THE REALE deal is this; you come into my corner in a Munster championship match, expect that the going will be tough. I’ll belt you, you’ll belt me, we’ll give it, we’ll take it, we’ll get on with it.
That’s how it’s ever been with Damien Reale, that’s how it will be on Sunday in Thurles, against Clare.
“It will be ding-dong, nothing in it — some craic for the first 15 minutes! I hope the referee lets it run, won’t be blowing for bits and pieces. It’s Limerick versus Clare, Munster semi-final, people must understand — this is Munster championship.
“Look back to 1996, in the Gaelic Grounds, mother of God! I was only 13 or 14, Mike Houlihan and Ollie Baker in centre-field, the hitting, hurleys broken, bits flying, the crowd rising — that’s what you call Munster championship! Referees have to let it flow a bit more, all this stopping and starting ruins the game. There’s hard hitting and there’s hard hitting — as long as it’s not dirty let it run.”
Limerick saw a bit of hard hitting themselves in the All-Ireland final last year, when they were blitzed by Kilkenny in the opening 10 minutes. 2-3 to zero it was after that period, game over, the shortest All-Ireland final in history. A shell-shocked Limerick fought back, won the final 60 minutes by two minutes, 1-15 to 0-16, but it was already too late, already all over.
Two of the biggest hits in that final came on the two men alongside Reale in the Limerick full-back line, cast-iron full-back Stephen Lucey having his face busted through his face-mask, youngster Seamus Hickey shipping a few particularly heavy challenges in his corner. All fair game, says Damien. “It took us a while to get over it, it was a case of ‘If only we’d done this, if only we’d done that,’ but it had been so long since Limerick were in an All-Ireland final — people talk about experience, but it’s invaluable, and we didn’t have it.
“My hat is off to Kilkenny for the way they started that game, they did exactly the right thing. You take Seamus Hickey, he wasn’t expecting anything that physical, he was expecting to meet the high ball, the low ball, coming out to meet it, control it, all that — he wasn’t expecting that he was going to get hit, and hit hard. But you have to learn, and what makes a great player is that ability to learn from your experience, good and bad, and believe me, it’s a different Seamus Hickey this year. When he hits the ground this year he’s bouncing straight back up from it; he’s a different, meaner, more focused man. No point in crying about it, get up and get on with it.
“The big thing is that if we got there again, we’d approach it differently. There wouldn’t have been any looking around, we’d have been driving into it from the start. The way we went out against Waterford [in the semi-final win], that’s the way we should have gone out against Kilkenny, hitting from the word go. After 20 minutes of that game Waterford didn’t know where they were; much the same thing happened to us in the final.”
First hurdle for 2008 is this Sunday, and given the way Clare dismissed Waterford in their first-round win, it’s a sizeable hurdle; given also that Limerick fairly dismissed Clare the last time they met in championship, the All-Ireland quarter-final last year (1-23 to 1-16), the Banner won’t be lacking for motivation. “They’ll be up for it, we expect that, but we have a point to prove ourselves, we still haven’t forgotten two years ago, the hiding they gave us (2-21 to 0-10). That still doesn’t lie easy, I’ll never forget that day coming out of Cusack Park — I hope I never see the place again! So we have a couple of points to prove as well, that we weren’t one-hit wonders last year, and from the year before in Cusack Park.”
With that in mind, things are hotting up in the Gaelic Grounds in training in recent weeks, nerves more on edge, tempers shortening as the big day nears. “Mike O’Brien brings a fertiliser bag of hurleys to every session! There’s some hard hitting in the last month, big shoulders going in, a few nights behind closed doors. There are places up for grabs, everyone is trying to make an impression, fellas like Niall Moran putting in a very big push. Soundest man you’d meet, a very talented player, great skills — if only he was more consistent.”
A bit of sledging going on too, as guys like the hitherto unheralded Davy Bulfin pushes All Star keeper Brian Murray for his starting spot. “Davy is around a long time but he was brilliant in the league. Even in training he’s playing very well, a side of him I haven’t seen. There was some slagging going on with Murray, I can tell you, Donie [Ryan] and a few more were giving him some doing.”
And Donie, Shaughs (Andrew O’Shaughnessy, last year’s corner-forwards), how are they looking? “Donie is Donie; he was always a late starter, a Croke Park man. He always stressed, what’s the point in hitting goals and points in January, February, March, then being on the line in June? And he’s dead right. Shaughs is motoring well too, but so are the likes of Donncha Sheehan, Pat Tobin.
“It’s not going to be an easy team to pick now, the selectors are after getting plenty of food for thought lately. But this is a glorious opportunity win and you’re in a Munster final, and a Munster final is still a Munster final. You’re also straight into an All-Ireland semi-final, will probably avoid Kilkenny, so there’s a real reward for winning it this year. Look at Cork and Waterford now, the route they have to take — much better to avoid all that.”
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