The squad. It’s been all about the squad for Gary McGrath since last September. The St Brendan’s manager never envisaged that Tuesday evening training would end up carrying greater weight than a Corn Uí Mhuirí knock-out fixture. Results simply dictated as such.
En route to today’s Hogan Cup decider, you see, St Brendan’s College have come face-to-face with the reigning Hogan Cup champions, the present Leinster champions and the leading teams from Clare, Kerry and Tipperary. And they didn’t so much as edge past each school put in their path, as steamroll them.
A quick recap: in the Corn Uí Mhuiri quarter-final, McGrath’s students hammered back-to-back Hogan Cup champions Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne 1-14 to 0-4; they limited St Flannan’s to a single point in the first-half of their semi-final non-contest and they blew Clonmel off the park to the tune of 29-points in the decider.
Perhaps the opposition simply wasn’t up to scratch. They’d get the test they were looking for in the All-Ireland semi-final, surely.
Turns out their stroll through Munster had little to do with the oppositions; Leinster champions St Benildus College trounced 4-15 to 0-9 last month. McGrath, understandably, is chuffed to have led St Brendan’s back to the Hogan Cup final after a six-year absence, but surely there is an anxious voice upstairs nagging over the lack of serious examination they’ve been subjected to.
Back to those Tuesday evening sessions.
“Our A v B games are sometimes like the Brian Cody behind closed doors games with Kilkenny,” said McGrath of the intense nature of their inter-panel matches.
“There are times when we are playing A v B games we genuinely have had to pull the players back from each other such has been the competitiveness of those games. We have 30 players and we would be very happy to put any of the 30 on the field in any given situation.
“From a coaching point of view, you have to be very happy with where we are in terms of the players following through on what we are telling them. I remember a game recently where the B’s were leading the A’s with five minutes to go, and the A’s did not like it, they really had to dig out the win, because they just don’t like losing, even a challenge game.
“That is seeping right through the panel, a fierce positive buzz between the A team and the B team, and that creates that winning ethos that we want.”
He continued: “There was a buzz in training the Tuesday before the Corn Uí Mhuirí final and I just felt Clonmel would have to be very special to beat us.
“We never eased up because the lads that came in wanted to put down a claim for the starting jersey the following game so they upped it another notch.”
David Spillane, Donnchadh O’Sullivan, William Courtney and Adam O’Shea, sprung from the bench throughout the campaign, have been nipping at the heels of the starting team. Corner-back David Naughton says those who have been holding down a jersey numbered one to 15 can feel the pressure.
“I have never been involved in a set-up where you have so much talent in one squad and when we play challenge games in training, they are so ferocious sometimes lads are pucking the heads of each other.
“Some of our games in training have been off the charts, really, and nobody can take their place for granted. Up to now that has been giving us an edge, but we need to keep it going for one more game.”
Naughton, a member of the Dr Crokes club, was dropped from last year’s Kerry minor panel on the run into their championship opener against Clare. He was invited back into the fold for their All-Ireland quarter-final against Sligo, but had picked up an injury by that stage and so could not answer Jack O’Connor’s call.
Having been bitterly disappointed to miss out on an All-Ireland minor medal, he’s determined to pocket the schools equivalent.
“There are a lot of famous footballers who went through this school and do not have a Hogan Cup medal. The Gooch did not manage to win one, one of the few he doesn’t have. It is 24 years since St Brendan’s won it, which is too long, so it would be massive if we could win it.
“I spoke to Fionn Fitzgerald about what to expect in Croke Park and he told me to enjoy and appreciate it because it’s an experience that can bring you on as a player.”
Manager McGrath is no stranger to the biggest afternoon in schools football having been on the line in the 2008 and ‘10 Hogan Cup final defeats to Newry and Dungannon respectively.
“It’s different than losing a final with either a club or an inter-county team where you can maybe go back to a final in the near future and try to correct what went wrong that time,” he says.
“Here, a lot of the things you try and change are more logistical in terms of what you do in the run-up to the match.
“Our style of football has definitely changed, our approach to the game has changed. Hopefully, that will stand to us.”
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