Hurling & Camogie

In-form Ballygunner must be wary of threat from under-the-radar St Thomas’s side

Battle-hardened Waterford champions clash with full-strength Galway outfit for final spot

Ballygunner forward Dessie Hutchinson scored 1-1 in the Munster final. Picture Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: St Thomas’s (Galway) v Ballygunner (Waterford) (Saturday, O’Moore Park, 7.30pm, live on TG4)

FROM a standing start, Connacht representatives St Thomas’s take on a Ballygunner side that has played three blood-and-thunder Munster championship games since they last saw competitive action.

Waterford City outfit Ballygunner completed 10-on-the-trot in their native county with an 11-point victory over rivals De La Salle and since then they have dealt impressively with the best the champions of Cork, Limerick and Clare had to offer.

A 17-point success over Cork’s Sarsfields set the tone for a more workmanlike 0-16 to 1-9 win over Limerick’s misfiring Na Parsaigh and ‘The Gunners’ had 13 points to spare against first-time finalists Clonlara in that Munster decider on December 3. That victory broke new ground in their province by recording a first-ever Munster three in-a-row.

So there are reserves of form and confidence in the bank of Ballygunner who have reached this stage for the fourth time in the last five All-Ireland Championships. They’ve gone all the way just once when their only All-Ireland title came in 2022 with a dramatic win over Ballyhale Shamrocks thanks to a last-gasp goal from substitute Harry Ruddle. Huddle tried his luck from 25 yards, the sliothar found the net and Ballygunner won by a point.

St Thomas's Conor Cooney clashes with Dunloy Cuchullains' Eamon Smyth at Croke Park last year

Ballyhale had their vengeance in last year’s final – a TJ Reid penalty was the difference between the teams – but the Shamrocks didn’t make it out of Kilkenny this year. O’Loughlin Gaels ended their five years’ of dominance with a one-point win and the Gaels face Ulster champions Cushendall in the second semi-final on Sunday.

Is the door open with Ballyhale absent? Only time will tell on that and Ballygunner would be foolish to underestimate the credentials of St Thomas’s on Saturday.

Since 1999, the Connacht championship hasn’t been contested, so beating Turloughmore by two points to win the Galway title (their sixth in-a-row) was enough to propel them to this stage.

The county final was back on October 29 so St Thomas’s have had to stay sharp since with challenge matches and in-house games. On the flipside, the Galway men have the experience of playing at this level regularly over the last decade and, crucially, they will be fresh and at full strength.

According to reports, they are injury-free meaning David and Bernard Burke are both fit and could slot in beside brother Eanna who hit a match-winning 2-2 in the county final. Centre-forward Conor Cooney is a reliable scorer while his brother Shane holds the middle of the defence in front of full-back Fintan Burke.

Meanwhile, Ballygunner are also strong down the middle and they defend and attack in packs with a ferocious workrate. Organised in a well-honed system in which Philip Mahony operates as the extra man in defence, they play a possession game built on off-the-shoulder running. Pauric (the free-taker) and Kevin Mahony and Dessie Hutchinson are among the scoring threats up front.

Kenneth Burke’s St Thomas’s are coming in under the radar and although they have lost their last three semi-finals, arguably their best ever performance at this level came against Ballyhale in 2021 when they lost by a point.

If they can produce that intensity again they will come very close and perhaps their best bet at O’Moore Park will be to keep their defensive shape and make this a physical battle, particularly in the first half.

You can get St Thomas’s at 5-1 in the bookies and they’d be worth a flutter at that price but Ballygunner, with the wind in their sails and form behind them, get the nod to progress to their third All-Ireland final in succession.