Clare senior hurling champions Sixmilebridge could hardly have asked for a stiffer test in the Munster Club semi-final than a meeting with their Waterford counterparts, Ballygunner, at Walsh Park but they will travel with strong support this Sunday for the game.
Na Piarsaigh from Limerick or Blackrock from Cork will provide the opposition in the final.
This will be Ballygunner’s eighth consecutive week in championship action. Last week, the Waterford side delivered, arguably, their best display when overcoming Thurles Sarsfields in a quarter-final tie that needed extra time. That performance showed their determination to do well in this championship.
Sixmilebridge have injury concerns hanging over captain, Paidi Fitzpatrick and fellow defender, Caimin Morey.
Fitzpatrick suffered a broken finger in the drawn final with Clooney-Quin. Following treatment, he played in the replay but he suffered further damage to the hand, making him an extremely doubtful starter for Sunday. A final decision on whether or not he will play will not be made until nearer match time.
Caimin Morey was replaced late in the replayed final and while there is a doubt about his fitness, he is expected to play on Sunday.
Sixmilebridge manager John O’Meara travelled to Walsh Park last Sunday to watch Ballygunner in action against Thurles.
“They are a very good and balanced team and we will have to perform to the best of our ability if we are to have a chance of winning on Sunday,” he told The Clare Champion this week.
The loss of either or, worse still, both would be a huge blow to Sixmilebridge. While they have a strong panel, Fitzpatrick and Morey have been ever-present in recent years. Fitzpatrick has been rotating between full and wing-back, while Morey has played most of his games in the half-back line.
Aidan Quilligan and Seadna Morey were outstanding in defence for the champions in their win over Clooney-Quin and Sixmilebridge followers will be looking to this duo to repeat that form. Shane Golden and Jamie Gilligan are others who have been impressive on their way to this stage in the championship.
The Fergal Hartley-managed Ballygunner left no one in any doubt as to their determination to succeed in this championship by their performance last week. One of their key players all season, Brian O’Sullivan picked up a shoulder injury in that game and the word from Waterford is that he will miss this week’s game and maybe the rest of the season, should they advance further.
They have an experienced squad that will include inter-county men Stephen O’Keeffe (goalie), Barry Coughlan and the Mahoney brothers, Padraic and Philip. In addition, the Waterford champions will include former inter-county player Wayne Hutchinson, who is part of a strong half-back line along with Philip Mahoney and Philip Walsh. Shane O’Sullivan at midfield is another strong player.
While they have featured in this championship on a number of occasions, they have only won the Munster title once, in 2001, when they beat Blackrock. They have tasted defeat in seven finals, the most recent being in 2015 when they lost to Na Piarsaigh.
Sixmilebridge, for their part, have contested the provincial final on nine occasions, winning the title three times in 1984, 1995 (when they added the All-Ireland crown) and in 2000. They last contested the final in 2013, when they were comprehensively beaten by Na Piarsaigh.
The ingredients are certainly there for an exciting contest. It remains to be seen how either team will manage if they are forced to make changes because of injuries and it will also be interesting to see if Ballygunner will show any signs of tiredness, given that this will be their ninth week in-a-row in championship action.
Having the benefit of a hard contest last week and with home advantage, Ballygnner will carry the favourites’ tag but Sixmilebridge have shown that they can thrive on the big occasions.
At this stage of the season, they don’t come much bigger than this.