Afterwards, Ballygunner were excusing their opponents. “Kilmallock are better than that,” said one. “Didn’t do themselves justice,” insisted another.
Their remarks may be as accurate as their hurling but just as precise is the statement Ballygunner are as good as this.
On the wide, relatively dry environs of Páirc Uí Chaoimh and under its bright lights, they thrived. Dessie Hutchinson played like he had just been presented with a meadow at the start of spring. Pauric Mahony’s sharpness sparkles more with each game he plays.
In November 2019, on a tighter, heavier Páirc Uí Rinn pitch, Borris-Ileigh had manage to suffocate them into submission. But on this surface it was they who were doing the constricting.
They will return to a claustrophobic arena later this month when they take on Slaughtneil in Parnell Park but if they stick to the fundamentals exhibited here they can negotiate that awkward mission.
Two first-half scores illustrated their industry and efficiency in claiming their third Munster crown. On both occasions, Limerick panelist Robbie Hanley was the quarry. As he complained about his hurley being broken in losing possession in the 24th minute, referee Colm Lyons allowed play to continue and Pauric Mahony sent over a score.
In additional time, Hanley was again hounded into coughing up the ball and it was quickly sent down the field to Peter Hogan to give Ballygunner a most satisfying nine-point half-time lead, 1-11 to 0-5.
“Over the last couple of weeks, we probably looked at a couple of the games that we maybe didn’t perform in,” mentioned Pauric Mahony. “Sometimes it can come back to simple things like your work-rate.
“We said to ourselves today that if we’re going to get into this game, we analysed Kilmallock a lot over the last couple of weeks and they’re a fantastic team. I’m sure they would say they didn’t do themselves justice out there today.
“But we knew the challenge that they were going to bring to it, we said that we had to stop their middle area of the field, where they’re getting on a huge amount of ball in the last couple of games and if we did that, we’d position ourselves nicely to lay the foundation to go on. The lads done the damage then inside.”
The totemic stature of the Kilmallock backs and conditioning of their midfielders like Hanley would have been considered part of their strength but they were overwhelmed by the numbers Ballygunner were committing to the ball.
One of the best club players before Christmas, Oisín O’Reilly wasn’t given much peace by Philip Mahony nor many other Ballygunner defenders. An early knock seemed to upset O’Reilly and when his half-forward partner Micheál Houlihan was forced off with a leg injury more of the light in his game dimmed.
Snaffling a short Ballygunner puck-out to tee up Graeme Mulcahy for the opening score of the game, there was plenty of brightness in O’Reilly’s play early on. Indeed, Kilmallock were better in those opening exchanges but Ballygunner were back on level terms by the sixth.
Their opening scores by Hutchinson and Pauric Mahony began an unanswered 1-6 blitz, the goal coming in the ninth minute when Mark O’Loughlin failed to gather a ball in, Billy O’Keeffe fed Hutchinson and he did the rest.
Hutchinson would have added a second but for the sharpness of Barry Hennessy in the 12th minute. At least, Pauric Mahony sent over the resultant 65 and he added his third free of the game after Mikey Mahony split the posts in the 14th minute.
A much-needed Kevin O’Donnell point brought Kilmallock to within six at the first water break, 1-6 to 0-3. However, it had followed a goal opportunity for O’Reilly who looked poised to fire at Stephen O’Keeffe’s goal only to be thwarted by an expertly-timed hook by Ronan Power.
With a nifty piece of work for a tall man, Houlihan sent over the first point of the second quarter. However, by the time Houlihan was helped off five minutes later Ballygunner had extended their advantage to seven points. The margin became eight when Mahony converted a close-range free on the half-hour mark and with almost the last puck of the half Hogan became the fifth Ballygunner forward to score.
Leading 1-11 to 0-5 at half-time, there was no respite for Kilmallock as a Hutchinson brace opened the second half. Kevin Mahony put a fork in it when he found the net in the 36th minute, O’Keeffe again doing well to capitalise on a defender’s error, this time Liam English’s fumble of Pauric Mahony’s long-range free.
O’Keeffe turned poacher four minutes later when he availed of Hennessy’s save from Tadhg Foley’s shot to push the ball over the whitewash. Seventeen points up, there was chatter in the press box of it becoming a record-breaking rout for a Munster final, surpassing Blackrock’s 19-point win over Mount Sion in 1975, but Kilmallock retained discipline and dignity.
By the second water break, the difference was 15, 3-15 to 0-19. Stephen O’Keeffe had to make two spectacular saves from Conor Hanley. The substitute eventually beat the former Waterford goalkeeper with a low free in additional time.
IT MATTERED: It was game over when Kevin Mahony struck Ballygunner’s second goal in the 36th minute. Eleven points down before the green flag was raised, Kilmallock gave up the ghost.
CAN’T IGNORE: It’s not as if Ballygunner came of age but producing a performance like this means they will be spoken of as All-Ireland contenders. Slaughtneil will ask questions of them but Ballygunner have plenty of answers.
GOOD DAY: If the Ballygunner convoy passed Páirc