Downes out to strike blow for hurling in Treaty battle with rugby
When Kevin Downes broke into the Na Piarsaigh team as a 16-year-old a decade ago, the Limerick club was not the silverware-hoovering superpower it is today. They had never so much as reached a county final; "our goal that year was to win one match and stay senior," recalls Downes ahead of today's AIB All-Ireland Club SHC final clash with Cuala.
The club was struggling to capture the hearts and minds of the local population in Caherdavin, a middle-class suburb of Limerick city: Munster were on their way to a second Heineken Cup in three seasons, and the lure of the oval ball was powerful to young lads growing up in an area just two miles from Thomond Park.
"When we were coming up underage, there was a bit of a battle - most people were playing rugby," recalls Downes. "Paul O'Connell and others were local heroes. Rugby was the cool thing. It was the popular sport in the area."
Competing with rugby is a fact of life for hurling clubs in Limerick, a city where the oval ball has a penetration beyond the private schools to a degree unmatched anywhere else in the country.
Downes names young Munster centre Dan Goggin as a hurler of immense potential lost to the game. "And there are plenty of others who didn't make it as far as Munster but are playing AIL who were very, very talented hurlers," he says.
Fortunately for Na Piarsaigh, Downes and a cohort of friends were immune to rugby's charms.
"When I was younger, I had no interest in rugby," he says. "I had no grá for the game - although in the last few years, I have really started to appreciate it more. So I never played rugby… I played a bit of soccer, a bit of Gaelic football. But for our group, hurling was No 1. I went to Ardscoil Rís then, and hurling was fostered further.
"We had enough of a crop that stuck with it, and had that pedigree from home, from playing in the back garden. But rugby was always around."
Downes' decision to stick with hurling has paid dividends, if not financially - "there's not too many professional rugby players live at home with mammy," he says ruefully - then certainly in terms of trophies, at least at club level.
From such a low base in 2008, Na Piarsaigh have gone on to dominate their province: Limerick SHC honours in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 were all converted to Munster titles, with an All-Ireland in 2016. In addition, Downes has won a Munster title with Limerick at senior and U-21 level.
"When I came in, getting to the county semi-final, forget about it," he recalls of expectations in 2008. "That was light years away. You'd sit down and watch All-Ireland finals on Paddy's Day on TV at home and you weren't even thinking, 'I'd love to be there'. The likes of Ballyhale - it was just a different world.
"But we'd had fierce underage success, and we knew that if we could stay senior, hang in there for a couple of years, something would happen, and here we are."
A second All-Ireland in three years would be a phenomenal achievement for this close-knit young Na Piarsaigh side - 26-year-old Downes gets "a slagging for being old" - but to really inspire the Limerick sporting public, some success is required at county level. The Limerick hurlers, Downes says, are overshadowed by the Munster rugby players.
"They're a lot more recognisable than us; they're going very well again, whereas Limerick hurling hasn't had much to shout about in recent times at senior level," Downes concedes.
"The Limerick people are crying out for something. If you give them something, they'll give you back plenty more. It's up to us to bring something to the table."
Downes and the other nine Limerick panellists in the Na Piarsaigh team will have to switch focus pretty quickly after the club final; the Munster Championship opener against Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds is barely two months away, on Sunday, May 20.
It's "at the back of the mind, of course it is," acknowledges Downes, who insists the Na Piarsaigh contingent will return to the fray in peak condition. "The way the club scene is now, it's five or six nights a week. It's not a case that you come back into the county set-up three stone overweight!"
That's a tough commitment for amateur players, particularly ones who work full-time, as Downes does: he's a sales rep for Cube, a printing company. Apart from David Breen, a physio for English rugby club Wasps, all the Na Piarsaigh team work or study locally. Downes is particularly fortunate that his boss is former Limerick manager TJ Ryan.
"He understands the demands of Limerick hurling," says Downes, who is "jealous" of the Munster players' professional lifestyles. "It's a great relief and benefit. Some employers are less understanding. Unless you have a background in it, it's hard to understand that this 'amateur' thing, inverted commas… why would you need all the time, all that training?"
Little wonder, Downes says, that none of the Na Piarsaigh players have children. "Most of us don't even have girlfriends," he smiles.
For more on the club finals, check out AIB GAA on social media and www.aib.ie/gaa