Munster titles. Dominance in Limerick. All-Ireland appearances in Croke Park. When he was playing for the club, those were heights they’d never reached.
“There’s no way we would have thought, in the mid-noughties, that we’d have four Munster club titles and an All-Ireland club,” said O’Neill.
“That would have been crazy stuff altogether — back then, we were just looking at trying to stay up senior. The way it has come on in the last seven or eight years has been just phenomenal. The calibre of player, the mentality — which we saw in the All- Ireland semi-final, when everything was questioned and they just took over.”
O’Neill was there in 2009 when Na Piarsaigh made their first county final, only to lose heavily to Adare.
“That was a severe disappointment and I was thinking: ‘Is this the end of it?’ I was coming towards the end but Sean (Stack, manager) saw something in the group that other people didn’t see — that maybe we didn’t see ourselves — and he brought in that winning mentality.
“He always said if we got out of Limerick we’d do well, we’d perform because the shackles would be off. He saw the calibre of hurler that was here and the boys showed that later.”
Talking of calibre, today’s opponents are pretty tasty. Cuala are fancied by many.
“And rightly so,” continues O’Neill. “They’ve won three Dublin championships, an All-Ireland club, Leinster titles — they’re a serious team.
“They have so many of the Dublin squad, very good hurlers all over the field.
Everyone is talking about Con O’Callaghan but he’d be the first to tell you it’s the quality of ball he gets, the work everyone else is doing to give him the room, those are all crucial.
“He’s a fantastic player and would get on most inter-county teams. Club isn’t quite the same, you have a different level of player around you, with and against you, but he’s an exceptional player — he has pace and power, he’s a finisher. We could get bogged down in trying to deal with him as opposed to dealing with Cuala but we have to focus on ourselves as well and making sure we’re right.”
The clubs aren’t dissimilar, given the work done at underage level.
“Absolutely, because you don’t just come out of the blue without that work being done. The work has been done here for the last 30 or 40 years coming up through the ranks, culminating in winning the All-Ireland in 2016, and Cuala are the same.
“Their senior side is very well conditioned but that’s what you expect — look at Ballygunner, for instance, they’re a very physical team and that was a tough Munster final. We had it in Limerick with Kilmallock and Patrickswell, two very conditioned teams. Slaughtneil as well, a phenomenal club, they were very fit and strong.
“At this level that’s what you have to have, the hurling flows then. If you have better hurlers that may come to the fore but you need that physical conditioning too.”
That reference to Slaughtneil sparks O’Neill’s respect for the Derry club: “What they’ve achieved is ridiculous — not only doing it within your own county but then in Ulster, where the quality is there... it must be very difficult for them because you need to be hurling constantly, and then putting the hurlers away for a certain period to play football — when other hurling teams aren’t doing that — has got to be difficult. It definitely has an effect, and you could maybe see against Nemo in the football, that it eventually caught up with them.”
How much of an advantage is it to Na Piarsaigh to have appeared in the St Patrick’s Day game before, or is it simply impossible to hold players’ hands on the biggest stage there is?
There’s no hiding place in Croke Park. It’s sink or swim. You may be able to get away with things in smaller grounds, but there’s no hiding place up there. Thurles is the same.
“It’s up to us to decide if the lads are conditioned to perform, if they’re ready to perform — some fellas can have a bad day and don’t perform, and that’s acceptable, so changes may need to be made.
“It’s very hard to gauge in the sense we’ve all had the experience of seeing things go very well in training and in a game it looks like 15 strangers on the same team. And the opposite, too, when training doesn’t go well but the team performs very well in a game.”
That’s one of the factors, surely, which affects a management team when deciding whether to make a change or not. How does he balance the need to pull the trigger on a substitution with the impulse to let a player settle?
“You try to approach it like another game, but it isn’t just another game. These guys are so used to high-profile games that it almost becomes just another game to them, though. I wouldn’t be worried about how they treat it because they’ve all been there before.
“Some of our subs might say we don’t make substitutions quick enough! Maybe we are that bit too forgiving at times, but we’ve seen them do it before.
“But sometimes you can see it with a player. That morning or in the dressing room you can see that he’s not quite right, so you know to keep an eye on him on the pitch. And if it doesn’t happen for him, and it’s not going to happen, then you can see that.
“Before the All-Ireland against Cushendall in 2016 Alan Cunningham (Na Piarsaigh management) came up to me and said one of the lads was all over the place, to keep an eye on him. But that player had a phenomenal game the same day, so you never know.
“In the dressing room there’s tension, there’s pressure. They all want to play in Croke Park. That’s the pinnacle of every player’s career, and I’d expect most if not all of them to perform.”