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One club can't stop winning in Munster, the other craves a senior hurling breakthrough

Na Piarsaigh and Ballygunner get set to face off in Thurles today.

AIB Munster GAA Hurling Senior Club Championship Final Media Day Ballygunner's Pauric Mahony and Na Piarsaigh's Ronan Lynch. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

ON 24 NOVEMBER 2013 as the country was engrossed in the fare at the Aviva Stadium  – Ireland storming ahead of New Zealand early on, subjecting the home crowd to a nerve-shredding afternoon before the All Blacks broke Irish hearts as they snatched victory at the end – there was a different type of sporting game unfolding at Cusack Park in Ennis.

If the Munster club hurling final had been billed prior to throw-in as a close contest, Na Piarsaigh hadn’t read the script. Instead they mowed down Sixmilebridge.

Six clear at half time and 18 clear by full time, it was comprehensive and clinical and ruthless stuff by the Limerick champions. Victory clinched their second Munster title in three years – in far greater style than the replay required for their maiden crown in 2011 – and there’s been no sense since of a team and club that are intent on slowing down.

Na Piarsaigh players celebrate after the game Na Piarsaigh ran out 4-14 to 0-8 winners in the 2013 final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Today Na Piarsaigh contest their fourth AIB Munster senior club hurling final in seven seasons and they’ve won their three prior deciders in 2011, 2013 and 2015. Their run is all the more extraordinary when you consider that 2011 was the first time they had moved out of their borders in Limerick, that breakthrough occurring just two years after they had been wiped out in a county final by Adare, 1-17 to 0-3 the punchline after a grim afternoon.

This will be Na Piarsaigh’s 11th game in the Munster Club SHC and they have yet to experience that sensation of defeat. Naturally their current camp are downplaying the relevance of that run for today’s showdown but there is no doubt that it is a stunning record they possess.

Ten wins and a single draw – that back in the 2011 final against Crusheen – illustrates the considerable punch that Na Piarsaigh pack when they move around Munster. They’ve played games in five different venues, equally comfortable in the Gaelic Grounds adjacent to their Caherdavin base as they are when touring other counties.

Adrian Breen scores a late goal Adrian Breen netted the only goal in the 2011 Munster club final replay. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

They can win whatever type of game is put in front of them.

The routine victories like that 2013 final and the semi-final a fortnight ago when they cruised past Blackrock by 22 points.

The tight games like Loughmore-Castleiney and Passage in 2013 when the winning margin was two points on both occasions.

Or the comeback successes like overturning a six-point deficit against Ballygunner in 2011 and a nine-point deficit against Sixmilebridge in 2015.

William O'Callaghan celebrates with the players Club stalwart William O'Callaghan celebrates with Na Piarsaigh players in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

If Na Piarsaigh are the club that don’t know how to lose in Munster, then their opponents today Ballygunner are the club that have had trouble winning out in Munster.

They’ve won out in a couple of breathless provincial classics so far this season against Thurles Sarsfields and Sixmilebridge.

After the latter game, Ballygunner forward JJ Hutchinson tried to gather his thoughts on the Walsh Park pitch in front of the TG4 cameras. He had bagged 1-3 from play in a single-point victory, yet rather than just basking in the glow of that success, he spoke about how he had been playing for the club for 12 years, had lost three Munster finals, and his burning desire to enter the winner’s enclosure in the province.

JJ Hutchinson celebrates scoring a point JJ Hutchinson celebrates scoring a point against Sixmilebridge. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Unlike Na Piarsaigh’s recent emergence in Limerick, Ballygunner are established mainstays in Waterford. Since 1995 there have only been three seasons – 1998, 2008 and 2012 – that they have not been part of the Deise county final day.

In that time frame Ballygunner have won 12 Waterford senior titles but 2001 is the solitary campaign where they journeyed on to sweep the stage in Munster. In total Ballygunner have lost seven Munster finals, two back in the 60s and five over the last two decades.

They will nurse regrets over two final losses to Newtownshandrum, in 2005 (one point) and 2009 (two points). For the current bunch there was a three-point defeat at home to Cratloe – novices in Munster hurling then – back in 2014, and a reversal last October when they were caught by Pa Bourke converting a ’65 for Thurles Sarsfields.

Stephen O’Keeffe is dejected at the final whistle A dejected Stephen O'Keeffe after the 2016 Munster quarter-final loss to Thurles Sarsfields. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

And yet Ballygunner have persisted, harnessing the undoubted talent in their side with greater experience. Their current manager Fergal Hartley was part of that victorious Ballygunner side in 2001, and in the 2009 final in the twilight of his career, he anchored a team that featured seven players from today’s side – including a trio of fresh-faced minors in Stephen O’Keeffe and Pauric and Philip Mahony.

The Mahony brothers were missing through injury and suspension respectively two years ago when Ballygunner were seven points adrift of Na Piarsaigh. Ballygunner’s beef with their Limerick opponents isn’t just restricted to that game; they also squandered a winning position against them in Walsh Park in the 2011 quarter-final.

The core of their side from 2015 remains while the stature of O’Keeffe, the Mahony brothers and Barry Coughlan has grown from their recent Waterford exposure.

Pauric Mahony and Shane Walsh Ballygunner players celebrate this year's Waterford senior final victory. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Not that Na Piarsaigh are lacking in that department either. Ten of their players were named in John Kiely’s 2018 preliminary Limerick squad this week. Even if the injured Shane Dowling is discounted, they have three players – Mike and Peter Casey, and David Dempsey – who played when Limerick bowed out of the senior qualifiers against Kilkenny in July. Peter Casey was one of four Na Piarsaigh men on the pitch when Limerick lifted the All-Ireland U21 trophy for the second time in three years in September.

Michael Cody and Peter Casey Peter Casey was part of Limerick's success against Kilkenny in September. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Whoever wins today will taste glory after a remarkable run: Na Piarsaigh as they bring their Munster title record to four out of four, or Ballygunner as they ease down after their ninth game in 10 weeks, a congested schedule as a consequence of Waterford’s year being prolonged until September.

The stage is set.

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