Underdog status suits St. Thomas' in last four clash with Ballygunner

St. Thomas’ will compete in a senior All-Ireland club hurling semi-final for the seventh time in their history next Saturday evening when they travel to O’Moore Park in Portlaoise to take on Munster champions and competition favourites Ballygunner of Waterford (throw-in 7.30pm ).

There are plenty of similarities between these two clubs, with both on a quest to win a second national title having both been involved in some titanic clashes with Ballyhale Shamrocks in recent campaigns. Ballygunner went down 1-16 to 0-16 in last December’s semi-final after famously beating the Kilkenny men a year previously to become the first Waterford team to ever lift the Tommy Moore cup.

St. Thomas’ completed an astonishing six-in-a-row of Galway titles when seeing off Turloughmore in October, but Ballygunner have an even longer run put together in Waterford, racking up their tenth consecutive title with an eleven point win over De La Salle.

Their average margin of victory in county finals is twelve along that remarkable run, suggesting a massive disparity in standards. Winning three Munster titles in a row, the first club ever to do so, following a double digit win over Clare’s Clonlara in Semple Stadium shows that Darragh O’Sullivan’s side have no problem with rising to the higher standards outside of their own county, having previously seen off Sarsfields of Cork and Limerick’s Na Piarsaigh.

With Ballyhale out of the equation, Ballygunner are now regarded as champions elect and St. Thomas’ enter Saturday’s clash as rank outsiders, which may well suit their cause. They know that they did not do themselves justice in last year’s semi-final loss to Antrim’s Dunloy in Croke Park, fading badly in the second half of a 1-14 to 0-13 loss.

Injuries and absentees also played their part, though, with David Sherry and Shane Cooney now firmly re-established in the St. Thomas’ defence, while Darragh Burke’s absence on the day was a blow. It could be argued that St. Thomas’ have the strongest available panel that they have ever had, with no injuries of significance to worry about although David Burke’s lack of match sharpness must be a worry.

Ballygunner have plenty of scoring threats in the shape of deadly accurate free-taker Pauric Mahony, and pacy forwards Dessie Hutchinson and Kevin Mahony. Goalkeeper Stephen O’Keefe is a huge asset, with the pace and accuracy of his puck-outs a major weapon in their attacking arsenal.

St. Thomas’ manager Kenneth Burke will have his homework done and learned plenty of lessons from last year’s defeat and his side will surely look to compress the spaces in the middle third that Ballygunner like to use to free their runners. Na Piarsaigh did this to good effect and came closest on the scoreboard, only losing by four points, but they only managed ten scores as Ballygunner’s defence, led by Barry Coughlan at full back, came up trumps.

St. Thomas’ will need both Fintan Burke and Cian Mahony to be at their defiant best in the last line of defence to keep Ballygunner’s total down to a manageable level, while Conor Cooney has to be razor sharp from placed balls. Éanna Burke is capable of unlocking the stingiest of defences, while St. Thomas’ will also need contributions from Victor Manso and Oisín Flannery if they are to prosper and deliver a shock result.


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