Ballygunner stalwart Shane O’Sullivan is relishing the prospect of challenging club giants Ballyhale with a place in the All-Ireland Club Hurling Final up for grabs in Semple Stadium this Saturday.
Speaking to The Munster Express, the former inter-county star described a potential run-out at Croke Park on Saint Patrick’s Day as the stuff of boyhood dreams. “Preparing for a game like this, it really is a great place to be,” he said on Sunday. “Ever since I was a child, my ambition was to win an All-Ireland club title with Ballygunner. During Christmas, I found an old scrapbook of mine at home where I’d written down playing in Croke Park on Patrick’s Day as my big ambition. And it still is, it’s an ambition I’ve held since I was in Ballygunner National School. But right now that’s all it is: a dream. We can’t look beyond Saturday evening in Thurles where we’ll be up against one of the greatest clubs in the country; and their record in this competition speaks for itself.”
Shane added: “We’re going up against the best, a team with incredible pedigree and it really is a privilege to be able to line out and play against some of the very best of hurlers in the country. Of course, a lot of the players on both teams would have been in college together and that does add something to the game, no question. On top of that, the Waterford/Kilkenny rivalry is so, so strong. I know the history is there. But we’re taking the game on its merit, we have to look at it as just one game. But we have been here before and some results against Kilkenny teams, particularly at inter-county level have not gone our way in the past but we have to park those memories now and just look straight ahead to five o’clock next Saturday. That’s all that matters now.”
O’Sullivan conceded that Ballygunner will benefit from their underdogs status, not a position they’ve found themselves occupying all that regularly in recent campaigns. “I think it gives us a certain level of freedom because the expectations from the outside perspective are then naturally lower but internally, nothing changes for us. We have huge expectations. But there’s no denying that it’s good not being red hot favourites. It means lees media attention for us and a lower level of expectation outside the group.” Will Ballygunner’s Semple Stadium muscle memory and well-established pre-match routine at Thurles give them a potential edge on Saturday? “It might, it just might. But from their perspective, Ballyhale have less to travel on the day; I suspect they’ll do their pre-match routine in Kilkenny and then head straight to the ground from there whereas we’ll be heading for another ground beforehand then go to a hotel before we get to Semple Stadium. The game at this level often rests on small margins.”
The encouragement from the stands could also come into play, Shane added. “Yeah, the support really makes a difference. It was huge for us in the Munster Final and when you have the crowd behind you it can really make a difference to you out on the field.” Is the sizeable break between matches a problem? “It’s difficult enough with the big gap between matches alright but it’s the same for both teams, trying to keep training and maintaining some kind of momentum. There really is nothing like matches and we’ve had three decent challenge matches lately.
We’ve also played some matches within the club though and they’ve been really great; there’s been a great intensity and purpose to them. And we’re fortunate to have such a big panel and have so many players fighting for positions. Even if there’s a player missing, we know there’s someone else to come through and do a job for is. Pauric (Mahony) is probably the only player that would be hard to replace in terms of his scoring ability but we’re fortunate to have so many quality players to choose from.”
Commenting on the Gunners’ backline, a somewhat lesser heralded division, Shane said: “It’s the bedrock of the team, and when you look at how little we’ve conceded throughout the campaign, it just shows how well served we are. Our back line would mix it with anyone; for me they’re the best line and most underrated line on the team. Their biggest challenge lies ahead but they are a fantastic set of backs and we’re lucky to have them…”If we get to the Final it’ll be another plus for the county team in terms of belief: if we can go on and compete in an All-Ireland Final. Belief is so important and it would be great to get there and break those barriers down.” Indeed it would, Shane.