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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Kerins O'Rahillys and Kerry players David Moran and Jack Savage.
# Strand Road
A strange Kerry club season, stars return from Dubai and a Munster campaign begins
Kerins O’Rahillys start out in the Munster championship tomorrow against Clare’s Éire Óg.

IT’S BEEN A season of ups and downs for Kerins O’Rahillys.

And yet the jigsaw pieces are starting to fall into place as they embark on a first Munster senior campaign in 13 years.

From a Kerry club championship winning run to losing all three of their county championship games by a 12-point average, their season was adorned by a club final victory over Templenoe last month and extended into Munster by the progression of two divisional teams to the Kerry County final.

After a hectic start to split-season life, they’ve had month-long breaks before their two most recent fixtures.

Now manager William Harmon announces with audible delight that “for the first time in a long time, we’ve everybody available to us”.

That includes star players Jack Savage and Cormac Coffey, who will fly back from Dubai for the game having emigrated for work last August. Once again, it will be a brief visit home. Both returned for the Kerry club final success last month and they each lined out on separate weekends in September for the county championship trimmings at the hands of East Kerry and Dingle.

“It’s a short turnaround and we had the opportunity to trial it out during the county championship and see what worked best in terms of recovery and making sure they were right for the games. That’s been a bit of a learning curve,” says Harmon.

“The players want to come back, they want to be part of it, and the lads at home want the lads to be part of it as well and make sure everybody’s involved. It’s a massive commitment from everybody but if you want to achieve at this level, we need everyone. We don’t want to be saying afterwards, ‘If only we had x, y, and z…’”

william-harmon James Crombie / INPHO William Harmon. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

It’s not a decision that was made on a whim after their club final victory either.

“Back in December, we would’ve made a commitment as a group that the one championship we want to give everything to would be the club championship. We said we’d put all our eggs into the club championship and see where that takes us. Everybody made that commitment and we knew well in advance that if things went well for us, this was something that could happen. It’s not something that’s come out of the blue. It’s something we’ve been aware of for a long, long time.

“That allowed us to plan accordingly and put our ducks in a row in that sense. The boys committed to that as well at the start of the year and they want to be part of this because they understand it’s not every year you get opportunities to contest county finals and it’s not every year you get opportunities to contest Munster. These opportunities don’t come around too often so the lads are willing to put that effort in for their club and we appreciate that effort as well. It’s great to see.”

Seven games in eight weeks was an unforgiving start to their campaign. Tommy Walsh missed five of those after suffering knee ligament damage in their loss to Austin Stacks last August but month-long breaks before the club final against Templenoe and this Sunday’s Munster semi-final against Éire Óg Ennis have granted him time to recover.

It underlines the high-wire act that is life as one of Kerry’s eight senior clubs. This year, of the 16 Club Championship games, six were decided by a one-point margin and three were drawn. The average winning margin was 2.5 points. One score games.

“It’s tough. There’s very little between the teams and you’re picking relegation out of that so if you pick up a few injuries or a suspension, you’re staring down the barrel of relegation,” says Kerins O’Rahillys captain Ross O’Callaghan.

ross-ocallaghan-and-darragh-obrien James Crombie / INPHO Ross O'Callaghan (left) in action for Kerins O'Rahillys in last year's Kerry county senior final. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s cut-throat. It’s a slog like. You’re playing games and just saying, ‘Don’t get relegated here. Make sure you win a game or two.’

“It’s very difficult. It’s like a war of attrition. It’s seven championship games in eight weekends. It’s really testing a club’s panel. Whereas divisional teams wouldn’t have the togetherness but they’d have the depth, the clubs would have the togetherness but they wouldn’t have the depth of the divisional sides.”

Austin Stacks and Kenmare Shamrocks contested the Kerry club championship finals in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, they contested the relegation final. Stacks, three-in-a-row club champions and reigning County champions, lost out. They’re set for the intermediate grade in 2023.

Strand Road, as Kerins O’Rahillys are known locally, lost a county semi-final by one point to South Kerry in 2017. A fortnight later they had to win a relegation final against Kilcummin to retain their senior status.

In 2019, O’Rahillys brought a motion to Kerry GAA’s county convention proposing an increase in senior club teams from eight to 10. It was narrowly defeated by 34 votes to 26. O’Callaghan continues to favour such a change.

“I’m not sure of the politics of it,” he says. “I think every club gets a vote so when you’ve eight senior clubs and they’re voting one way and let’s say East Kerry have nine clubs… If they go against the senior clubs then the vote would be shot down.

“I’d welcome it definitely because if you look at the intermediate championship in Kerry, it’s very difficult to win. You’ve a team there like Rathmore who would definitely give a good account of themselves in the senior championship. They won the intermediate this year but you still have teams like Legion down there and it’s a really tough championship to win.

“When the big teams get taken out, these things are talked about a lot more. Last year you’d Legion and Dr Crokes, two big teams as well [in the relegation final]. It might take a few bigger teams to go down for the system to change.”

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the-kerins-orahilly-team James Crombie / INPHO Kerins O'Rahillys players. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Crokes and Stacks are the only two club teams to win the county championship since An Ghaeltacht in 2003. Perhaps East Kerry’s recent dominance factored into the Strand Road thinking to target the club championship this year. Either way, their New Year’s resolution was to lift some silverware for the first time since winning the county league in 2013.

Achieving that aim, as O’Callaghan hoisted the cup at Fitzgerald Stadium, meant all the more after their county final and county league final defeats to Stacks and Dingle in 2021.

“It was just sheer relief when we got over the line in the club championship,” he says. “For the people who have been supporting us and going to every game and getting behind us and wearing blue and white, it was great to give them something back and bring a trophy back to the club.

“We’d a great couple of days and then we’ve this carrot of Munster which is brilliant to get those people revitalised again and behind us. It’s just great to be playing football this time of year, at such a high level, and our families and everyone out supporting us.”

It’s their first Munster campaign since 2009, one which leaves them well-warned of the dangers posed by Clare champions. After victories over Clonakilty and Moyle Rovers, they fell to Kilmurry-Ibrickane by a point in that final. They played most of the second half with 14 men that day and had an injury-time goal ruled out for a disputed square ball. They were without Aussie Rules-bound Tommy Walsh, too, while David Moran landed back from Australia that morning after his own AFL trial.

“Kilmurry went to Croke Park, they went to the All-Ireland final, so the fellas that were involved back then, we definitely know what the Clare teams have to offer,” says O’Callaghan.

The nature of their challenge this weekend is underlined by Éire Óg’s Clare record. They have gone two successive championship campaigns without conceding a goal in any of their 12 games.

“It’s been a season of ups and downs but it’s great to be back in Munster. There’s no better place to be,” says O’Callaghan.

“We set out our stall, we wanted to win the club championship, and we achieved that. This is bonus territory for us. It’s knockout football, which suited us last year in the county championship when it was straight knockout.”

Thirteen years have passed since last time but Strand Road men are once again flying around the world to contest Munster honours.

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