Piarsaigh’s rocky road to the top

Kevin Downes still smiles at the memory of Sean Stack’s first night training the Na Piarsaigh hurlers in early 2009.

Piarsaigh’s rocky road to the top

“We were training in January and he said, ‘Right, we’re going to win the Munster club this year’,” said Downes. “We were looking around saying, ‘What is this fella talking about?’”

Downes’ shock might seem surprising now, considering they’ve collected four of the last seven Munster titles and are unbeaten in 11 games outside their county.

But back in the late noughties, they’d never even won a Limerick title, let alone reached the provincial summit.

Months later, they contested their first county final and made their big breakthrough in 2011 when they won their first title.

Seven years on, and managed by Shane O’Neill these days, they’re now a superpower of the club scene and closing in on their second AIB All-Ireland win in three seasons.

Saturday’s final with Cuala, the holders, could well be an epic too as it pits the last two champions against each other.

“I’m not trying to butter Cuala up but to come back two years in a row is a remarkable achievement,” said sharpshooter Downes.

“Winning Dublin is no easy feat, winning Leinster is no easy feat, so it’s a long road back and it’s testament to their ability to keep hungry and fresh.”

Downes speaks from experience on that issue because Na Piarsaigh failed to make it out of their group in Limerick just months after winning their All-Ireland.

“It was a disaster,” said the Limerick forward. “We won the All-Ireland and had great craic after. But the county championship comes around then very quickly, it’ll be the same again this year.

We were playing Kilmallock and Doon back to back. Both would be right up there with us, and would fancy beating us any day of the week. I suppose it was just a bit of bad fortune.

"If we’d had a kinder draw, we might have been able to ease our way in, take a break, go at it again.”

Cuala didn’t cover themselves in glory immediately after last year’s All-Ireland win either. They lost their first game of the Dublin championship to Ballyboden St Enda’s, but found their mojo again come summer.

They return to Saturday’s final as back-to-back provincial champions, though Na Piarsaigh’s four Munster successes since 2011 is just as impressive.

“We’re unbeaten in Munster,” said Downes of their enviable record. “That gives you confidence for big games but we wouldn’t be shouting about it either in the dressing room.

"That habit of winning games means the belief is there, you’ve already come through tough games. Semi-final against Slaughtneil, for example, down to 13 men, up against it. We’ve come through a few other hairy situations before so it’s all there stored away.

“But look, Cuala are the same. Cuala and Na Piarsaigh, in a lot of ways, are very similar clubs. The age profile even, they have 10 on the Dublin panel, they won the All-Ireland last year. Lots of similarities. It’s definitely set up for a good contest.”

Downes, who has bounced back from a torn cruciate ligament while on club football duty in August 2016, works for a printing company under TJ Ryan, the former Limerick manager.

On a week like this, Ryan understands the unique demands on an employee like Downes.

“It’s a great relief or benefit to have that,” said the 26-year-old. “Some people have employers who are less understanding.

"Unless you have a background in hurling, it’s hard to understand that this is an amateur thing, in inverted commas. Why would you need all the time? All that training? So I’m grateful for that support.”

All the while, the inter-county game continues on without Downes and his many Limerick colleagues at Na Piarsaigh.

It is a major frustration of the GAA calendar that success with your club means being away from the county team for much of spring.

The Na Piarsaigh players missed last weekend’s historic win over Galway, which secured promotion.

“There’s 10 of us on the Limerick panel, we’re completely out of the loop,” said Downes. “It’s basically two different trains, moving in different directions.

"We’ve done some gym sessions but effectively you’re not part of the group. You’re with the club so you don’t have the same understanding of what’s going on in there.”

It will feel like a small price to pay if they can get their hands on the Tommy Moore Cup again.

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