Sunday 18 February 2018

Investment in youth now paying dividends

Damien Quigley is still on board but Na Piarsaigh have evolved since their last Munster bid, says Dermot Crowe

Na Piarsaigh will contest the Munster club hurling semi-final
Na Piarsaigh will contest the Munster club hurling semi-final

Dermot Crowe

Na Piarsaigh's last provincial adventure had Shane O'Neill and Damien Quigley raising a glass to longevity. Their impressive mileage credentials constituted one small corner of the club's demographic; the dominant category and profile was young, prodigious, accustomed to winning things. O'Neill has since eased himself into retirement, but Quigley still togs, a triumph of human endurance, ready if duty calls.

Not a great deal has changed aside from O'Neill's vanishing act and a few more youngsters making the grade. Seán Stack is at the helm, as he has been back to their first senior county final appearance in 2009. Clare again provide Munster final opposition, Stack's native Sixmilebridge replacing the Crusheen team defeated in a replay two years ago. Na Piarsaigh continue to benefit from a shrewd investment in underage hurling. Two Limerick minors were grafted on to the team against Kilmallock in the county semi-finals and acclimatised immediately.

Like two years ago, Quigley has an undiminished appetite for hurling; he is less keen on personal publicity. A minor in 1989, he was part of the Na Piarsaigh team that won the junior championship in 1990 and climbed to intermediate. Those humble beginnings have no relevance to the new generation used to winning championships at every grade. Na Piarsaigh have won three of the last four under 21 titles, and now two of the last three seniors. They are a force to be reckoned with.

This year's senior success was embellished by virtue of their wins over all the top guns, Adare, Kilmallock, Ahane and Patrickswell. Their only defeat was in the group

stages to Doon, which led to a rejig of the team, including David Breen's relocation from centre-forward to centre-back.

"There would be a begrudging set who would say we won a soft championship in 2011," says Quigley, "even though we won Munster after. We had not beaten Kilmallock who were champions in 2010, so beating them was a box that we needed to tick."

In 2009, they suffered a 1-17 to 0-3 hammering in their first senior final appearance, against Adare, who completed a three-in-a-row. The following year they avenged that defeat by putting Adare out in the quarter-finals, but Kilmallock halted their gallop in the next round.

Quigley feels they weren't ready. That was not the case in 2011 and they looked All-Ireland contenders until the defeat by Loughgiel in February. After that loss they dusted themselves down and launched a defence of their county title. Kilmallock stopped them in the county semi-finals and went on to win the championship. They returned the favour in the semi-finals this year, meaning the senior championship has passed between the two clubs over the last four years.

Quigley says his role now, as a peripheral player, is not relevant, nor the club's humble origins. While that is arguable, the point he is striving to make is that the young hurlers backboning Na Piarsaigh today are setting a new tradition. "The older you get the more you appreciate things and in a way it is kind of fitting that the younger lads don't know much about that (early years)," he says. "Their ambitions are much loftier. The two young lads who progressed to the team this year were progressing on to a team who won a Munster final two years ago. Their level of ambition far outreaches what mine was 20 years ago. Kevin Downes and Shane Dowling and those lads are very ambitious guys; they are not going to a club that has just come up into senior hurling."

Shane O'Neill, three years younger than Quigley, ended his career after they lost to Kilmallock in the county semi-finals last year. He was 38 and it felt like the right time. O'Neill's only tangible connection now is that he is a member of the firm of solicitors, Sweeney/McGann, that has sponsored the club for the last number of years. The decision to quit wasn't a wrench. "I was after 20 years of hurling. It was a lot easier to make that decision after the success in 2011 obviously. I played on into 2012 because we had trained so hard over the winter and I was still fit. We had so many young lads coming through. I wouldn't get on that team if I was there this year."

Last year Quigley played junior hurling. "I did not play senior at all last year. I was very happy to play junior, it was enjoyable, drinking a few pints." But his fitness coming into last spring was good enough to see his senior career resuscitated and he turned out in a few league games. With the team hit by injuries he was started against Patrickswell and also started the quarter-final win over Ahane. He says his career, while it started earlier than O'Neill's, has been frustrated by injury and this might explain his staying power. In 2009, he suffered a cruciate injury and missed the county final trouncing from Adare. In spite of the prospect of a long rehabilitation he refused to allow that be his epitaph.

Na Piarsaigh's current success makes it easier to commit. "There is no way I would be playing if you were plodding away with no hope of winning anything. And it is not for the medals. The standard is very high. There's a lot of young lads. I mark Michael Casey who is 18 in training and there are lads there who I am only getting to know. They weren't born when I played for Limerick."

He describes the last voyage as "an incredible test of stamina" as it took them from one calendar year to the next, through different climates and ground conditions, and featured a long break after winning Munster until they faced Loughgiel. That draws a sigh of regret from O'Neill. "When you get to that stage of a competition, the last four, that is the time to take your opportunity. We had spoken all along about taking the opportunities that come your way and we didn't perform that day. Loughgiel were fantastic and still we took it to extra-time.

"That is undoubtedly my biggest regret. I think it took a couple of months for me personally to get over that loss. Maybe the idea that this was an Ulster team and might have been an easier draw got inside players' heads, but the record shows that Munster teams frequently lose to Ulster teams in the club championship, and we had tried to get this message across. I even photocopied an article that highlighted this and we talked about it beforehand. I remember watching the (All-Ireland) final, the goals going in, and thinking: we have really thrown this away."

But All-Irelands aren't on the radar this side of Christmas, not

with a trip to Ennis against Sixmilebridge coming up. The clubs are less than ten miles apart and there is a natural crossover. Na Piarsaigh lads hurled with Bridge boys in Ard Scoil Rís and later they played together in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Shane O'Neill's sister Ruth is embedded in Sixmilebridge, married to Adrian Hogan, the chairman of their juvenile section. His nephews and nieces hurl there. Of course Stack is the most obvious link to both sides, caught in the invidious position he finds himself in. "He is a winner, he brings a winning mentality," says Quigley of the team coach. "And he also brought a tradition, a winning tradition to the club. He was able to convey that. That whole thing kind of seeped into players' consciousnesses bit by bit. Seán would have fierce difficulty understanding in 2010 how having beaten Adare, who had won the previous three championships, that we could not beat Kilmallock afterwards. I remember talking to him over a cup of tea a few months after and having to say to him, you don't understand, we are trying to build something here. It takes time to create that winning mentality. He is a hell of a coach. He is a brilliant coach."

O'Neill talks of Stack's "self-belief" and remembers his vow that they would win a Munster title after they landed the Limerick title in 2011 because the shackles were off. O'Neill won a county minor medal in 1992 and a sturdy faith in triumphing at senior level took until his penultimate season to be repaid. "At the start of the year you would always be optimistic," he says, "and a lot of the guys used to slag me saying I was the eternal optimist."

Time moves on. After Quigley, the senior citizen, Brian Hartnett is 37 and the 2011 captain Kieran Bermingham 33. No starter today will be over 30. Na Piarsaigh – founded in 1968 – is mainly a youth revolution.

Sunday Independent

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