WHEN Joey Holden was interviewed on TV after Ballyhale Shamrocks defeated Ballygunner in the 2019 All-Ireland club semi-final, Holden mentioned how a missed goal chance for Ballygunner in the 40th minute was a defining moment in the match.
“Thank God for the muck in the goal,” he said.
Conor Power got inside the Ballyhale defence and after passing the ball across the square, Brian O’Sullivan had two chances to put it into the net. Yet a combination of Richie Reid, a mucky goalmouth and Conor Phelan’s leg kept the sliotar out.
A goal was always going to be decisive in such a tight match and Ballyhale got it three minutes later through Eoin Cody. It was Ballyhale’s first time going ahead but they never looked back. A month later, Ballyhale went on to hammer St Thomas’ in the All-Ireland club final.
Ballygunner dusted themselves down and just went again, securing another Waterford title before beating Sixmilebridge and Patrickswell by an aggregate margin of 20 points in the 2019 Munster club championship. They went into the final as hot favourites against but Ballygunner were beaten by Borris-Ileigh by one point.
One of the standout features of that match was the pitch in Páirc Uí Rinn. The weather was atrocious, but the pitch had cut up so bad that players found it almost impossible to keep their feet. Borris-Ileigh were fully deserving of the win but, once again, Ballygunner almost felt cheated by the muck.
In the Munster semi-final in mid-December, Ballygunner were up to their ankles in muck again, but they negotiated, albeit controversially, their way past Loughmore-Castleiney.
Loughmore definitely felt hard done by with the controversial sending-off of Noel and John McGrath, Loughmore’s two marquee county players. Yet one of the dominant themes of Loughmore’s frustration was the choice of venue and the state of the pitch in Fraher Field, Dungarvan.
Nobody can account for the weather but with Leinster club football semi-finals and the Leinster club hurling final being staged in Croke Park the following weekend, Loughmore manager Frankie McGrath felt that the match should have been played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
“These guys absolutely deserve better,” said McGrath. “Today was the big hurling match of the day and we played on a poor pitch, under lights. Was that necessary? If the big teams in Leinster can go to Croke Park, that’s the very least that players are entitled to.
McGrath’s point was well made because while Ballygunner had home advantage, they didn’t choose to play in Dungarvan which is a 40-minute drive away. Walsh Park is only down the road but Ballygunner would have much preferred the city venue because the pitch is far better there than Fraher Field, especially this time of the year.
“The expectation would have been that the game would be in Walsh Park,” said Ballygunner manager Darragh O’Sullivan afterwards. “But for various reasons, it couldn’t be.”
It wasn’t because Walsh Park doesn’t have floodlights. At the outset of the Munster club championship, it was decided that all games had to be played at floodlit venues. However, an exception was made for the Ballyea-Ballygunner match because the three Clare clubs in action that weekend were at home to Waterford sides.
Two of those games took place in Cusack Park while Ogonnelloe played Brickey Rangers in Sixmilebridge (which is a floodlit venue) at the same time as the Ballyea-Ballygunner game, which had a 1pm start to ensure there was enough light in case of extra-time.
Ballygunner-Loughmore was a 3.15pm start. Fraher Field has floodlights but, given the venue, the game should have been flipped with the Kilmallock-Midleton semi-final which started at 1.15pm in the Gaelic Grounds.
As well as having a better pitch, the floodlights at the Limerick venue are also of higher quality, which would have more than likely ensured that Ballygunner-Loughmore wouldn’t have to be played under lights with a 1.15pm throw-in. Hurling under floodlights is a different game but it’s a whole different challenge again when the weather turns as bad as it did that afternoon in Dungarvan.
Playing that game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh may have removed Ballygunner’s home advantage but it would have been the best decision for both teams because the profile of the match deserved it.
The flipside though, is that pitches will be under far more strain in November and December with the additional traffic in a more condensed period.
It’s not always that black and white either. Thurles is one of the best fields in the country but it can still get cut up in bad weather, which Ballygunner discovered to their cost in February 2019. Yet that’s still far easier to accept than losing on a pitch that is basically unplayable and not fitting of a big club game’s status.
If club games are to be given more importance in the split season, that promise also needs to be matched with venues. That may come down to stadia availability at a particular time, but big provincial club matches deserve that stage as opposed to trying to play a hurling game on a pitch resembling a paddy field or a mud-bath.