Na Piarsaigh standing tall
Incredible resolve of Limerick champions at the heart of their unbeaten record in Munster
Down the home straight of last Sunday’s Munster semi-final, Thurles Sarsfields appeared to have wrestled back momentum from Na Piarsaigh at just the right time.
Having recovered from the setback of a goal eight minutes into the second half, Sars never let the game get away from them before quickfire points from Stephen Cahill and Pa Bourke levelled the match.
Sars looked primed to hit the front before Na Piarsaigh did what Na Piarsaigh do in these situations. Cathal King went on a run out of defence before landing an inspirational point in the 54th minute. Na Piarsaigh won the next two Thurles puckouts, which yielded scoring opportunities that resulted in two wides. Na Piarsaigh also won the next Thurles puckout which created the opening for David Dempsey to slam the ball to the net. Game over.
At this stage, keeping their heads in tricky situations, winning tight games in the Munster club championship, is almost Na Piarsaigh’s calling card. It has become hardwired into what they see as their destiny.
In their dressing-room at half-time of their Munster quarter-final against Sixmilebridge last month, when nine points down, Na Piarsaigh spoke about trailing Ballygunner by 11 points in the 2011 Munster championship, of how they were nine points behind Loughmore-Castleiney in 2013. Na Piarsaigh won all three games because they don’t know what it’s like to lose in Munster.
From eight games in three campaigns over the last five seasons, Na Piarsaigh are still unbeaten. In the storied history of the Munster club championship, the only club with a comparable unbeaten record is Cashel King Cormacs. They won the 1991 title when beating Clarecastle and Middleton but Cashel hadn’t won a Tipperary title before that year and they haven’t won one since.
Na Piarsaigh’s tradition in the competition is all the more impressive considering they only won their first county title in 2011. It’s equally as impressive given that for so long, Na Piarsaigh were labelled as everything they are now not.
When they reached their first county final in 2009, Adare routed them by 17 points. The experience was even harder to take because it inflated all the old accusations hitched to their carriage; that they were nouveau riche and flaky; they were a soft city team. In the opinion of the Limerick hurling public, Na Piarsaigh were a team that lacked something. Various descriptions were applied to that something and none of them were kind.
Against teams with a tradition, they struggled. Na Piarsaigh almost accepted what the opposition expected of them. For a long time, that level of acceptance became a self-fulfilling prophesy. “Up to six or seven years ago, every opposition management would have said to their players at half-time, ‘If we’re within two or three points of Na Piarsaigh going into the last third of this match, we will definitely beat them,’” says Paul Beary. “When the going got tough, the opposition always backed themselves against us. It’s that’s fundamental mentality which has completely reversed in the last five years.”
Beary, a coach and selector with the Limerick seniors between 2014-’15, played with the club all his life. He was part of the Na Piarsaigh management team with Sean Stack between 2011 and 2013. In his opinion, the real breakthrough came in the 2011 county semi-final. At half-time, they trailed Patrickswell by six points.
“I remember the players taking ownership that day in the dressing-room,” says Beary. “Collectively they decided, ‘Enough is enough’ They took ownership of the game in the second-half. From then on, they were in awe of nothing, and fearful of nobody. They have just kicked on from there.”
They continue to create their own history now, writing new chapters as they go. Na Piarsaigh were only born in 1968, from five new housing estates on the northside of Limerick city when the city expanded in the late 1960s. In the early years, their culture was largely framed through football. The first two trophies to come to the club were the city minor football title in 1972 and the under-21 football championship the following year. By 1975, they were intermediate football champions while they contested the senior football final in 1982, which they lost to Claughan.
The culture though, was gradually beginning to change. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Na Piarsaigh were such an underage hurling powerhouse that once they arrived at senior level in 1994, they were labelled as the coming force.
They made a county semi-final in 1996. They reached semi-finals again in 1999 and 2002 but couldn’t make the breakthrough. Their progress stalled. As the defeats mounted, so did the impression of them as a team. The underage production line dried up and they were drifting for much of the last decade as a senior team. At stages, they flirted with relegation.
When the next wave of young talent arrived though, it was gold-dust. They started gobbling up underage titles again. Na Piarsaigh players were winning Dr Harty Cups with Ard Scoil Ris. On the Limerick under-21 panel that won the Munster championship in 2011, there were a staggering seven players from Na Piarsaigh.
“The level of talent coming through was phenomenal,” says Beary. “They were brilliant players but they had a brilliant attitude too. We knew we had something special. We just had to make it count.”
The young players were richly talented but they also infused the club with a new hunger, a desire to succeed, to be better than they were before. The ambition continues to grow. So does the quality of young talent. Four Na Piarsaigh players played in the All-Ireland under-21 final rout of Wexford in September. As they face Ballygunner in Sunday’s Munster final, their belief and conviction knows no bounds, no limits.
They always feel they can get it done. Na Piarsaigh defeated Munster champions Kilmallock in the Limerick semi-final by one point. In the final against Patrickswell, they were trailing by five points with 15 minutes remaining before winning by one.
Na Piarsaigh are now everything they were once not.