By Brendan O’Brien
NEMO RANGERS will not be dangerously undercooked going into Sunday’s AIB All-Ireland club semi-final against Antrim’s St Gall’s, according to midfielder Maurice McCarthy.
The Cork and Munster champions have sauntered through to this late stage of the competition, with their last four games stretching back to the county final against Muskerry in late October yielding wins by an average of nine points.
Tipperary’s Ardfinnan, Waterford’s Stradbally and Clare’s St Senan’s of Kilkee all failed to make the Capwell side sweat in the provincial campaign. Gall’s in contrast, come to the table as a far more battle-hardened outfit.
John Rafferty’s men had to negotiate their way past Carrickmore, Mayobridge and Bellaghy to reach the national semi-final for the first time since 1983 but McCarthy is confident that Rangers will be well able to step up to the plate at the weekend.
Manager Ephie Fitzgerald said after the Munster final defeat of Kilkee that it was the best performance he had ever seen the club produce, rich praise from a man so intrinsically associated with the city outfit.
"Unfortunately for them and luckily for us, St Senan’s didn’t seem to click on the day the way they did against An Ghaeltacht in their previous match," said McCarthy. "All we can do going into these games is to focus on our own game rather than get caught up with the opposition."
What may prove to be most important is not the manner of the road Nemo have taken but the fact that, unlike St Gall’s, they have travelled this far down this road before.
Five years ago, Crossmolina edged them out in a one-point final at Croke Park, before Nemo exacted the sweetest of revenge acts two years later by a two-point margin.
McCarthy himself experienced both games, as did seven more of the team that captured the Cork championship four months ago. A handful of others played their part in 2003 as well and experience of that magnitude is a priceless commodity in the club championship once Christmas disappears in the rear view mirror.
"There are huge expectation levels within the club but I think that drives you on," said McCarthy. "You’re always going to have a group of players in the club who have been there and done it all, and that’s fantastic because you can tap into their experience and they can help to drive you on. They help you to know what to expect and that type of experience out on the field is vital. Rather than weighing heavily, I see it as an added bonus. Because you’ve got someone whispering in your ear who has done it before, you’re rarely overawed."
Nemo’s appetite for the fray has been heightened by their absence from the spotlight, a result of their unforeseen defeat to Clonakilty in 2004, which stripped them unceremoniously of their county, provincial and national baubles.
That was the day Rangers famously left Colin Corkery on the bench only to introduce him when the fire got out of control. By then the conflagration was beyond control but James Masters has since inherited Corkery’s mantle as chief talisman.
Others have made strides too. With one All-Ireland medal in his possession already, Willie Morgan is developing ever faster while young Paul Kerrigan is turning heads for reasons other than his family heritage.
"They’ve had a fantastic impact on our campaign so far and there are some excellent players coming through.
"That’s the secret to any club, breeding players like that at a young age and making sure that you have a strong underage structure. Thankfully we’re reaping the rewards of it now. "I never doubted any of them," claimed McCarthy.
"It happens every year, and particularly this year; players like Willie, James and Paul - you could go on - they have been superb. They’re seasoned players now at this stage."
For all their experience, Nemo - like the other three teams competing this weekend - cannot predict whether they will hit the ground running after two month’s inactivity and the temptations of the festive season.
Last year Portlaoise and Ballina were streets ahead in the quality of football they played before the New Year and, though they both progressed to St Patrick’s Day, they never rediscovered that same momentum.
Rangers have kept themselves ticking over with the Kelliher Shield and a Munster League game against old rivals Dr Crokes but McCarthy believes if the will is strong enough, the win will follow.
"What you do during your own training sessions is get as much as you possibly can out of them. What we find is that there is such a huge competition for places that it keeps everyone on edge. That gives you the extra bite in training that can make up for the lack of competitive games.
"Everybody wants to be in a club final. That’s all the incentive you need. Paddy’s Day and Croke Park is special. Everybody wants to be part of that."