All set for Sunday: Niall Andrews (captain), David Rice (vice-captain), Jim Cashin (joint manager), Anthony Martin (medic) and Jim Nugent (joint manager) are ready for Sunday's Oscar Traynor final
The heart of a league team, strengthened by a club attitude, has driven Kilkenny to the Oscar Traynor Trophy final.
That was the opinion of defender David Rice, who is eagerly looking forward to Sunday’s big clash with Carlow in Derdimus.
“The preparation has been really good,” the vice-captain said ahead of kick-off. “Every player who was asked to join the panel is more than happy to be there. The managers have boosted the squad by bringing in Craig Wall and Dara Keane, two fantastic players who quickly became part of a squad which has gelled well.”
Rice is no stranger to the Oscar set-up, but has found something new with this year’s side.
“I played on the squad in previous years, but this year in particular everyone wants to seem to fight for the cause,” the Freebooters defender said. “Everyone has played their part, from managers to players. Dean Broaders, for instance, might take some of the training or bring us through the warm ups ahead of games.
“As for experience, Dean has represented Ireland at university level, while Niall Andrews and Craig Wall also have international experience at junior and Defence Force level.
“These lads know what these big games are about,” he added. “Coming into matches like the one we’re facing they have helped us to prepare for what’s ahead.”
Kilkenny have looked good from the first game.
“The opening day win over the Leinster Senior League set down a marker,” he said. “You might not be thinking about playing in a final after day one - it’s a long way to go - but the way the whole team fought and got the result set the wheels in motion. We carried that on with the win over the NEFL - to win 8-0 away from home is a great result, no matter who you play.”
That game might have sounded like a simple win for Kilkenny, but it was all hard work from there.
“Once the draw was made for the quarter-finals we knew we had a lot to do if we were going to make the final,” he said. “Inishowen, last year’s runners-up, were a tough side but they liked to play football too. They were well able to move the ball around but there’s a good mix of physicality and speed in our side and that combination paid off.”
Kilkenny have blazed a trail through the competition, conceding just one goal along the way - that makes for a happy defence!
“Clean sheets are a defender’s goals,” he said. “We knew we were in with a chance of getting a win when we went to Clare for the semi-final (“we were confident,” he stressed, “not cocky”) but to go there and play in the manner we did was something else.
“I thought we were the better team in the first half, even if they hit the crossbar. We took the lead with a Niall Andrews penalty before they drew level with a spot kick of their own, but that’s the only goal we’ve conceded this season.”
Letting one goal in all campaign is impressive, but so too was the way Kilkenny battled on against strong Clare pressure and dethroned the champions.
“At 1-1 our backs were against the wall,” he said. “Clare hit us with a strong attack, but Dara Keane won a tackle in midfield he had no right to win and then played a magnificent ball for Emmet Nugent to add the finish.
“To win the match the way we did, against the reigning champions, was absolutely unbelievable.”
The goal was a fitting way to win any game, but Kilkenny already had the belief that they could get the result well before that.
“Coming in all square at half-time was a big point,” he said. “We knew they were going for three Oscar Traynor titles in a row but our performance made us believe we were every bit as good as they were. Clare had junior internationals in their side but so did we, not to mention players with League of Ireland experience.
"Everyone pulled together at half-time - we knew we were in with a fighting chance once we didn’t concede, but taking the lead through Niall’s penalty gave us the belief we could win. Even though they drew level, and we lost Niall to injury almost immediately after, we didn’t give in. The players who came in played their part. We dug deep and got that winner. Everyone showed they had the belief.”
And that belief has found its way into the heart of a team who are hungry to get their hands on the title.
“The Jims (an affectionate nickname for joint managers Jim Nugent and Jim Cashin) say that even though it’s an inter-league team it feels like a club side,” he said. “Everyone wants to be there and wants to win this competition.
“As the days gets closer it becomes clearer how big an occasion this is going to be,” finished Rice. “It’s a national final. Bank Holiday Weekend, with hopefully a big crowd there to see the game.
“For anyone involved in junior football, what more could you ask for?”