Last week we spoke to former National Director of Hurling, Paudie Butler, and he dismissed traditional notions of winter hurling.
Heavy pitches and poor conditions were a thing of the past, he argued, a point endorsed by the quality of hurling on offer deep into winter.
Butler might have been speaking of Sixmilebridge and Na Piarsaigh in Cusack Park yesterday.
True, the layering of clothes among the attendance was of a level you don’t see in July — at least not the July we had this year — while the lush grass on the surface wouldn’t be mistaken for the billiard-tables you see in August, but the fare was excellent for the 3,689 who were present, even if the game didn’t survive long past half-time as a contest.
Na Piarsaigh opened the first half with a well-taken Kevin Downes goal, set up by Shane Dowling; they opened the second half the same way, when a Dowling delivery was touched home for another goal, this time by Kevin Ryan. Sixmilebridge began to look like a team who’d been out seven weeks out of eight and faded as the game wore on.
The passion you take for granted in a club final, but there was a different twist to the feelings yesterday.
Sean Stack, victorious manager with Na Piarsaigh, was emotional at the final whistle due to the defeat suffered by his own home club, Sixmilebridge.
“You’d have to be in it to understand it,” said Stack. “I didn’t give a thought to the emotions involved until right now.
“Look, the best team won by a mile. Even though my heart goes out to the Bridge and they had high expectations, realistically, coming into the game, having watched both teams, we were only praying we wouldn’t have wind because the wind destroyed us last year.
“We’d feel we could be going for three Munster clubs in a row — I know that sounds arrogant — but the wind caught us in the Gaelic Grounds last year against Kilmallock. It was a good contest for a certain period, I suppose.”
Against Passage of Waterford the last day Na Piarsaigh didn’t score goals, but they got plenty of points; Stack tweaked his game plan for the men in sky blue for this game.
“We got 20 points the last day, you look at ways to take on a defence and at possible weaknesses in the opposition, that’s what makes it so intriguing.
“Our hearts were set on getting back into an All-Ireland because the last time Loughgiel surprised everybody, and the confines of Parnell Park also caught us. We’re really over the moon to be back in the All-Ireland series as I feel we have a real chance.”
Their ability to win ball in the air was one of many plus points for Na Piarsaigh, as was their full-back line’s ability to distribute calmly to teammates. Not an accident, said Stack.
“Some city fellas don’t like putting the hand up, but these fellas do. The lads worked very hard on catching the ball, wet or dry, and the game is all about that now — possession and finding your man.
“That’s changed drastically since I played, when you caught and hit; now you must catch and find a man, and our lads are good at that. We have good, mobile forwards, and that showed in the goals — nowadays you may have to run 50, 60 yards to get onto the end of a move.”
When his home club was mentioned again, Stack winced: “That’s a real hard subject. I’ll be in the Bridge tonight, nothing surer. My heart goes out to them. They have big ambitions and that’s where I’ll always belong.
“My own ambition is to lead this team to an All-Ireland club. We’ve been waiting two years to get back and now, against Portumna, we’ll give it a right go.”
His opposite number wasn’t about to offer up excuses. John O’Meara was honest about the game his side had just lost.
“We thought there might be one more kick in us,” said the Bridge boss. “We did less this week with the lads, it’s our seventh week out in eight, but Na Piarsaigh were far superior — they were more physical than us, fresher than us and their hurling was crisper. No complaints.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved