The memories came flooding back to me in Thurles yesterday from all angles. It was almost 20 years to the day since we, Clarecastle, won our only Munster title in 1997. We had beaten Ballygunner in the semi-final. There was a Limerick team in the final again yesterday, just like there had been when we met Patrickswell.
I have some great memories of the match but the clearest images in my mind are of coming back to the village that evening. The place was electric. It was a beautiful feeling but, at the time, I was nearly getting complacent with homecomings after the two All-Irelands, and two Munster titles (by that stage). I was thinking: ‘This is great, this could stay going forever.’
Of course it didn’t. The Clare championship was like a bearpit at the time, and we didn’t win a county title again until 2003, but our great team broke up at the end of the decade, when many of our greatest warriors left the stage.
You really have to capitalise when you have the chance and that has to be the most impressive aspect of this Na Piarsaigh crusade. For a club to win their first county title in 2011, and to have bagged four Munster club titles in the meantime, underlines how incredible this journey has been for them. It has been even more impressive considering the massive level of transition this team has undergone this decade. Of the 15 players which started the 2011 Munster club final replay against Crusheen, only six started yesterday.
To be honest, it is no great surprise to me. I’ve seen first-hand the massive underage talent and potential in the club during my three years with the Limerick underage academy. They have contributed massively to the county’s underage success, along with the huge culture created in Ard Scoil Rís, but Na Piarsaigh have benefitted from their involvement in those squads too. These are magical days for the club but you don’t just suddenly find magic to sprinkle across the fields, you must till the ground first and that is what Na Piarsaigh have consistently done. Six successive U21 Limerick titles offers further confirmation of a club that refuses to stand still, of whose ambition knows no bounds.
Their achievements deserve even more credit considering that the area was traditionally always more associated with soccer and Shannon Rugby. Those games are still very strong around the Caherdavin/Coonagh area but Na Piarsaigh are clearly winning the battle for hearts and minds.
This team really proved their worth yesterday. At times in the first half, you would have said that Na Piarsaigh were not fully up for the battle, that they were being out-worked and out-tackled, that their touch was off. They still had the composure and class to go in just one point down at the break, and even when Ballygunner exploded in the five minutes after half-time, Na Piarsaigh turned the game on its head with 1-2 inside one minute. When Ballygunner reduced the deficit to one with just two minutes to play, the Limerick side drove on and won by eight. Incredible.
The culture is phenomenal because Na Piarsaigh had leaders everywhere, even though some of those big-guns were anonymous for most of the game, but they stood up when the need was greatest, which is the greatest sign of leadership. Kevin Downes and David Breen hardly touched a ball in the first half but they engineered and finished their first goal in the 36th minute and continued to make big plays throughout the second half, with Breen ending with two goals.
Alan Dempsey and Peter Casey were also ineffective and quiet in the first half but Casey showcased his class with a brilliant point just before the break while Dempsey thundered into the match in the second half. Na Piarsaigh have class players but considering they were without Shane Dowling while they lost another inter-county senior, David Dempsey, to injury midway through the second half, the manner in how they ruthlessly finished out this game smacks of a team that has absolute belief and conviction in everything they do.
Shane O’Neill and his management team also deserve huge credit. Their team had struggled but they clearly looked at their stats and analysis at half-time and addressed those areas of concern. Yet as good as the management are, and the changes they made, the players realised too what needed to be done, and went out and got it done.
Ballygunner had created huge space in their attack in the first half, while they had crowded their defence, but Na Piarsaigh completely altered that balance of play after the break. Na Piarsaigh weren’t playing a sweeper but they drew Ballygunner up the field.
Will O’Donoghue’s performance was huge in that tactical swing but the Limerick side just have talent oozing out of every sector. Ronan Lynch’s play was very scrappy early on, where his timing and touch was off, but he came up with a sensational point from a sideline cut before the break and added a similar score in the second half.
Ballygunner were brave and game but it was another disappointing provincial final defeat. It is frustrating that such a good team can’t crack Munster but they have just had the misfortune to be around at the same time as a great team, which also defined so many of their defeats in the past. They needed everything going right yesterday but they were always going to be behind the eight-ball when Pauric Mahony was struggling on frees, nailing just one from seven.
I was passing Young’s of Latteragh on the way home when I finally picked up Clare FM and Syl O’Connor’s match commentary of the Munster Intermediate final. It was a very successful year for Kilmaley to win the Clare IHC title but the way they lost to Kanturk yesterday after extra-time was heart-breaking. The late drama and excitement sounded like epic stuff but Kanturk, as has been their form in both hurling and football, ground out another tight win, and must now be heavily fancied to win the All-Ireland.
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