Crusheen ready to take one giant step
AS the results from county senior hurling finals rolled in from across Munster, it became likely that a new name would be engraved on the O'Neill Cup.
Only Waterford champions Ballygunner could claim to be regulars in the Munster championship as the winds of change blew across the province.
Both Tipperary and Limerick saw new champions in Drom and Inch and Na Piarsaigh. Carrigtwohill of Cork were back at the top of the tree for the first time in 93 years, while Crusheen collected only the second Clare title in their history -- 12 months after their first crown.
And tomorrow's decider sees the Banner champions and Na Piarsaigh break new ground in their first provincial decider, though Crusheen manager Michael Browne and his side carry a sense of unfinished business into this game.
"After winning Clare last year, we lost to Kilmallock in Ennis and we felt we let ourselves down. We didn't do ourselves or our county justice. There has been a huge focus on that from our lads," he said.
Crusheen's rise can be put down partly to new development in the parish in the 1980s and the increased nurturing of their young talent by schools and coaches. When the Banner won the All-Ireland U-21 title in 2009, they were skippered by a Crusheen man -- Ciaran O'Doherty -- and a year later the club collected their first senior title.
They had come close to a breakthrough before. Browne was part of the Crusheen side of the 1970s that contested a couple of senior finals and there are strong links between that outfit and the current generation.
Work commitments saw Browne move away from the club, but his route back took him to Tulla, where he acted as trainer under Jim McInerney. They went all the way to the Munster final of 2007, beating Crusheen in the Clare decider that year, before being edged out by Tipperary side Loughmore-Castleiney.
During his playing days, Browne came up against Na Piarsaigh manager Sean Stack, who won an All Star with Clare in 1981 and they'll renew rivalries tomorrow. The Limerick men have shown little of the fear sometimes associated with clubs who are stepping outside the confines of their county for the first time.
They carried the momentum from their 11-point county final win over Ahane to beat Ballygunner in Waterford and earn the favourites tag ahead of tomorrow's decider.
On paper at least, their strength lies in the forwards, where Kevin Downes and Shane Dowling are exciting prospects, while Crusheen have some star performers in a defence that is manned by three Dillon brothers -- Cian, Cathal and Cronan (with another two brothers on the bench) -- as well as O'Doherty as they look to become the first Clare club to win Munster since Sixmilebridge in 2000.
"I just saw some highlights of their win over Ballygunner and their forwards are lethal, so if our defenders spill a ball, we know we are going to be punished. It could be a wet day too so we'll have to be careful," Browne said.
"People would say the backs are our strong point, but we conceded 2-4 in a few minutes to Kilmallock last year, so we can make mistakes too. We've worked hard up front too and it really is a team effort with us and we've been building gradually.
"In 2009 we won the senior 'B' championship and the Clare Cup (winter league) before we made the breakthrough in 2010. Our lads have a confidence that they have earned through some fierce hard work and winning things."
With the winner set to play Ulster champions Loughgiel Shamrocks, a real chance to progress to an All-Ireland final awaits tomorrow's winner.
"I'm a great believer in one step at a time. I didn't know the Munster champions were playing the Ulster champions until someone said it to me last week," he added.
"We're not thinking about that. If you start looking more than one step ahead of yourself, that's exactly when you'll trip up."