players have experience of lining out at the venue too.
“It probably does stand to you as well. A few guys have played there going back as far as when we were in school in De La Salle.”
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