By Kieran Murphy
WHEN Ballinkillen were thrown out of the Carlow senior hurling championship this year it would have been easy for St Mullins to say nothing and look forward to a final against Mount Leinster Rangers.
St Mullins immediately made it clear they would prefer to play their scheduled semi-final.
So when the two sides met it looked as if their magnanimous gesture was going to cost St Mullins. With the game entering injury time the eventual champions trailed by three points. Surely the game was up? Particularly when Ballinkillen drove out of defence with the ball. They got a life-line when the clearance was only half-hit and the sliotar fell into the hands of John Doran who dispatched it back into the Ballinkillen square.
Marty Kavanagh was deemed to have been fouled and the Carlow intercounty player took the free which somehow found the net. A deflated Ballinkillen never recovered in extra time and St Mullins won by 3-19 to 1-19. Those moments were not lost on manager Niall O’Donnell and he referred to them after training last week in the Bahana ground where the St Mullins club is based.
“Ballinkillen was touch and go. Look, on the day it is like everything with championship matches. We all know the story surrounding that Ballinkillen game. We let them back into it,” O’Donnell recalled, while maintaining there was no question of wanting to get to a final without earning it.
“We did it as goodwill for the club. We didn’t want to be jumping over their backs.”
Afterwards O’Donnell was worried that the rescheduled game going to extra-time had the potential to tire his players. On the other hand, their final opponents Mount Leinster Rangers hadn’t had a competitive game for over a month.
“You would wonder if it was an advantage for them. They were waiting a long time to play. You had the fatigue situation for us having played extra-time. It worked out in the end,” conceded O’Donnell.
The county final win over Rangers by a single point was as much a mental preparation as a physical effort. O’Donnell says this experience will help them in their approach to the Ballyhale challenge. With Rangers, the manager had to persuade his players to stop focussing on trying to stop their deadly rivals doing another three-in-a-row.
“It was massive motivation for the club to stop them. All the focus seemed to be about Rangers all the time. It was to try and get it off Rangers and on to the hurling,” recalled O’Donnell.
Once again the manager will ask his players to concentrate on their own game only.
“On Sunday we are playing Ballyhale but I will be trying to get lads to focus on their own game and play it as it is. If you go out to take on Ballyhale and focus on that only, the enormity of the task will cripple you.”
O’Donnell has played in a provincial final with Ballygunnar but he has never managed a side on the same stage. This is a first for him. He says some clubs are happy to win their own county title and are not too bothered by provincial success.
“It is definitely an honour to be on that stage. Everyone goes out with the intention and ambition of winning their county title. A lot of clubs take the view that they got what they achieved and that will do, while other teams focus on the provincial thing and want to push on.”
Ballyhale are certainly in that category.
“I think the stones on the road know the time to beat Ballyhale is before or in the quarter-final in Kilkenny. Once they hit the county semi-final stage you get your money on them to win the All-Ireland,” the St Mullins manager muses.
Can his side do what nobody has been able to do over the last 12 months or more: beat the mighty Ballyhale Shamrocks in a knock-out championship game.
“We will be going to try and lift the trophy. We want to do it. Can we do it? We can. Does anyone outside this group believe we can do it? Probably not, and that is fair enough. We will try our level best to do it against Ballyhale.”