A new year, but unfinished business for club champs

STILL only the first week of January, and hurling clubs and counties the length and breadth of Ireland are girding themselves for another tilt at their own particular Holy Grail.

Even as the rest of hurling rested, however, four clubs, one champion from each of the four provinces, could not afford to take their eye off the ball.

One championship remains to be decided, serious leftover business from last season; Toomevara from Munster, Athenry out of the west, James Stephens of Leinster and O’Donovan Rossa from the Falls Road of Belfast are the last four remaining in the 2004-05 AIB All-Ireland Club hurling championship.

Each is determined be the last team standing on St Patrick’s Day, so while the rest of us could fatten on all the rich fare of Christmas and New Year, the players and officials of these four clubs had to maintain their focus.

None trained themselves into the sod, but all kept the clock ticking, in one form or another.

“We’ve cut back a lot since the Mount Sion game (Munster final win),” explains Toomevara’s Tommy Dunne, “but we did one night a week, touch-rugby, more a meeting than anything else for 45 minutes to an hour every Wednesday night, to keep in touch. That was it really, more fun stuff than anything else, nothing very serious. Yesterday evening was the real return to action, a serious session.”

Facing Toomevara in mid-February will be Athenry, All-Ireland champions three times in the last eight years; central to each of those wins was former Galway star Joe Rabbitte.

Surprisingly, the giant Joe is finding the going a bit easier this year than in previous seasons.

“I didn’t start training last year ‘til May, so I haven’t been killing myself. I wasn’t really going to come back last year. I’m building my own house at the moment, working as well, two young kids, trying to keep it all going isn’t easy. We had eight sessions before Christmas, I made four of them, and we have two more sessions done now since the new year, last Monday and Wednesday night. But I’m enjoying it, getting fit anyway doing the work on the house; when I look back, I wonder about all the heavy training we’ve done over the years, whether it’s as beneficial to hurling as people think.

“I was talking to Eddie O’Connor (former Kilkenny All-Ireland-winning captain), he said to me, he’d rather be 70% physically fit and 100% mentally fit than the other way around, and I agree with him. Hunger makes a big difference. But if you’re training Monday, Wednesday, Friday between Galway and Athenry, what appetite can you have left for hurling by the Sunday? You’d be bored to tears with it. Hunger is what it’s about.

“Pat Lally was a fantastic trainer, but he’s gone now and we have a new man in, Gerry McNamara, and he’s very professional also, doing a fine job in keeping fellas sharp. We’re meeting again [tonight], that will be a lot of ball-work, then playing a game on Saturday.”

Over in Kilkenny, another veteran, Philly Larkin, knows only too well what Joe is talking about, that hunger. Twenty years ago, James Stephens was one of the strongest clubs in the country, picked up their second All-Ireland club title in 1982 with Philly’s father, Fan, on board. Since then however, until the breakthrough again in 2004, zilch, at both county and national level. Hunger? Focus? You bet.

“Oh, we’re back in full training, went back on Monday morning, but we were tipping away since the Leinster final, one night a week, playing a bit of soccer, ticking over. Not a lot we can do hurling-wise, we’re training in our own underage field, a small pitch, lights at either end around the goals. It’s alright for pucking around, but that’s it, you wouldn’t play a game on it. The nearest floodlit place to us is Crettyard, on the way to Athy, on the Laois border. It’s a football place, but we haven’t used it, not yet anyway.”

Up north, the Rossa boys were given a week off at Christmas, but they too are now back in full harness.

Physical fitness alone won’t win hurling games however, nor will hunger be sufficient; touch is critical, and to that end each of the four clubs will be playing a series of weekend challenge games between now and the first semi-final, on February 12 (O’Donovan Rossa v James Stephens). Opposition will be provided by the usual early-season suspects, college sides preparing for the Fitzgibbon Cup, county teams looking to loosen up for the National Hurling League.

“We’re playing UCC this Sunday, CIT the following Sunday,” says Larkin, while Toomevara have already lined up the Garda Training College, across a few ditches to Templemore.

Nothing at stake but everyone on both sides with a point to prove.

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