By Paul Keane
A familiar challenge for Eoin Doyle and Naas as they prepare to face Kilmacud Crokes again but one with a fresh twist.
For the third consecutive season, and for the second time at the AIB Leinster club final stage, Naas will take on the Dublin champions this Saturday.
Crokes beat Naas in the 2021/2022 Leinster club final by seven points and they had three goals to spare when they repeated the dose in a quarter-final win last season.
The thing is, and this isn't particularly good news for Naas supporters, they didn't come up against Paul Mannion on either of those occasions.
This year's All-Ireland final Man of the Match with Dublin was injured for both of those club games but is back fully firing now. Against Louth champions St Mary's, Ardee last time out he was virtually unmarkable in the first-half, scoring five points.
Containing him will be a job for the entire Naas rearguard though Doyle, principally a centre-back, may be asked to do the majority of the heavy lifting considering Mannion regularly pulls the strings from number 11.
"It's another challenge altogether," said Doyle. "It's another angle to their already strong attacking unit that we'll have to try to curtail defensively. Whether it's Paul Mannion or Shane Walsh, or four or five of their other attacking players, or their attacking half-backs, or Craig Dias coming from midfield, they're strong all over. That's the challenge, that's what's facing us.
"Look, they're a phenomenal side, you only have to look at the All-Stars they have in their team. Never mind being good players, they're All-Stars. And fair play to them. They've been very successful over the past few years. But like every team that's winning, you've got to just go out and put your best foot forward. You give it your best shot and you believe you've a chance going in. That's what we'll do. That's the plan."
Quite aside from the two clubs' familiarity, they have plenty in common. Both have won their last three county titles while their senior hurling teams have been hugely successful too. And as if to underline the depths of talent at the disposal of both clubs, they have very few dual players involved with their football and hurling panels.
Crokes are current All-Ireland holders though the Leinster final has been a glass ceiling that Naas have so far been unable to smash through.
"We're going into our second Leinster final now in three years," said Doyle. "If you're finishing your career and you haven't won one, that's certainly something that would gnaw at me. But there's absolutely zero guarantees, you don't deserve anything just because you're here for a second time.
"You don't deserve anything in sport. You have to go out and take it and grasp it and make the most of it. Every game takes on a life of its own and we're just going to have to adapt to whatever happens on Saturday. But certainly it's something that we want."
Back at the county semi-final stage, Crokes were almost tripped up by Raheny whom they only beat after a penalty shoot-out. Doyle said that Naas too were unable to take anything for granted inside their own county, despite going on to win their own three-in-a-row.
"This year we played Sarsfields, we played Moorefield, we played Athy, we played Celbridge, Clane and Johnstownbridge - all very capable teams who can beat anyone on their day so you just can't afford to tune out," said Doyle.
St Loman's of Mullingar posed serious questions too when Naas met them in a Leinster semi-final. They eventually won after extra-time.
"I think the familiarity of it has definitely helped," said Doyle when asked if their provincial experience pulled them through that game. "But look, having that experience is one thing, using it in a positive manner is another kettle of fish. We could easily have been beaten by Summerhill in the first round if we weren't clued in."
Crokes carry a terrific provincial pedigree. This will be their 36th Leinster club game. They have only been beaten four times so far and if they make it win number 29 in the province this weekend, they will be crowned champions for the seventh time, leaving them joint top of Leinster's roll of honour alongside St Vincent's and Portlaoise.
Naas have only ever been to one Leinster final, that 2021 defeat to Crokes though their manager, Joe Murphy of Eire Og, does know a thing or two about winning provincial titles. He was a mainstay and captain back in the 1990s when the Carlow side won the competition five times.
Does he ever mention that record to the Naas players?
"He does!" smiled Doyle. "Ah, it's great to have that bit of experience and knowledge behind him. He's done very well since he came in with us. We're lucky to be in that position and to have him and the other lads involved."
Doyle means that because he got a taste for managing the team himself in 2021 when he briefly took over in a player/manager capacity following the mid-season exit of boss Paul Kelly.
"Double jobbing," is how he puts it now, looking back. "There's a bit less of the logistical stuff going on now but even back then the main focus for me was my performance and playing. Whether it was two years ago or this year, it's still about making sure you show up on the day and perform to the best of your ability."