Sport

Back-to-back Munster titles on the cards for Ballygunner with Ballyea stranding in the way

All roads lead to Semple Stadium this Saturday as Ballygunner and Ballyea lock horns with the Munster title at stake.

The Gunners hope to defend their status as Munster kingpins, while Ballyea are searching for a first title since 2016.

Defending the title is no easy task and only four teams have ever managed it - Newmarket-on-Fergus (67 & 68), Roscrea (69 & 70) Blackrock (78 & 79) & St Josephs/Doora-Barefield (98 & 99).

Darragh O'Sullivan's side have enjoyed some heady years of late winning their ninth consecutive Waterford title along with last year's provincial competition as well as a first-ever All-Ireland success for the black and red hoops.

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If their success is to continue this weekend they are going to need to dispatch the Clare Champions who have had one good and one mediocre performance in recent weeks.

Fueled by four-time All-Star Tony Kelly, Ballyea have won four of the last seven Clare Championships. Their first senior title came in 2016 when they would go on to claim their one and only Munster honour.

These two sides have met in recent memory. Balygunner were dominant winners at the quarter-final stage last year when they beat Ballyea by 17 points - albeit a Ballyea team that were without their talismanic Kelly.

Two weeks ago in the Clare county final Ballyea trailed by 3 points heading down the home straight against Éire Óg. They had shot 2.14 prior but the Townies point scoring had kept them out in front. Martin O’Leary, Tony Kelly, Cathal O’Connor and Niall Deasy shot four unanswered points to wrestle the title from their opponent's grip in the most thrilling way possible - a one-point win for the ages.

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They would go on to face St. Finbarr's in the Munster semi where once again a single point decided the contest, but this time it wasn't a come-from-behind white knuckle ride like their last outing.

Ballyea had a one-man advantage from the ninth minute of play and floundered their way to the win.

They led by a single point when the referee started to look at his watch. The narrowest of margins looked likely to not be enough as the Barr's were awarded a debatable 65 to end the game. Extra time looked certain when Ben Cunningham - who had sent nine over the bar already - sent his placed ball wide of the mark. Ballyea had reversed into the county title but the history books won't be counting how they won it.

The task that faces Ballyea this Saturday is a different one entirely. They now go up against the Munster and All-Ireland Champions who are in the routine of winning. They were sternly tested by Na Piarsaigh two weeks ago and needed the mother and father of all fightbacks to earn their spot in the decider.

Na Piarsaigh threw everything at the Gunners - including the kitchen sink freshly ripped from the changing room wall. They shot 2.11 in the first half and broke up play in the midfield using every ounce of the DNA of Limerick hurling. Things had not clicked. "We're not used to going in five points down at halftime" said Gunners boss Darragh O Sullivan after the game. "Normally when we go in we're up four or five points. How they dealt with that was phenomenal, they never panicked, and they stuck to the process. It was a huge performance."

Dessie Hutchinson and Patrick Fitzgerald scored goals in either half that day, with Pauric Mahony notching 13 points in a man-of-the-match display.

Before they faced the Limerick champions, the Gunners skinned Kilruane-MacDonagh's at Walsh Park beating the Tipp side by 17 points in a performance akin to their demolition of Ballyea last year.

As they complete their final preparations this week they are well-placed to reclaim the Munster title and become just the fifth club in the history of the competition to do so. The Gunners have broke plenty of records in recent years when it comes to their dominance in Waterford hurling - first team to win the All-Ireland, tied with Mount Sion and Erin's Own on the all-time county title list etc.

A win against Ballyea would add one more to the win column while cementing them amongst some of the best teams to ever play in the competition.

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