THE odds may appear to be stacked against James Stephens in Sunday’s senior hurling final against Ballyhale Shamrocks, but The Village are not worried. They will do their own thing and see what fate throws at them, writes John Knox.
Former Laois manager, Niall Rigney, is the new man in the hot seat with the Larchfield outfit, and while some odds may be screaming about a Shamrocks success, he is concentrating exclusively on having his troops in tip top order for the day.
“It is an exciting time for any club to be in a senior final,” insisted the former Laois star. “That is the aim of every club at the start of the year. To win it is the No. 1 thing.”
Before the semi-finals two weeks ago the odds for the forthcoming Leinster and All-Ireland club championships were quoted. ’Stephens got a sobering indication of how they rate in the standings.
They were quoted at 22-1 to win the final next March. Shamrocks were the bookies choice at 6-4.
Shamrocks are pretty good, one suggested to Mr Rigney.
“I don’t think pretty is the word,” he joked. “They are one of the greatest club teams of all time, without question, never mind at the present time. The odds that were quoted tell their own story.
“We have huge respect for them. They are a fantastic team. All credit to them.”
But would odds like that be an incentive to you, one wondered?
“That could work both ways,” he replied. “It could be an incentive or a negative. But you don’t spend your time worrying about the opposition or things like that.
“Our total focus is on getting ourselves right for the day. It may sound very simple, but it all comes down to what happens during an hour’s hurling. To make sure we are right, are ready and are focussed for the game, that is what our approach is all about.”
The form of the clubs in the semi-finals was interesting. During their win over O’Loughlin’s Gael, the Shamrocks played some outstanding hurling at times but they faded near the finish.
’Stephens showed form that was almost polar opposition. They were average enough for 40 minutes or so, but then they overwhelmed St Martin’s and they won with a fair bit in hand.
“Semi-finals are about winning, nothing more,” The Village boss said. “The focus all along has been to get to October 23. That is where we are now.”
He stressed again that they won’t worry about the opposition. Their concentration will be on getting their own house in order.
“If you spent your life worrying about the opposition you would get nowhere,” Mr Rigney added. “Getting yourself right mentally and physically is what it is all about.”
Heading into the last match of his first season in Kilkenny he said he was hugely impressed by the standard of play, and the approach of clubs to games and competitions.
“The difference in Kilkenny to other places is that it is competitive all through the season,” was his reflection on the campaign. “There is a great system operating the way the league and championship work.
“It is run on a league basis. The competition starts in April and finishes on October 23. What goes on at club level is a true reflection on the county team and the county set-up.
“The fact games are so competitive all year is very good. The county team manager must be very happy with that.”
Was he surprised at how competitive things were?
“I wasn’t a bit surprised,” he assured. “It is typical Kilkenny hurling, competitive all the way through. If you look at Kilkenny over the years they have always been competitive in the National Hurling League.
“I am enjoying the challenge. Who doesn’t want a challenge? We all want a challenge. That is why we are involved in the game.
“There is a wonderful opportunity for the club players to go out and play against some of the greatest hurlers who have ever played the game. On Sunday we will respect Shamrocks totally.
“The important thing is that we know our job and we are focussed for it.”
The clubs clash some weeks ago in the League final. The manager recalled that ’Stephens goalie Derrick Brennan made three or four marvellous saves in the first half that kept the game alive at a time his charges were playing with the wind.
“We know where we stand in relation to that game,” he assured. “The League final will have no bearing whatsoever on this game. That is sport. Every game is wide open. That is the beauty of it.
“We all love the competitive edge. We are where we are. We want to be where we are. We will embrace the challenge and take it on.”