Action from last year's Ballygunner-Na Piarsaigh game. Ben Brady/INPHO
Munster hurling

'Two juggernauts coming against each other. It's exciting isn't it?'

Ballygunner crushed Sarsfields yesterday to set up a Munster heavyweight clash with Na Piarsaigh.

IN WALSH PARK the inclination was to look ahead rather than to look back.

Darragh O’Sullivan digested the afternoon work his Ballygunner team had put in. They flattened Sarsfields, the Cork champions taken care of with consummate ease.

It sets up a Munster club semi-final that is mouth-watering. Away to Limerick kingpins Na Piarsaigh in a fortnight.

Between them, Ballygunner and Na Piarsaigh have carved up seven Munster senior club titles since 2011. The clubs have met five times in championship. The title count reads 4-3 in Na Piarsaigh’s favour in this modern era, the head-to-head match ups are 3-2 for them.

But Ballygunner have triumphed in the last two meetings. The most recent was twelve months ago, same stage of the competition and same venue. It was a game of such spellbinding quality for one played on a club stage.

“It was serious,” said O’Sullivan, recalling that contest.

“The first half they put us to the sword. We dug in and put them to the sword in the second half. They’re two very, very strong teams. It’s going to be two juggernauts – we said the same thing last year – two juggernauts coming against each other in two weeks time.

“It’s exciting isn’t it? I think it’s exciting for everybody, it’s exciting for us, exciting for them, exciting for the public. They are a serious team and we look forward to that challenge again.”

As O’Sullivan spoke outside his team dressing-room, a debrief was taking place a few yards away. David Franks, the Ballygunner coach who will be masterminding Wexford’s plans next year, with Tony Óg Regan, the former Galway hurler, who works as a performance coach with the Waterford standard-bearers.

The wonder in Ballygunner’s performance levels is how an extended break does not appear to interrupt their flow.

It had been eight weeks since they lifted the Waterford senior hurling trophy. A hiatus of that length had also been experienced for the last two years. The response on each occasions was stunning. Firing 3-20 past Clare’s Ballyea in 2021, taking Tipperary’s Kilruane MacDonaghs for 4-19 in 2022 and then posting 2-20 against Sarsfields yesterday.

mikey-mahony-during-a-downpour Tough weather conditions in Walsh Park yesterday for hurling. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Remarkably for the third straight year, Ballygunner won a Munster quarter-final by a 17-point margin.

How did they handle the break? Gave their players a fortnight off after the county final win over De La Salle. Got back to work then. Took a couple trips on the challenge game circuit. Played internal games. Then hit full speed once the first whistle blew yesterday from referee Conor Doyle.

“We brought a lot of intensity to the first quarter, it dropped a bit in the second quarter but look you have to be happy,” said O’Sullivan.

“The lads were very fresh coming into it. People go on about the eight-week break but it might freshen us up. We’ve worked it well over the last few years.”

Ballygunner have attained a stunning level of consistency. They remain on track to become the first side to achieve three-in-a-row in Munster. They have been present in the last five finals. It’s 14 victories out of 16 games now in the province since the start of 2017. Their average winning margin in Munster since losing the 2019 final to Borris-Ileigh has been 12 points across seven games.

The hard data illustrated the scale of the challenge Sarsfields faced yesterday as they headed east down the N25. A hurdle that proved insurmountable.

“They are a really good machine,” admitted manager Johnny Crowley.

“Look, we have had a fantastic year. We are the county champions. That is something we are very proud of. We came down here today to do better than we did.

“We knew coming down here today was going to be a huge task and we’d have to get 15 or 18 10/10s to be challenging them. Today was one of those days where we didn’t get them.”

For Sarsfields it was an uplifting year in ending a wait for a Cork title that stretched back to 2014. Their club’s emotional rollercoaster since saw their grounds in Riverstown destroyed by ruinous flood waters.

This hammering put a full stop on their season and prolongs the misery Cork teams have suffered at this level, no win since Glen Rovers prevailed against Patrickswell in 2016.

For Ballygunner no such concerns. They move swiftly on.

A heavyweight showdown with Na Piarsaigh awaits.

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