Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) v Kilmallock (Limerick) Today: Croke Park, 2pm TV: TG4
On his first trip up to Ballyhale to consider managing the club’s hurlers, Colm Bonnar was struck by an absence in the Kilkenny club’s facilities.
No gym. No weights. Little apart from hurleys, in fact. “The county players would have the best of gym programmes, obviously, but when I met up with the club officials originally it was a case of they had the local community hall but there weren’t any huge indoor facilities of their own. There were lights on one side of the pitch for physical training, but they wouldn’t have a lot of the stuff that you’d find in clubs which are big into the physical side of preparation — there wouldn’t be kettlebells and so on, they concentrate on hurling.”
When Ballyhale contacted Bonnar and former Waterford player Andy Moloney, between them they reckoned they could manage the job. The players were on-side, which was the main thing.
“In fairness to them it didn’t matter where we were from, they knew we were there to help them. There was a certain amount of pressure in that if they hadn’t won this year’s county final they’d have only won one title in the last five years, and for a team with such a talented bunch of players there could have been a sense of ‘it’s starting to slip by’. But we got a good system going, they all responded, and now we’re in an All-Ireland final.”
That system means the reins don’t need to be kept too tight in training, he says. The players drive the sessions through their own commitment.
“Because they’re so focused, all they want to do is hurl with huge intensity. In challenge games or mixed matches, the tackling and commitment is ferocious — when they get knocks they get up and dust themselves off. You’d rarely have to blow a whistle, they’ll get on with it themselves. It’s totally different to a lot of other clubs where players can get frustrated and lose focus. These players are so strong mentally that it’s easier to handle them than would be the case with different teams.”
Bonnar sees their attitude, particularly among the veterans, as exemplary. “They’re hugely motivated in terms of what they do. The likes of Bob Aylward is 36, so is Paul Shefflin, lads like Aidan Cummins and Tom Coogan are in their thirties as well, but their enthusiasm for hurling and being involved — their attitude is just the best I’ve seen. Where does it come from? Possibly the environment they’ve grown up in, where their fathers and uncles have six or seven county medals and three All-Ireland club medals. So that’s the environment they’ve come up in, and it’s incredible to think such a small country place can be regarded as one of the better club teams in hurling.
“It’s unusual, but the environment is crucial. It’s never a case that they get carried away with that they’ve done because the fathers and uncles and neighbours have the same and more won. Some of them are only trying to equal those records so they’re very focused on the next game, the next competition, and winning.”
The management can take credit, too, though. The journey came with obstacles to overcome.
“We had a vision for them, and because they’d been all the way to an All-Ireland club final in 2009 and 2010, they knew that was involved. In the last five years some of them thought they mightn’t get the chance to do that again, so when the opportunity came up they took it with both hands. We got a setback or two along the way. The O’Loughlin (Gaels) game, they gave us a good beating in the Kilkenny league and that gave us something to focus on, because you often learn more from a defeat than you do from a win.
“The perception would have been that maybe this was a Ballyhale team on the downward slope, but once we got on a roll, starting to get to the semi-final in Kilkenny and pressing on after that, the games really started to come thick and fast.”
It never hurts to have an immortal on board, of course.
Though his involvement with Waterford Institute of Technology Bonnar goes back to the beginning of Henry Shefflin’s inter-county career.
“I was involved with the camogie teams when Henry came in. He was a good minor coming in, like a lot more, but not more than that. He would say himself that he didn’t have the physical fitness and conditioning then that he has now, that he’s known for. He’d say himself that the conditioning he got in those years in WIT stood to him, as did the realisation, given who he was playing with and against, that he was as good as them.
“That’s an advantage to playing third level, because a lot of players can be parochial in their outlook, but when they can hold their own with lads from outside their own county they know they can reach another level.
“He certainly did huge work in those years, there was a lot of physical work that time, laps of the field, that isn’t done now, but he was certainly a better player afterwards.”
And still is. Bonnar says the numbers don’t lie about Shefflin’s contribution.
“If you saw the stats he’s probably the top scorer from play for us, he always chips in with four or five points and he uses his vision superbly, either passing or making his own runs.
“His experience is huge, so is his workrate. When we finish a session he always stays back and does more but he also knows how hard he can push himself.
“In fairness, they’re all like that — they always want to do more, and it stands to them.”
They’ll need all of that today, he says. “I suppose Na Piarsaigh would have been seen as favourites for the Limerick title, and they might have been looking further ahead, but it shows the strength in Limerick at the moment that Kilmallock came through. They’ve had good minor teams coming through at county level, and Kilmallock have a couple of those players on board.
“They’ve been battle-hardened coming through Munster, which is always tough; they’ve come up against strong teams in Cratloe and so forth. It’ll be a huge battle.”
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