Crokes must be wary as Benji Whelan’s underdogs have plenty of bite

The Nire have been here before. Tomorrow they face Dr Crokes of Killarney in the Munster SFC club final, but two years ago they had Austin Stacks of Tralee on the rack at the same stage of the competition. They just couldn’t close it out.

Is that loss going to be a motivation tomorrow in Mallow?

“I suppose it is,” says Benji Whelan, manager of The Nire. “I don’t know if I’d use the words ‘driving force’ but it’s certainly something they’d have learned from. I don’t know if we got in our own way of winning that game, did we step on the self-destruct button at times with some of the errors we made. But that’s all part of the process. We have some fantastic displays in recent years to look back on as well, so it balances out. I wouldn’t call it redemption, but it’s fantastic for the club and the players to be back at this level again.

“It was a hard few weeks after that loss in 2014, and we certainly don’t want to revisit that, but if we can go out and acquit ourselves well - and work hard - then we’d hope to be in with a shout then in the last few minutes.”

They booked their final slot with an extra-time win over Cork champions Carbery Rangers - in Cork - and their victory was described in many quarters as a shock. Given they’d been to the Munster final only two seasons ago, did Whelan find that patronising?

“I don’t tend to get involved in that. You just have to be mindful of where you’re coming from, and we’re consistently trying to improve our standing in our own county and to improve our showing in the local championship. When we get out into the Munster championship, then, we try to make a go of it, but we don’t worry about outside perceptions. We were happy with the performance (against Carbery Rangers), we were happy going down that we’d prepared well, and we felt beforehand that if we put in a performance we’d be in with a shout.”

That they did.

Carbery Rangers had to come from behind to send the game to extra time, but The Nire dominated that additional twenty minutes - a fair achievement given many of their players have put down a tough season with Fourmilewater, the hurling wing of the club.

“We’d consistently discuss how they’re going physically,” said Whelan. “It’s obviously a massive part of the game, but compared to 2014 we felt we saw an improvement not in their application but in the longevity of that application, put it that way.

“The enthusiasm of winning your own county title, of getting out of your own county into the provincial championship - I wouldn’t say I was amazed by their fitness, because we knew we could get more out of them. But we were pleasantly surprised by how they went in extra-time.

“I also knew it’d be difficult for the Carbery lads to keep going, particularly in the middle eight, there was so much work to do.

The fact that our lads had been conditioned in two different regimes, with the hurling, was something we felt was bound to stand to them.

“We’d spoken about that - we said that the longer the game went on the more chance there was that we’d come into it, and that probably played in the minds and helped them as well.”

Afterwards Waterford hurling All-Star Jamie Barron cited his colleagues’ mental strength. Whelan acknowledges the experience Barron, Conor Gleeson, Liam Lawlor, Shane Walsh and others bring to the table.

“We’d prepared ourselves for physical torment, that’s the reality of those games, but once you’ve visited those places in training, you’re gasping for breath and you’re eager for a break but you also know it’s not coming . . .

“We knew once that period was over that we’d grow into the game and maybe get a chance to control the play, and manage the game to an extent. And we did that well in the second half, I thought. We brought the game back to our style, under our control.

“It’s a mental battle, but a lot of the players have experience of this.

“Fair enough, there’s the occasion, and the fact that it isn’t often a Waterford team gets to a Munster final, so managing the occasion is a challenge.”

They’ll have to do so without one of their most experienced defenders, but the injury news isn’t all bad.

“Martin Walsh is back from a head injury he picked up in the county final, but unfortunately Maurice O’Gorman got a plate inserted in his jaw during the week, so he’s out of action until next year. He’s a huge loss, even just in terms of his experience, which becomes an even bigger deal at this level and at this point in a competition. His decision-making is first class, he’s been a county player with Waterford for many years now, so he’s accumulated an awful lot of knowledge.

“It’s a big ask to go out without him, but that’s the way it goes, I’m afraid.”

O’Gorman would have been a handy man for a certain Colm Cooper for Dr Crokes. Will The Nire have a plan for the Kerry icon?

“Being straight, I could list off the number of players we’d have to have a plan for,” says Whelan.

“I’m not saying we’re not going down that road, because obviously we talk about those guys, but where do you start and where do you stop?

“Essentially what we have to do is back ourselves.

“We have high-calibre defenders in our team and there comes a point when you have to say to them, ‘go and do your job’, and if the job is done successfully, to the level it should be done, then we should have an element of success.

“These guys, with the quality they have, they’re going to have their moments. We have to put up with that. We’ll be looking for a big day from four or five of our lads and maybe an off-day for a couple of theirs.

“That might balance things and we might be in the mix with quarter of an hour to go.”

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