The AIB Munster hurling championship semi-finals saved their best until last on Sunday. Champions Ballygunner were apparently in cruise control in Limerick against Na Piarsaigh, leading by eight points with less than 10 minutes left.
This was not a sizzling, high-scoring encounter like last year’s meeting between the sides when the scoreboard was struggling to keep up. These scores were being painstakingly chiselled into brick and the Waterford side were etched ahead by 0-15 to 0-07.
A couple of frees by Ronan Lynch ate into the lead and when Adrian Breen reacted quickest to a 60th-minute chance when Lynch dropped a 65 into the melting pot, there was just a score between them and four minutes to come.
There was no shortage of scares, as David Dempsey and Kevin Downes got touches in a succession of pinball plays as the clock wound down. Crucially, Pauric Mahony, again like last year, man of the match with 0-11, hit his last free to extend the lead to four, 0-16 to 1-9.
Victorious manager Darragh O’Sullivan hailed the veteran marksman as a role model for the other forwards.
“I don’t know what he scored but his work rate was infectious all over the field. But then, look at Peter Hogan. How hard did he work? The man was out on his feet. Mikey Mahony – the one he turned over at the end. Kevin, Dessie, all of them. That’s what they do. It’s ingrained in them at this stage.
“There were a lot of similarities between last year and this year. It was a titanic struggle, five in it last year, four in it this year. They put us to the pin of our collar last year – we were under serious pressure at half-time; we turned it around.
“There was an extremely strong wind, five- or six-point wind without a shadow of a doubt. It was hard to get the ball, even Stephen with his puckouts, hard to get it into the other half, so that’s the struggle. They’d the same problem in the second half, they couldn’t get it up into their half from their puckout. In the modern game the puckout is so important. But I’m thrilled with the guys.”
For Na Piarsaigh, the match followed an almost opposite course to 12 months ago. They didn’t get off to a great start but in both halves rebounded to finish strongly.
The club’s All-Ireland winning manager Shane O’Neill regretted the inability to stay in contention and give their late comeback a stronger prospect of success.
“We just couldn’t win the breaking ball, which we were doing generally okay in up to that. That was allowing their platform to set up the scores, which they are very good at, and they got those few scores.
“In fairness to our boys, they just kept going. We have been in similar situations this year where it didn’t look like it was going to happen for us but the boys dug really deep and made it happen. They tried again today and it didn’t happen but I’d very proud to be associated with them, particularly in the fourth quarter when it looked like the game was over.”
In the other semi-final in Thurles, Clare’s Clonlara looked to have had it made when opponents Kiladangan were reduced to 13 men in the second half but the Tipperary champions, with Billy Seymour top coring on 0-11, recovered from a three-point deficit to lead by two in injury-time. The drama didn’t end there, as scores by Aidan and Cian Moriarty levelled it before Diarmuid Stritch won the match in the dying seconds.
It made for an eventful weekend for Clonlara’s John Conlon. Just days after winning his second All Star, the Clare All-Ireland winner hit four from play and was named man of the match in his club’s first win in the provincial championship.
Manager Donal Madden gave the star player his due.
“The postman. He always delivers. He’s unbelievable. He’s a great guy and he’s so modest. I rang him on Thursday to congratulate him and all he wanted to know was what time we were training on Saturday. A phenomenal role model and idol.
“We were training on Saturday at 2 o’clock. For Monday evening we have nothing planned. It’s fantastic.”