In the magnificent Piltown GAA complex in South Kilkenny, the lights around the sand-based full-size back pitch have turned night into day, and many of the De La Salle team that face Thurles Sars in tomorrow’s Munster club SHC final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow are already out on the field, in a tight circle, feet moving, tapping balls to each other. And out he trots, John Mullane, one of the first to have arrived in the car park and what comes to mind immediately is Cheltenham, a thoroughbred in prime condition. In common with most of his team-mates, there was no tracksuit bottom, not even a pair of those new leg-warming tights that have become so fashionable lately, no concession to the sub-zero temperature, but there’s grace in the easy movement, a suggestion of pace and power.
He was here on business, serious business — underdogs they may be, but John Mullane and De La Salle are in another Munster final, their second in three years, and have every intention of again overturning the odds and repeating the surprise success of 2007.
And Mullane believes they’re even better equipped this time.
“We are, for the simple reason that the team is more balanced this year. We have very good young players after coming through. Lads like Jake Dillon from the Waterford minor team is a class corner-forward; Eddie Barrett, a very hard-working player; we got John Keane from Tipperary but living in Waterford for a few years and he is a big bonus to us. We have also restructured our team, the forward line especially, and that takes a lot of heat off me.”
He’s De La Salle’s big gun, John Mullane, picked up his second All Star award this year after another sterling season with Waterford. But they now have other sharpshooters, not least the man on the other wing, Páidí Nevin, top scorer from play in the semi-final win over Sars of Cork with four fine points, a game eventually settled after extra-time.
Mullane admitted the tie should have been settled in regulation: “We missed a number of chances against Sars, myself included — I have to take an enormous amount of the blame, I reckon I missed about 1-6 between frees and open play. But you have to credit Sars too, their keeper (Alan Kennedy) was extraordinary and made several great saves. Páidí had an exceptional game for us, but he’s one of those guys who will always give you 100%, a very hard-working player, an ethic that’s second to none — he’s probably close to a call-up for Waterford.”
It was, in fact, a very gutsy performance by both De La Salle generally and John himself, to keep fighting even when nothing was going right. That’s been a hallmark of this team says Mullane — fighting adversity, battling the odds. “Two years ago, we were ranked fifth or sixth to win the county final, we were underdogs all the way. It was incredible the way it panned out. Winning our first senior county title in Waterford in 80 years was fantastic — it was my first ever medal with the club — and anything after that was a major bonus. We took every game as it came so there was no pressure. We had a lot of luck on our side that just kept going and going until St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park.”
There was no fairytale ending, however, as they were well beaten on the day by a brilliant Portumna side. Afterwards, De La Salle didn’t get the respect they deserved, and it hurt.
“We were seen as a flash in the pan, we weren’t even getting credit from our own people inside Waterford, never mind outside the county. That drove us on this year, it was all about winning respect within our own county, and we did; slowly but surely now we’re getting that respect throughout Munster and the rest of Ireland.”
It’s been tough for De La Salle, fighting for numbers in a city where they are seen as small fry, a city dominated by the big two, Mount Sion and Ballygunner. Now, however, they are the ones on top, they are the ones with the players.
Everyone in hurling knows about Thurles Sars and their Tipperary All-Ireland winners, about hurler of the year Lar Corbett, Padraic Maher, ace man-marker Mickey Cahill and sharp-shooting Pa Bourke, But De La Salle have their stars too.
“Yes, Sars are good hurlers, and they’re strong and physical as well, but you talk about their defence — the backbone of our team is our defence as well. We have Stephen Daniels, Kevin Moran and Bryan ‘The Bull’ Phelan in the half-back line, and that’s as good a line as you’re going to see in club hurling. Scores might be hard for both teams to come by, could be low-scoring. There’s more pressure on us this year than in 2007, but most people see Thurles as favourites for the All-Ireland, never mind this game, so there’s more pressure on them.”