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Strong foundations put Na Piarsaigh on glory trail – Downes

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Kevin Downes

Kevin Downes

SPORTSFILE

Kevin Downes

LIMERICK hurling may currently be experiencing a renaissance, but it's only a few years since people were sounding the death-knell of the small-ball game in the city and putting it down to strong competition from rugby and soccer.

For Kevin Downes there was never any choice.

He was reared just down the road from Shannon RFC, but admits he's never even gone in the gate.

"I'd just no interest. It was always just hurling, really. Played a bit of soccer alright, but hurling and football were always the main ones for me."

On Saturday he faces his second chance in three seasons to reach an AIB All-Ireland club final with Na Piarsaigh.

They draw from the Ennis Road and Caherdavin and are the main club on the city's northside. Their rise has been remarkable.

They didn't win their first county SHC title until 2011, but went on to win Munster that year and are now county and provincial champions again, not bad for a town where hurling was reportedly on its last legs.

Downes credits their breakthrough to "all the underage work, from U-6 up, in the club.

"If you go down any Saturday morning the place is full of young lads and that's from the volunteers underage. They won't get any of the credit, there won't be any headlines written about them, but they're the heartbeat of it."

Limerick GAA development officer Liam O'Sullivan concurs that the club's brilliant underage system is a factor in their recent progress, but across the city there are other encouraging figures.

Back in 2007 only 8pc of city children were playing hurling. By 2011 that had ballooned to 57pc and it's still rising.

The county board devotes two of its six games development officers (county hurlers Eoin Ryan and Gavin O'Mahony) solely to the city, while Munster Council also employs one specifically for Limerick's special area of regeneration (Moyross and Southhill).

Ardscoil Ris' Harty Cup schools' success (of which Downes was a key member), as well as the county team's resurgence, have been key contributors to the game's rebirth in Limerick, but it is still a work in progress, as are Na Piarsaigh.

Back in 2009, Adare thrashed them (1-17 to 0-3) in the county final.

Downes was also on the minor team who lost a county final a week earlier and they also lost the county intermediate football and camogie finals that summer.

"That was haunting us all that winter, it still does, really," he reveals of their annus horribilis.

"But we were boys really playing in a county final. Adare were on a good streak at that time and completely blitzed us, but it was definitely character-building and we came back much stronger."

His own character has also been tested in the past year. While Limerick had that glory run to the Munster title, Downes found himself consigned to the unfamiliar role of impact sub.

He had some injuries, but doesn't use them as an excuse.

"There's plenty of competition there, the lads that were there were doing well. There's nothing you can do, just keep plugging away, but thankfully my club form is going alright and we'll see what the next few games have in store."

ROUGHER

Losing to Loughiel in 2012 still stings and the club are expecting an even rougher ride in this year's All-Ireland semi-finals as they're pitted against three-time champions Portumna in Thurles on Saturday.

Downes has a busy schedule as he lined out for NUI Galway last week when they suffered a surprise defeat by DIT in their Fitzgibbon Cup group opener.

By their own admission Na Piarsaigh's form in Limerick last summer was not convincing, but they scraped home.

They then came through two tough games against Loughmore and Passage before rattling in 4-14 past a shell-shocked Sixmilebridge in the Munster final.

Shane O'Neill has now retired, but club legend Damien Quigley (42) – "a huge character around the place" – is still defying the tachometer and Downes credits the former All Star, Brian Hartnett and O'Neill as the club's spiritual leaders.

"They really almost drive the thing. They've been through the hard times, when we were junior and intermediate and had to come up the ranks. They're not too long reminding us if we're getting carried away and bringing us back down to earth."

Irish Independent