'If the seniors did win, it’d be the icing on the cake' for Blackrock's hurlers

Blackrock make the short trip to Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow to take on Na Piarsaigh in the Cork SHC semi-final. The sharp end of the county championship is a traditional part of the Rockies’ calendar, but they’ve been out of the limelight in recent years; their last senior title went down to the village in 2002.

Blackrock's Alan O'Callaghan, Niall Cashman and John Cashman put Newcestown's Tadhg Twomey. Pic: Jim Coughlan

Alan Browne, who starred on that side, welcomes the senior side’s drive to the last four in the championship, but says the Rockies’ renaissance is being driven from the bottom up.

“There hasn’t been huge success at senior level for the last few years, though, in fairness they did win the senior hurling league last year, but there’s massive work being done in Blackrock at underage level. The club’s fortunate in that it has terrific facilities below there: You have the Jimmy Brohan hurling alley there, the hall, there’s activity there every single night, which is great.

“Kids can come and go as they please, there’s keypad access for them to go in hurling, so there’s no waiting around for someone with a key. Conor Hurley took over the management of the complex and has made a massive difference, while the Coakleys — Seanie and Fergal — are very involved with the underage section. They’ve introduced a club mascot, the street leagues are going well, nearly every night of the week there’s activity there and that, obviously, hasn’t come from the success of the senior team, it’s been pushed by the committees and management down there. They’ve reinvigorated it.”

Still, a senior title takes a club to another level. Browne acknowledges that: “If the seniors did win, it’d be the icing on the cake, absolutely. It’d take the whole thing further, particularly for the youngsters in the club.

“My own young fella is with the under-nines, so he doesn’t know anything about county finals. He’s seen them playing first and second round, maybe third-round games.

“When we were playing back around the 2000s and we had success, some of the lads who are now on the senior team would have been at those games and saw what that success looked like. They saw us in county finals nearly every year. Some senior success now would just bring it all onto the next level.”

It would augment the hard work being done and Browne says there’s no substitute for that work.

“The organisation is fantastic, certainly. There’s no shortage of parents getting involved and helping out, but that’s because it’s been organised properly.

“The message is getting out there and the community spirit seems very strong, [in] that it doesn’t seem to be hard work to get people into the club to do that work.

“Whether the kids are having success or not doesn’t really matter. They’re enjoying it and they’re learning and they’re enjoying the facilities.”

If Blackrock progress, then the lessons learned in the last couple of seasons may be significant.

“Going back to last year, we felt there was some progress made,” says Browne.

“We lost to Erin’s Own last year and missed a lot, hit frees wide and missed other scoreable chances, but we were still right in it to the last couple of minutes. Fair enough, we had a shaky start in the first round game against Bandon, but since then they’ve done what they’ve had to do.”

Seeing a team that pipped them make it to the big show in 2016 was crucial, he says.

John O’Sullivan of Blackrock gets away from Newcestown defenders. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“Against Erin’s Own, last year, we missed a fair few chances, as I say, and seeing them make it to the county final then, afterwards, brought it home to the lads that they were close enough to it and I’d say that was reinforced by the fact that Erin’s Own were close enough to winning that county final too last year; the Glen only pulled away, really, in the last few minutes of that game.

“There was another lesson there for us too. The Glen showed their experience. They were in the previous two county finals, after all, and had that experience of the big day that Erin’s Own wouldn’t have had, or our lads either. This year the Glen looked a bit tired to me, that’s the other side of it, because it’s very hard to keep that motivation going year after year.”

In a competition as tight as the Cork senior hurling championship, small margins matter, as Browne points out.

“It’s been very hard to call all along. Looking at teams like Newcestown and Bandon in the quarter-finals, it was an unusual pairing compared to the traditional pairings on the other side.

“UCC, if they’d won the last day, I’d have been fearful enough of them, because they’d have gotten stronger and stronger as the year went on. The last day they were missing Jamie Barron and only lost by a point. You’d think he was surely worth a couple of points to them, the way he’s been playing all this year with Waterford.

“Is the closeness of the competition good for the likes of Blackrock? I think so, certainly. For a few years Sars were nearly untouchable in the Cork championship, they were very strong all over the field, and that can happen for a period.

“The Glen were knocking on the door for a good while and went through their period of losing big games before they got to grips with winning those. That’s the experience I was talking about, and it counts for an awful lot.

“It’s a very even championship now, but the big challenge for management in any club now is keeping your players together.

“The uncertainty, the inactivity... you do nothing for a couple of months and then you’re expected to play everything off in three weeks. It’s a great reflection on team management in every club if they can keep lads focused and motivated through that spell, because there are plenty of other things they could be doing.”

As for tomorrow, Na Piarsaigh have been impressive in their last two outings, in particular.

“Look, they’re coming in after a great win over Bandon the last day out and, as everybody knows, Blackrock only beat Bandon after extra time in our first game of the championship.

“Now I wouldn’t read too much into that, a first-round game is always a banana skin, but we played Newcestown the same night as Na Piarsaigh played Bandon [and] we only just beat them, but Piarsaigh blew Bandon apart, even though the conditions the same evening were poor. You’d have thought those conditions might affect Na Piarsaigh, because they’re so fast. It didn’t, though, they were excellent.”

What of his own crowd?

“There is a good blend there for Blackrock, I know people regard that as a cliche, but we have older lads, a middle generation and some younger players, like John O’Sullivan and Michael O’Halloran, who got very good experience with Cork this year.

“The others, the likes of Tadhg Deasy, Shane O’Keeffe’s been around for a while, so have players like Gary Norberg and these guys. Every team needs that blend, and we seem to have it. Tomorrow’s probably 50/50, our lads know the Piarsaigh fellas well from minor and U21, so there won’t be a surprise element. It’ll come down to whoever’s better on the day, and there’s a big carrot at the end of it, playing in the first senior hurling county final in the new Páirc.

“Not that that’ll be on their minds tomorrow, it’ll all be about the result.”

In a semi-final it always is.

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