What logic are they using, he asks? Does form mean anything at all to them?
It was only four years ago those two sides met in another Munster final, again in Thurles, with many of the same players again lining out on Sunday. With just over 10 minutes remaining, the Cork champions trailed 1-11 to 0-11, and only a strong finish, with two points each from brothers Ben and John O’Connor, and the winner from John Paul King, saw Newtown edge home by a point.
For more recent form, the teams met earlier this year in a challenge and again it was close, a tied game, according to Newtown corner-back Jerry O’Mahony. So, asks Phil, whence then this assumption that Newtownshandrum are automatic favourites?
“On that last occasion, we only got out by the skin of our teeth, and I’m expecting the same again this time. We were under extreme pressure, but we kept our heads and finished strongly. We’re under no illusions about what we’re facing this Sunday. Ballygunner are a very good team, they won a tough Waterford championship and, of course, they have Ger Cunningham as coach. He’ll be very familiar with the Newtown boys. It’s going to be tough.”
It’s been tough already in the Munster championship, not just against Thurles Sarsfields and Adare in their two earlier battling wins, but tough in training, trying to get ready for championship hurling in this weather.
“We have very good all-weather facilities of our own,” says Phil, “But we’ve had to use the indoor facilities in Mallow a couple of times, it’s been so bad. It has been difficult, no getting away from that.”
Adding to those difficulties for Phil and his fellow selectors Patsy and Ger Morrissey, is the fact this year, with the maturing of the likes of William Biggane, Seán O’Riordan, Jack Herlihy, PJ Copse, Michael Bowles and Jamie Coughlan, the Newtown panel is probably stronger than it’s ever been, and that includes 2003/04 when they won their first Munster and went on to capture the All-Ireland.
“Since the county final the panel has got stronger, we had a few lads then who weren’t long back with us and weren’t as fit maybe as they’d have wanted to be. John O’Connor, John Paul King, goalkeeper Paul Morrissey were all away in Australia for a year, but that has changed. The challenge now is who to leave out, everyone is champing at the bit.”
So he knows how Declan Kidney is feeling this week then? A smile – “Yeah, that’s the way to have it, everyone has to be on their toes. You feel sorry for the guys who don’t make it – we’ve all been there, we know what it’s like, and it is very disappointing not to hear your name being called out.
But, that’s the way it is. It’s a Munster final, you can see the disappointment on guys’ faces, but I think they also appreciate that if others are playing well, they deserve to stay on the team. Guys have to play themselves on the team, that’s the first part, but guys have to play themselves off the team as well – it’s an extremely difficult situation.
“But that’s the way to have it, and we wouldn’t be where we are without it. Everyone is pushing, which keeps everyone on their toes.”
That last part is a little surprising, because the day after their huge county final win over Sarsfields, several players gave the impression that was it, season over, no further interest in Munster or anything else.
What changed? “Well the county final was the main objective, to get there and to win it. We had been written off, the word was we were over the hill, this team was finished. Maybe some fellas were inclined to believe it, but we didn’t; we set out our targets at the start of the year and everyone committed, worked hard through the year, and we got better aas the championship progressed. We were really well up for the county final and, I suppose, because that went so well, and fellas were able to relax for a couple of days after it, there was a feeling there we had achieved what we had set out to achieve. But we went back training the following Friday evening and there was a great response again, everyone decided to push on, see where it took us. And here we are.
“It’s been a long year, and conditions are getting tougher as the year goes on. A lot of our guys are light, but we think they’re up for it – they look up for it anyway, training hard, looking forward to the match. It’s the last big game of the year – the county final is over, this one is even bigger, and the response has been fantastic.
“We’re expecting a really tough game, we have nothing but respect for Ballygunner. One-point win the last time, we’d take the same again this Sunday, I can assure you!”