NEWLY crowned Kilkenny champions, James Stephens went to the hurling well twice in recent week to replenish minds and bodies in preparation for massive tests, but they have to do so again this week for the visit of classy Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford) to Nowlan Park on Sunday in the Leinster club championship, writes John Knox.
“It won’t be easy, but if there was every a group of players who could do it, I think these are the players,” suggested thrilled manager, Niall Rigney after Sunday’s sensational success. “We want to drive on in Leinster. Oulart are a seriously good team. They have had four weeks to prepare for this game, and we have only a few days.
“That is not an excuse. We have to bring the same level of drive and determination to this game as we brought to the county final and replay if we are to win. We have to get the bodies back fresh and fit, and get the minds right again.
“Everything these eguys have shown me suggests they can win the match.”
He described Sunday’s victory as “fantastic”. The management team of Mr Rigney, Adrian Finan and Fran Whelan never doubted the players would produce. The performance reflected the character in the squad, he said.
Level of desire
“It showed the level of desire they had to win,” added. “We left Nowlan Park last Sunday very disappointed. But before we even sat down to have a bit to eat we refocussed the lads. We had a good talk for 10 to 15 minutes. We regrouped great.
“We only trained for 45 minutes during the week. The minds were fresh. The bodies were fresh and the work rate was incredible. We brought back to the table what we brought to it in the drawn match. Getting the players minds right was easy. We told them the match wasn’t gone. We were still in it.
“They were never going to be flat. They were jumping out of their skins. They could have gone on for another 10 minutes at the finish. Fair play to them, they were open to all suggestions on what had to be done. They were fantastic.” He reminded that a lot of the players featured in the All-Ireland club final in 2005. Yet they were saying all week that to win the replay would be the greatest victory ever for The Village.
“That is what they were saying, not me,” Mr Rigney revealed. “That was incredible for me to hear. I just added my little bit to the mix. They led the way. I encouraged and drove them on. They are a fantastic team. To score 1-20 in difficult conditions was something.”
The team even sailed thorugh the challenge of losing a colossus like former All-Star, Jackie Tyrrell.
Mr Rigney admitted that there was concern then, concern that they might lose their shape and concede scores. The players held firm for the vital few minutes after that incident and then they stormed on.
“The Village is a fantastic club with a great team, and lovely, lovely people,” he said. “They are great hurling people. I am honoured to be involved with them. “
What did the win mean to him?
“It was terrific,” he smiled. “How many Laois men come to Kilkenny and help manage a team to win a championship? We are not that bad in Laois. They are a brilliant group of lads. Thanksfully they allowed me help them.”
Selector Adrian Finan said 100% credit for the win had to go to the players. To come back from the disappointment of the last day, and there was disappointment after getting so close, was awesome.
“They were aswome during the week,” he insisted. “We let them off on their own to chat. We then met them on Wednesday night and they were in great form. They lifted our spirits as much as anything else. We knew then we were coming in with a great chance again.
“It was wonderful, a wonderful performance right across the field again. To get two compete team performances on consecutive weekends was an amazing statement from the players and the people in the club.”
He said Shamrocks were a special team. ’Stephens had their home work done and maybe the fact they were facing Ballyhale helped everyone focus 100%.
“It wasn’t until we got seven points ahead that I felt victory was ours,” he smiled. “You never feel safe against the Shamrocks. Knowing we beat a quality team adds to the delight of the achievement.”
Last season ’Stephens were dumped out by Carrickshock in the championship quarter-finals. They have travelled a long way since.
“We came from behind in the pack this year,” Mr Finan continued. “Maybe people looked at that performance and said that was where The Village were. We knew we were better than that. We were probably written off a bit, and we used that to our advantage.”