Slaughtneil staring down the barrel in Ballygunner shoot-out
AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Robert Emmet's, Slaughtneil (Derry) v Ballygunner (Waterford) (tomorrow, Parnell Park, 1.30pm – live on TG4)
AFTER a two-year hiatus, there's an element of going back into the unknown for Slaughtneil as they head to Parnell Park tomorrow and a latest giant-killing attempt against Waterford kingpins Ballygunner.
Leaving Newry in January 2020 having just given Ballyhale Shamrocks - eventual All-Ireland champions and favourites to claim this year's crown - a run for their money, renewed optimism soon replaced the crippling disappointment of having come so close against the best about.
But operating as a dual club, and with the competition in Derry and Ulster not at the same level as the other clubs harbouring All-Ireland ambitions, means maintaining momentum will always be a challenge.
Throw a pandemic and the cancellation of last year's provincial and All-Ireland club competitions into the mix and this feels, to some degree, like starting afresh. Of course, plenty of questions have already been answered in the months leading into tomorrow's semi-final.
Dunloy had grown as a force since losing out to the Emmet's in 2019. After blasting a resurgent Rossa aside in the Antrim final, plenty fancied the scales might have tipped in their recent rivalry with Michael McShane's wrong.
Those doubts were cast aside in emphatic fashion as Slaughtneil proved too strong once again. At their best, the Emmet's are an awesome force, as evidenced in that Ballyhale clash a few years back.
Bearing that in mind, odds of 1/10 favouring Ballygunner appear somewhat, well, odd – only when the long whistle blows tomorrow will we know whether the bookmakers got it wrong, though they seldom do.
Like Slaughtneil, Ballygunner also travel to Dublin craving an All-Ireland breakthrough. Three times they have conquered Munster, only to fall in the last four.
And just as the performance against Ballyhale two years ago told Slaughtneil the gap could be bridged, so defeat earlier in the same campaign told Ballygunner they had to be better or risk being burdened with the nearly men tag for the forseeable.
In the 2019 Munster final, Tipperary's Borris-Ileigh used the tighter confines of Pairc Ui Rinn to crowd the Waterford men out, sending Ballygunner home empty-handed and leaving a hugely talented group standing at a crossroads.
This time around, Darragh O'Sullivan's men have left little to chance, saving their best performances for the big days. After just squeezing beyond Mount Sion in the Waterford semi-final, Ballygunner had 20 points to spare when they faced Roanmore in the decider.
A titanic tussle was expected against Limerick heavyweights Kilmallock when the Munster final rolled around earlier this month. The sheer size and physicality of the Kilmallock backs, the conditioning of men like Robbie Hanley around the middle and the guile of Oisin O'Reilly was expected to provide a platform that could really trouble Ballygunner.
Instead they hassled and harried their opponents into submission, Philip Mahony leading the resistance at one end while Dessie Hutchinson did so much damage at the other.
The net result was a stunning 3-20 to 1-11 win, and somehow limiting their incredible scoring power has to be a huge concern for McShane and the Emmet's. So far this year Ballygunner have been racking up average scores of close on 27 points per game, while their defensive tenacity provides a solid base.
This is a feature they share with Slaughtneil, but whether the Derry champions have the forward power to really panic Ballygunner will have a big say in how this game unfolds.
The Emmet's might take inspiration from how Borris-Ileigh used a tighter pitch, not dissimilar to Parnell Park, to their advantage in 2019. Even this year, Mount Sion succeeded in dragging Ballygunner into a dogfight in a nip and tuck Waterford semi-final.
Heading into added time only a point separated the sides when Mount Sion forward Alan Kirwan turned down the chance to level it up, flashing his shot narrowly wide of Stephen O'Keefe's post before late scores from Hutchinson and Peter Hogan sealed the deal.
In that game the pace of Stephen Roche caused Ballygunner bother all day – as they did against Dunloy recently and Ballyhale back in 2020, Slaughtneil need to make sure they find a way for Brendan Rogers to be at his wrecking ball best.
Largely deployed around the middle for their Ulster final win over Ballycran, it was only when he was moved further forward and given space to do damage that Slaughtneil finally pulled away.
Having started slowly that day, they will need to be much, much better tomorrow – but the lightning quick breaks up the field that illuminated the second half at Corrigan Park have the potential to unsettle Ballygunner. And if they can match the intensity and accuracy of their work against Ballyhale, this could be another barnstormer.
But Ballygunner are men on a mission too and, holding onto so many aces, this should be their time to edge a step closer to the Tommy Moore Cup.