Downes and Na Piarsaigh eager to add to Limerick’s revival
Victory over champions Cuala would seal a second All-Ireland win in three years
Kevin Downes in action for Na Piarsaigh in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Slaughteneil. “I’d watch club finals on St Patrick’s Day and never once even thought about being there.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
“No interest whatsoever,” says Kevin Downes about rugby, realising that might not be the popular answer. At least not depending on your definition of the people’s game.
That’s because Downes is from the north side of Limerick city more associated with rugby, but has only ever associated himself with hurling. His club Na Piarsaigh are, in Caherdavin, Thomond Park is just up the road.
Where he lives, in Coonagh, Shannon Rugby Club is just up the road walking distance. He’s never been inside the gate of either (except maybe the latter, to practice his frees).
“Hurling was just our thing,” he says. “We came from hurling families, and I played a bit of soccer alright, but hurling and football were always the main ones.
“Growing up, yes, Munster were winning Heineken Cups, the time of Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, local heroes, and that was the cool thing, the popular thing, in the area. But we had our own crew, never played a rugby, and once we went into Ard Scoil Rís it was fostered even further, as hurling people.
“We might have lost one or two, Dan Goggin, for example, hurled here up to minor, very talented, but every city club would have examples of that. We just had enough of a crop with real hurling calibre. Rugby was always a kind of a battle, but there was nothing really in that. I just had no grá for the game.
“Only in the last few years I have started to look at it a bit more, get a little more into it. You’d see the training you’re doing, and you would be envious in some ways. You’d see the Munster lads around a bit, know them to see, and you would be a little jealous of their lifestyle. They’re not going in selling print for the day. They’re going in after training for a nap. And they don’t live at home with the mammy.”
Not that Downes is complaining about his hurling lifestyle; he works for Cube printing company under TJ Ryan, the former Limerick manager.
“He’s part owner there, with Brendan Ring, into his sport as well. So he understands the demands of modern hurling. That’s a great benefit. I’m sure there are hurlers who have employers who are a lot less understanding. Unless you have that background, it’s hard to understand this is an ‘amateur’ thing, that still needs all this time, all this training.
“But it [rugby] is a different world. That [Munster rugby] is a professional environment, at the peak of their powers, and that support comes to success. But in fairness to Limerick, they’re crying out for something in hurling, and the same people who cheer on the rugby will cheer on Limerick hurling, once there’s something to cheer about.”
Actually there already is – last Sunday’s promotion battle win over Galway ensuring Limerick will play Division 1A hurling next season, with a league quarter-final against Clare to come this Sunday.
Now Downes and Na Piarsaigh can give them something else to cheer about, as they head to Croke Park on Saturday looking to win a second AIB All-Ireland club hurling title in three seasons. Standing in their way are last year’s champions Cuala from Dublin, which can only add to the merit of the achievement, whoever actually wins.
Na Piarsaigh also come that remarkable record of never actually losing a game in the Munster club hurling championship (played 11, won 10, one draw, winning four finals); it all happened recently, naturally.
Na Piarsaigh played their first Limerick county final, in 2009, and ended up being hammered by Adare 1-17 to 0-3. Two years later they were Munster champions, and in 2016 capped off the perfect season with a comprehensive All-Ireland win over Ruairí Óg Cushendall, to become the first Limerick club to win that title outright.
“Starting out, in 2008, my first year with the club, our only ambition was to win one game, avoid relegation,” says Downes, who was just 16 back then.
“At that time winning a county title wasn’t even a goal. I’d watch club finals on St Patrick’s Day and never once even thought about being there. It just kicked on, and can come forward very quickly. At the same time we knew we had fierce underage talent, and knew if we could hang in for few years, something might happen. And we’re at the stage now where I’m 26, and lads on the panel are slagging me for being old.
“But being unbeaten in Munster is never mentioned in the dressing room, no, but of course it gives you some confidence, yeah. Even in the semi-final against Slaughtneil, it was well publicised, down to 13 men, all that adversity, and we came out of it. And we’ve come out of hairy situations before.”
Downes has endured his own setbacks, tearing his cruciate ligament while playing club football in August 2016; it’s been the usual long road back but everything about Saturday’s showdown makes the journey worthwhile.
Cuala meanwhile are looking to rival Portumna, the last club to win back-to-back All-Ireland hurling titles, in 2008-09, and also have a certain Con O’Callaghan in their ranks, who is now just one victory short of winning an incredible ninth title within the last 12 months – not forgetting his All Star and Young Footballer of the Year accolade.
A club hurling final worthy of the people’s game.