If St Mullins were looking for some inspiration ahead of tomorrow’s Leinster semi-final, it was provided on Thursday when selector Micheál Ryan was discharged from hospital.
Having suffered a heart attack during the second half of their stuning win over Cuala in Netwatch Cullen Park last Sunday week, Ryan, father of substitute Oisín, was released in time for the clash with Rathdowney-Errill.
Whether he is permitted to return to the venue tomorrow is another story but thanks in no small part to the expertise of Dr Niamh Murphy, a Cuala supporter, Ryan’s immediate care was exceptional before he was transferred to St Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny.
Initially, there was on-field elation as the full-time whistle confirmed they had seen off back-to-back All-Ireland champions but that changed completely as the stark reality of what happened to Ryan on the sideline dawned on the players.
“It was surreal,” recalls forward Seamus Murphy. “The majority of players didn’t know what was happening and there was jumping around but very quickly realised something was going on and there wasn’t much of a cheer from the St Mullin’s crowd in the stand because they knew what was happening.
“For a few hours, we all stuck together and went back to the local pub but the mood was quiet and downbeat. But then the word came back that Micheál was feeling much better and an hour and a so later Oisín came down and we were able to relax a bit, reflect on the game and have a bit of enjoyment. He (Micheál) is mad to get back now and to the hurling field.”
Drama on all sorts of level, it’s hardly surprising that moving on from that game has been more taxing mentally than physically.
Murphy’s team-mate Marty Kavanagh spoke of the tears in the dressing room at the final whistle given the uncertainty surrounding Ryan’s well being but less than an hour earlier it was the scene of much soul-searching as they trailed Cuala by a point.
Beaten by Cuala 1-19 to 1-7 in 2016, they were determined not to fall down so cheaply again. “We knew we were outsiders and underdogs and that was fine. Obviously, you would be against recent All-Ireland champions but we spoke about the semi-final three years ago and being beaten by them by 12 points but the biggest disappointment for us was that we didn’t perform on the day. We just wanted a performance.
“They got a fast start, we couldn’t get into the game for the first 10 minutes and we hit about five or six wides but once we got over that period we grew into the game and the belief flooded back into us and we knew it was on for us.
“We wouldn’t necessarily have been happy with how we played — we actually got ate at half-time, believe it or not. There was even a period after we got that first goal in the second half when we hit three bad wides in a row that (had they been converted) could have pushed us out to five points. You were thinking then, ‘Oh, is this another moral victory story unfolding here?’ But we stuck it out.”
Having seen what their arch-rivals Mount Leinster Rangers achieved six years ago in beating Oulart-the-Ballagh to annex a Leinster title, there has been a belief that St Mullins are capable of more.
“The last decade, it’s five county titles apiece after this year and it’s definitely tit-for-that. They had three in a row, we had three in a row and then we stopped them doing another this year. They got on a run and it showed what momentum can do. There are only four clubs in Carlow and Ballinkillen aren’t far away and Naomh Eoin aren’t either and we’re disappointed it’s down to four but it’s still very competitive.
“I was in New Zealand when Mount Leinster Rangers won Leinster so I was reading about it the whole time. There was a bit of envy about it. Of course, I wanted to see the Carlow teams doing well but there was a little part of me saying, ‘That could be us.’”
It’s perfectly understandable that defeating Cuala might give a team notions but Murphy doesn’t sense complacency in the ranks.
“I think we grounded ourselves fairly quickly. We got back to the field on Tuesday and did some training then harder sessions and this week we’re on the wind-down again but I think the management are happy enough.
“What’s motivating us this time is the memory of letting ourselves down in a semi-final the last time we were in one and we just want to make sure we turn up and perform. If we don’t win, at least we can come out and say we played. The worst thing would be to get carried away with the last day and let our imaginations jump a step ahead and then not perform on the day and then always look back with the what if’s in our heads.
“That’s what we really want to try and avoid.”
Former Carlow captain Murphy knows Rathdowney-Errill are sizing up St Mullins just as much as they are the Laois champions. That 2013 win for Mount Leinster Rangers was the first ever senior provincial final appearance and it’s 2001 since a Laois team — Castletown — featured in one.
“It’s not too often a Carlow or Laois team would get to a final so we’re both looking at each other the same way. It’s a huge opportunity and we both need to try and keep focused on what’s in hand. It’s going to be fierce. We’re just delighted to be still hurling at this time of year. We were very bad in our county semi-final and managed to sneak into extra-time and turned things around there and momentum has been building well for us since. So there would be a degree of confidence in us but that’s not to say we’re expecting anything other than a huge battle going into this game.”