Summer licks the leaves on every tree and bush as Brendan Bugler pulls up a stool and plonks his keys on the table. He's been supervising exams all day in Scariff, himself and two dyslexic students in a room together. The job is a little different to general supervision, in that he's there to read the questions out for them if they have trouble making the words go in.
For the past nine months he’s been teaching in Portarlington but this is his last act of education for the summer. Once the exams are done, he’s a hurler. Maybe a farmer too the odd day he’s needed at home but a hurler first and last.
“I can go down to the handball alley when I want to for an hour. I can go to the gym during the day if I want. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do teaching because of the June, July, August factor. No point denying it, it’s so complementary to the hurling.”
Thing is, hurling for Clare these past few years hasn’t exactly put the calendar’s generosity to its fullest use. He may be free in August but he has yet to hurl for his county in that month. Since joining the panel in 2007, he’s never won a Munster championship match in July either. At 27, he’s the second oldest player in the squad – Pat Donnellan has a month on him – and yet it feels like it’s really only now that life is beginning.
Beating Waterford three weeks ago was just his seventh championship win in seven seasons, yet even just that paltry fortune makes him Daddy Warbucks among his peers. Donnellan has five victories to his name. Fergal Lynch has six but has always either come off the bench or finished the game there. Whatever way you spin it, these are players approaching the brow of the hill. While a big future for Clare would be nice and all, the present is unrelenting.
An All Star last year, Bugler has been around for most of the sorrowful mysteries of the past. Games where they gave big teams a rattle but never looked like winning, games where they gave not-so-big teams no game at all and watched their summer fizzle out like a rushed screenplay. All indications are that those days are gone – or going at least – but even so, he’ll have war wounds to tend for a while yet.
“The problem was, it was the second games each year that was letting us down big time. We were getting hammered in the qualifiers so it made us look worse than we were. We got a hockeying against Galway (in 2011), we got a hockeying against Dublin (in 2010). They were hard to take, very hard to get your head around.
'Eggs into one basket'
"It's funny, I don't really know why they happened. It's different every year I suppose. We definitely put all our eggs into the one basket some years looking for a win in Munster. Like, we would never have let ourselves think of what might happen if we did lose.
“So you ended up having days like the one above in Croke Park against Dublin or against Galway in Pearse Stadium. Definitely that Galway game was my worst experience as a hurler. They completely hockeyed us. They were beating us by 13 or 14 points at half-time. They absolutely annihilated us. You’d start questioning yourself a small bit after that alright. But there was never a time when you’d say you were fed up with it all.”
You’d laud him for keeping on keeping on except it would seem too obvious. For that’s all his intercounty career has known. None of the minor or under-21 teams he was on made the slightest wave on which to ride into the senior ranks. Instead Bugler became the poster boy for Clare’s transition period, having arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the comet of the great team.
Frank Lohan and Niall Gilligan were in the side when he made his debut, gods in the corner of the dressing room. But they went soon enough, followed out the door at various stages by the likes of Alan Markham, Colin Lynch, Tony Griffin, Tony Carmody and Gerry Quinn.
Core guys all who eventually melted back into civilian life, unable to wait any longer for someone to work out the code to the ATM behind which Clare’s underage success was housed. Bugler hung in there, fingers and toes crossed that they’d be as good as advertised when they arrived.
“There’s two things you’re feeling when you see a good minor team or a good under-21 team. Everybody has seen the scenario where underage success hasn’t translated into senior. You’d be wary of it happening with Clare and nothing would be worse than finding no fruit there a few years later.
“But the other side of it is that you’re hoping the whole time. You can see that there’s something there, you are watching good players in a Clare jersey. I was watching them thinking that Clare are beginning to move in the right direction and that I just want to be around for that. I want to be around for as long as I can. I’m only 27 and hopefully there will be success along the line.”
That first Munster Championship win since 2008 is a start. But that's all it is. Like his manager, Bugler makes no claims for Clare beyond them being a work in progress. Davy Fitz has been painstaking in putting together a gameplan, one where every ball is sent with a name on it even – especially – when under pressure. For the only time in the interview, Bugler bristles when it's brought up.
“People often say things to me about the way we play. But I don’t think we play a short game. I don’t. If you look back through our games last year and this year, we go long just as much as we go short. We definitely vary it up. You can’t tell me Kilkenny play a long game the whole time because they don’t. And you can’t tell me that Galway play a long game the whole time because they don’t.
“Right? So I don’t think identifying Clare with this short game is accurate. We’ve done a certain amount of it but every team does it. Tipp did it the last day an awful lot. Teams nowadays are just trying to pick out a man in a better position. So to say that Clare just have this short running game, I don’t agree with it at all. I don’t think we have.”
As ever, what flak has flown in their direction has been mostly friendly fire. What criticism there has been has come from within the county, very often from within earshot. It hardly registers anymore.
“We’ve heard it on numerous occasions from the stand. People roaring at us to get the ball in or drive it in. But you’ve got to do your thing. We’ve got a system of playing, just like every other county has a system of playing.
“And as players you have to be patient with it. It’s going to break down from time to time. You’re not going to get the perfect pass all the time. But if you get it 70 or 80 per cent of the time, I think you’ll be doing well enough. It’s going to break down but that’s just the way it is.”
In the past they might have wavered, panicked by the crowd into launching missiles into the unknowable yonder. But this Clare aren’t the Clare he started out with.
As for where they’ll be when he finishes, it’s finally a prospect to relish rather than fear.