Na Piarsaigh have been road-tested in Limerick

It’s 21 years ago now since Clarecastle travelled down to Walsh Park to play Ballygunner in a Munster semi-final. We were in the Roanmore clubhouse having our pre-match meal when word came through that the match had been called off after a deluge of rain had turned the pitch into a paddy field.

The game was re-fixed for the following Sunday but we had a nice emigration party planned for one of the panel that was heading off that week so despite the protests of management we proceeded with the knees-up that night. 

It wasn’t ideal preparation but we went out that Sunday and both teams served up an epic. ‘Clarecastle in a Classic’ was the headline of the match report in this newspaper.

The Munster final against Patrickswell was fixed for two days after the All-Stars. I was nominated, but I knew it would be touch and go as to whether I’d get one. I rang Ger Loughnane and asked him if he could find out if I’d got an award. 

I just didn’t want to be going up to the Burlington, torturing myself, staying away from the craic and trying to hit the sack early, with a Munster final on that Sunday.

When Loughnane delivered the news to me late on Thursday, I left the tuxedo in the wardrobe. I was captain of the All-Ireland winners. I probably should have been there but I rang a couple of journalists I knew and told them that my non-appearance wasn’t a protest; I was back in Clarecastle that evening for our last training session before the game.

When you have a bit of success, both at club and county level, there is always the potential for clashes, and missing out on events at this time of the year. I’m sure the Na Piarsaigh boys are sorry not to be in Boston for the Fenway Classic this weekend, but I’m also pretty convinced, as I experienced two decades ago, that very little can compare with playing — and winning — a Munster club title with your best friends.

Na Piarsaigh will fully expect to secure a fifth title since 2011, having never lost a game in the province, which is incredible. I heard a radio interview with Shane Dowling the other day where he tried to paint the background picture to who Na Piarsaigh really are. Shane described how they weren’t the massive super-club they’re perceived to be, with colossal numbers and massive facilities, but that they absolutely maximise what they have.

In so many ways, Dowling epitomises what Na Piarsaigh are all about; he grew up just across from the pitch, which became his playground. He always turns up for them because it’s clear how much Na Piarsaigh means to Shane.

Winning back-to-back titles for the first time was a huge motivation for the group this season but Na Piarsaigh have looked on a mission of atonement since their All-Ireland final replay defeat to Cuala in March. It was an absolutely brilliant match which Na Piarsaigh could have won. 

They should definitely have won the drawn match but that hurt has driven them forward like rocket fuel ever since; they crushed Clonoulty-Rossmore two weeks ago like a Russian tank would roll over an empty beer can.

Ballygunner have been excellent over the last five years during their crusade to five-in-a-row in Waterford but the same spark doesn’t seem to be in them this year. That might sound like a harsh assessment based on me watching them just once against Ballyea but it took Ballygunner everything they had to get over the Clare champions after two periods of extra-time, in Walsh Park. 

Ballygunner showed immense character and spirit to dig out that result in atrocious conditions but you still couldn’t envisage Na Piarsaigh labouring to the same extent against Ballyea.

Ballygunner may have had a harder route to reach this final, having played Midleton and Ballyea in two tight matches, but I wouldn’t exactly agree with that viewpoint either. Both of those matches were at home while Na Piarsaigh had to beat Kilmallock and Doon — two serious outfits — in the Limerick semi-final and final.

I know I’m friendly with Darragh Droog, Na Piarsaigh’s S&C coach, from having worked with him in the Limerick Academy, but you have to give him massive credit for the way in which he has kept these boys fresh and sharp. This group have been on the road now for two years, but you also have to factor in the mileage their raft of inter-county players have put up this season.

Na Piarsaigh are a well-oiled and impressive machine and they look to be gearing up for another big performance. It will be heart-breaking for Ballygunner if they come up short again, but I think they will.

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