Darragh O’Sullivan didn’t have much joy against Clare opposition during his Ballygunner playing days. He’s hoping for better luck now that he’s traded the jersey for the bainisteoir’s bib.
Tomorrow afternoon, the six-in-a-row Waterford champions head for Banner country to face Sixmilebridge in the Munster club quarter-final. It was a journey O’Sullivan made more than once when lining out in the Ballygunner attack, and one which doesn’t carry too many fond memories.
The Ballygunner manager was a 17-year-old sub when the club ended a 24-year wait for county honours back in 1992. But with the Waterford championship having run late that particular year, Ballygunner found themselves on a bus bound for Sixmilebridge the day after their county final win over Mount Sion. The endeavours of the previous day had understandably taken their toll, the visitors to O’Garney Park shipping a heavy 3-12 to 0-5 beating.
“There was some amount of wounded bodies on the bus that went to Sixmilebridge that day,” recalls O’Sullivan.
We had to get some lads out of the rugby club to get on to the bus. We went up, gave it our best shot, but I certainly don’t remember it being too close.
That Ballygunner group won its next Waterford title three years later in 1995. Sixmilebridge were again encountered in Munster and although Ballygunner were afforded a slightly longer layoff heading into this particular provincial campaign, the outcome was the same.
Walsh Park was the venue, O’Sullivan was stationed at corner-forward. Sixmilebridge advanced to the Munster decider on a 5-11 to 2-10 scoreline.
“Clare teams had the measure of us in the 90s. Time and again they broke our hearts. Wolfe Tones beat us, Clarecastle beat us another year, as did St Joseph’s Doora Barefield. We could beat everyone else but we couldn’t beat the Clare teams.”
It goes without saying then he’s hoping for better luck as a manager against Clare opposition than he had as a player.
“Absolutely, absolutely.” The current Ballygunner crop have already come up against — and overcome — tomorrow’s opponents, the Waterford champions scoring a 1-18 to 1-17 Munster semi-final win over the Bridge two years ago.
2018 Clare champions Ballyea were taken down during last year’s run to a first provincial title since 2001 and O’Sullivan believes his charges will be full of confidence for this latest Munster campaign.
The expectation has always been there within the club that we want to win Munster titles.
"It’s simply been a case that we haven’t won as many as we’d like to think we should have won. But after success like last year, expectation rises again. We are very ambitious within the club. The club finals may be gone from Paddy’s Day but, ultimately, our goal every year is to be top of the tree. We have yet to get there.
“With regard to Munster, it is a help they know what it takes to win it, in other years they didn’t get over the line in Munster, they were saying to themselves, how did this go wrong? Doing it last year gives them a level of confidence this time around.”
O’Sullivan is keenly aware how blessed the club is to have such a special crop of players pulling on the black and red. Six consecutive county titles is an incredible achievement.
“The leaders in that dressing room are phenomenal guys. The environment in the dressing room before a match is a special place to be, to see how the guys take control of it and drive each other on. They are a very close bunch, a very tight-knit group of players who have huge respect for one another.
Huge friendships have been built over the last six years. It is nearly like a family there. That closeness has been a huge benefit to us when you are coming down the stretch in close games.
Because of that bond, O’Sullivan relished picking up the reins when Fergal Hartley stepped away following the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Ballyhale earlier this year.
O’Sullivan served as a selector during Denis Walsh’s tenure in 2015 and 2016 but there had to have been pressure in taking over a Munster winning team who had also just done five in a row at county level.
“It is a kind of poison chalice, because Fergal set the bar so high. We are very lucky to have David Franks. He was with Fergal the last two years and is a huge part of our set-up.
"It is only a bit of direction players need. You try and keep preparation to a level where guys are in an environment where they can be the best they can be.
"That is what we’d like to think we are doing.”