Sunday afternoon thriller continues hurling’s glorious year with quality coverage to match
THERE have been some pretty fantastic sporting moments over the past week or so. Alexandre Lacazette’s gorgeous finish against Liverpool, the terrific Breeders Cup victories of Enable and Accelerate, Jordan Larmour’s terpsichorean tour de force try in Chicago, Red Star pulling off the biggest upset of the Champions League so far, Manchester United conjuring up memories of 1999.
But for sheer visceral excitement, roller-coaster reversal of fortunes and cliffhanger denouements, a relatively unglamorous fixture topped them all. It may well be that 2018 is the greatest year in the history of hurling. There have been so many classics we’re almost sated at this stage. But there was still something special about last Sunday’s Munster club semi-final between Ballygunner and Ballyea.
The Waterford champions had home advantage and were favourites but Ballyea tore into them from the start. They led by three at half-time thanks to a super solo goal from Niall Deasy, a player having the game of his life. Eight minutes into the second half the Clare side were six points clear and the favourites seemed to be floundering.
Enter corner-forward Conor Power, one of those rare forwards — Seanie O’Leary and DJ Carey were others — who always gives the impression that a goal is the first thing he thinks of when gaining possession. One shot whizzed narrowly over, another which followed an eel-like wriggle past his marker found the net. Game on.
With 11 minutes left the teams were level. It was nip and tuck from there on in, but when Pauric Mahony landed a super point to put Ballygunner two up with four minutes left the momentum seemed to be with them. Deasy had other ideas, stretching acrobatically to divert a high ball into the net. Two quick points and Ballyea led 2-17 to 1-17 as injury-time ebbed away.
Ballygunner were awarded a last-gasp free. We’ve seen this one before, the ball is lobbed in, there are a few oohs and aahs, then a clearance and a final whistle. In went the ball, aahs followed oohs and Ballyea knocked it away from goal. But before the whistle could go, Power retrieved it and showing remarkable coolness in the circumstances, lobbed a teasing ball across goal. Philip Mahony (pictured), up from the back, met it like Roger Federer putting away a smash to bring the game into extra-time.
More ups and downs. Ballyea quickly went two up. Ballygunner came back; 2-20 each at the end of the first period of extra-time. Players were cramping up. One of them, Ballygunner’s Peter Hogan, summoned up one last effort for a point to put his team ahead and then promptly collapsed. This time the home team, leading by two with two minutes left, seemed to have it.
Ballyea pulled one back and Tony Kelly tried to hoist a long-range equaliser. It fell short but skidded treacherously on the surface and Stephen O’Keeffe just about knocked it out for a 65. Deasy pointed that — 2-23 each. Ten more minutes of extra-time. If there was ever a game neither side deserved to lose it was this one. But scheduling constraints decreed there could be no share of the spoils. Kelly looked to have put Ballyea ahead again but his shot came off the post and Ballygunner broke from the clearance for Barry O’Sullivan to point. That seemed a crucial turning point and Ballygunner got home by 2-26 to 2-23.
Maybe it sounds slightly chauvinistic to suggest that the best sporting entertainment on offer last week came in a match between two parish teams played in front of 2,200 fans at an unlovely ground in Waterford. But if you’d seen the match you wouldn’t disagree. This was an extraordinary epic, a marvellous coda to a magnificent season, an unexpected bonus as the evenings start to draw in and the nights grow colder.
Such classics would once have been witnessed only by those from the clubs involved. So not for the first time I felt immensely thankful to TG4 whose coverage of the club championships is the great unsung wonder of Irish sports coverage.
On Sunday, commentator Brian Tyers and analyst Donal O’Grady did their usual superb job. Tyers is passionate without indulging in the cringeworthy rhetorical antics which mar the performance of his RTÉ counterparts, O’Grady’s understated and insightful contribution reminds you of what a commanding and reassuring presence he must have been in the Cork dressing room. This was not just sport but sports broadcasting at its best.
Always keep an eye on the club championships. You’ll miss something great if you don’t.