The build-up to a final can be a stressful time, but with a Provincial Towns Cup up for grabs Joe Manuel is taking everything in his stride, writes Trevor Spillane.
As captain of the Kilkenny Firsts rugby team, Manuel has his hands full combining his onfield training with additional commitments before his side take on Ashbourne in the Easter Sunday final (kick-off in Tullow is at 3.30pm).
However, nothing will be left to chance as Kilkenny go hunting for a sixth title.
“Things are pretty busy in the build-up to the game,” the affable New Zealander said. “A lot of preparation has gone into getting ready for this match.”
There may be extra attention on you when you’re captaining a team in the week before a cup final, but Manuel is enjoying seeing his club back in the spotlight.
Kilkenny and the Provincial Towns Cup are interlinked in each other’s history.
“The club has won it five times altogether, including a two-in-a-row success in 2001 and 2002, but we haven’t really been close since,” the captain said.
“It’s nice to be back in the game in terms of making finals,” he added. “We think of ourselves as being quite a big club and I think everyone else does too.
“With that in mind it’s something of a surprise that it’s been over 10 years since we last won it.”
The 10-year gap is something of a shock when you consider it feels like almost yesterday (2002 and again in 2003) that Kilkenny were knocking on the door of the All-Ireland League, the top level of club competition in the country.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what changed,” the captain said.
“The club was so close to going up but afterwards, when they didn’t, things just fell apart.
“There were quite a few good players backs then and when they moved on the team fell to shreds,” he said.
“We went down to Division 2A of the Leinster Junior League, which isn’t a great place to be, but we got stuck there for a couple of years.
“There were no new players coming in, no fresh ideas,” he said.
“When Steve (Ashmore, Kilkenny coach) took over last year he changed all that.”
Turned the corner
While Kilkenny were promoted to Division 1B of the Leinster League in 2009, Manuel believes it was the introduction of Ashmore which has helped the Firsts turn the corner.
“It’s really in the last 18 months, since the start of last season when Steve came in, that we have seen the changes,” he said.
“The coach has brought in fresh ideas - that’s no disrespect to the people who were there before him - but he brought new players and a new, modern game to the club.
“Steve was in contact with so many players in pre-season both years, which has added a competitive to the team.
“Players who were there for the last few years, players like myself, have been driven on by that competition for places. A lot of the change is down to him.”
Sometimes even the smallest piece of a fresh perspective can help change things.
“The little tweaks have made a difference,” he agreed. “Things like changes in training and our attitude towards training and match days.
“They are small things, but they’ve really improved the team and the club as a whole over the last two years.”
The results speak for themselves, especially in the Cup, where Kilkenny have carved out an impressive path to the final.
“Right from the very first round against Newbridge the Cup has gone well for us,” he said.
“We played Longford in the league and lost 19-0. After that league game we were written off by some people, but two weeks later, we back up to play them in the Cup and won 20-12.
“We have been classed as underdogs for most of the Cup games,” he continued.
“The semi-final against Wicklow was the first time that people saw us as having potential.
“We proved as much on the day, but I felt we did the same when we played Newbridge and put 40-plus points on them (they beat Newbridge 45-11 in round three).
“Going into the latter stages of the Wicklow game we were 12-0 up,” he said, recalling last month’s semi-final win in Tullow.
“On another day we could have been further ahead, but Wicklow scored a late try which made the game read a lot closer than it was.”
Scorelines can be deceiving. Sounds close, but wasn’t. Did that lead to the team getting a little nervous?
“We wouldn’t have been a nervous team at any stage of the season, but there were a few nerves before that semi-final,” he said. “You could see the tension in a few of the lads before that game. It was the first time many of them had played at that level and gone so far in the competition, so there were a few jitters alright.
Nervy 10 minutes
“After Wicklow scores things were a bit nervy for the last 10 minutes of the game,” he admitted.
“They landed the conversion right from the touchline to move to within five points of us. A converted try could have seen them go in front.
“They had a very good No 10 (Ben Swindlehurst) who doesn’t miss many kicks, so if they had scored anywhere he would have been fancied to add the conversion.
“With that in mind I remember thinking ‘Jeez, one more try and they could win this’,” Manuel recalled.
“Maybe if the game had gone on another five or 10 minutes it might have happened; you don’t know. We were just happy to hear the final whistle!”
Getting to the final was a big achievement but - in a real sign of confidence - it was nothing less than was expected.
“Right from the start of the pre-season Steve had a plan where he wanted us to finish in the top two in the league,” said Joe
“That didn’t happen, but he also said he wanted us to get to the Towns Cup final.
“He saw that as a real possibility, but I don’t think anyone else bought into it at the start because we had been hearing that every year for the past decade,” the captain added.
“When we went back training Steve said we had the team there that would get to the final. Thankfully it came to be this time. The feeling we’ve had from achieving that is great, but that’s the attitude he brings to the equation.”
Making the final has been beneficial not just to the team that will play it, but the club as a whole.
“There are four senior teams training at Foulkstown at the moment,” Manuel said. “While we would have always had the Firsts team, in the last few years we have struggled to get a full squad for the Seconds.”
And it’s not just about getting numbers together to make up teams. Silverware has followed.
“The Thirds won their league a few weeks ago, while the Fourths have just started their season.
“With four different squads out there at the moment things are very busy, but there’s been great support from all sectors of the club.
“To see the numbers who are out there training and at matches, even against Wicklow up in Tullow - there was a local crowd there which you wouldn’t have seen in the past - you can feel the lift around the club.
“Everyone is getting together, which is great for Kilkenny rugby.”
And the hope is that an even bigger crowd will follow the team up to Carlow again for Sunday’s final.
“Having played the semi-final in Tullow, I think going there for the final might suit us a bit more than Ashbourne,” he said.
“We’re used to the pitch and have played there quite a few times.
“I got the feeling that the Tullow lads were behind us in that semi-final as well,” he added. “We have quite a good relationship with the club, so I think they’ll be rooting for us as well.
“We’ll need all the support we can get,” he continued. “Ashbourne have been unbeaten in 18 games this season.
“They’ve beaten us twice this year so who knows - maybe it’s third time lucky.”