This Sunday’s clash of Sixmilebridge and neighbours O’Callaghan’s Mills in the Clare SHC final (Cusack Park, 3pm) is something of a surprise.
Not for the ‘Bridge, who’ve been in three of the last five finals, but O’Callaghan’s Mills, who have to go back almost 30 years for their last final appearance.
“They got to a semi-final two years ago against Ballyea,” says manager Donach O’Donnell, “But they were in a relegation battle only last year.” Hence the surprise when they made this year’s semi-final. Against Ballyea again, who’ve won two of the last four senior titles in the Banner County.
O’Donnell says the Mills “were confident enough” beforehand, however.
“What we’ve been talking about all the time is performing, and playing as well as we can, with the intensity required. Our view would be if we can reach that level then we should be okay against the opposition.
“Ballyea were very tough physically. Their tackling was very intense - and very cute, a bit like football, if you like. They’re very smart using their hands in the tackle.
“They’ve obviously got a lot of experience, so you could see how streetwise they were - they were able to speed the game up and slow it down as needed.
“They used Tony Kelly and Niall Deasy very well, too, which you’d expect. Their game was centred on them - and why wouldn’t you, they’re very good players.
“There was only a point or two in it at half-time, but we didn’t start the second half too well, we were behind by a few points. During the last water-break, though, we told the players to go back to what we’d worked on, to focus on the system, to work hard - and they did.
“They were very good in the last quarter, and we came with a good burst of scores to win it.”
That semi-final experience has made him even more of a fan of the water break: “I love them, I think they’re great. You’ve just time for a quick few words and you send them back out.
“There’s usually some bit of information you can give them - ‘we’re losing puck outs on the left, their midfielder’s pulling across’, and you ask the wing-backs and midfielders to adjust accordingly.
“There’s just time for one or two messages, so you’re not overloading them either with information, it’s ideal.”
O’Donnell takes coaching and messaging seriously.
Having coached the Limerick seniors to the 2013 Munster title, he’s handled several different club teams in Tipperary. The Clare side came calling when he had committed to an MA in applied coaching in UL (“Philip Kearney and Ian Sherwin run it, they’re very good”), but he felt it was an opportunity to put what he learned in Limerick into effect a few miles across the Shannon: “Going into a club, you’re trying to create a bit of culture, an environment where fellas can learn and improve themselves. And in fairness, the lads in O’Callaghan’s Mills were open to that from day one.
“There has to be a lot of honesty, the lads have to trust you - there are a lot of moving parts involved. The first day I met the club lads I said ‘if I’ve to drop the best player on the team in a couple of months’ time because he’s not putting in the effort, you have to back me on that’. And they said they’d do so.
“Once I heard that I thought we were on the right track anyway, because a lot of clubs don’t want that. There’s a sense of ‘treat them all the same - except this player and that player’. But we’ve worked hard, and if a fella performs in training then he gets his run."
He’s been struck by how competitive the games in the Clare championship are: “It’s been a funny year, obviously, and I’ve only been here for this season, but all the matches are competitive.
“The other thing is there’s a good spread of county players among the different clubs - in some counties you might have a lot of the county players on a couple of clubs, and those clubs dominate the local championship.
“All I can comment on is what I’ve seen this year, but it’s seriously competitive, that’s clear.”
And Sunday? Sixmilebridge will bring plenty of experience to the table.
“It’s close enough to O’Callaghan’s Mills, so there’s a derby element. They were in the final last year and now they’re back - they’re very well organised, their coaching is good, they know how to win games . ..
“I saw their semi-final and they were lagging a bit at times but they stayed at it and stayed at it, and they won."