By Paul Keane
The last time Na Fianna qualified for a Leinster club final, all of 22 years ago, a number of adopted players were key figures in the journey.
That was the Na Fianna football team and Kieran McGeeney, who would captain Armagh to their first All-Ireland success the following year, was a big influence on an already terrific side stuffed with local talents like current Dublin manager Dessie Farrell.
Na Fianna ultimately lost a Leinster final replay to Rathnew in 2001 and their panel included players from all four provinces.
Over two decades on, it's the club's hurlers who are preparing for Saturday's Leinster final against O'Loughlin Gaels and, again, they are thankful for the influence of players who have joined the club from outside.
Two-time All-Star Liam Rushe is a Dubliner, of course, but he played for St Pat's, Palmerstown until the 2021 season when he transferred across while, ahead of the centre-back at midfield, Brian Ryan is an even more recent convert having joined from South Liberties in Limerick.
Ryan enjoyed game time for Limerick in the 2020 and 2021 National League competitions and was part of John Kiely's 36-man panel for the 2020 All-Ireland final win over Waterford.
His impact at Na Fianna has been immediate, the 25-year-old nailing down a midfield slot next to Peter Feeney and propelling the group to a first ever county final win last month.
"Brian only came in this year," said Na Fianna and Dublin forward Donal Burke. "We would have went to college with him, he's in DCU and he lives there in Glasnevin so he knew a good few of us. He was thinking of moving for a few years and he just said he'd come up and he picked our team."
Ryan scored 1-3 in Na Fianna's first ever provincial game, the quarter-final defeat of Raharney. Against Naas last Saturday in Portlaoise, he added another point.
"He's been a huge addition, he's been savage for us," said Burke.
Dublin manager Micheal Donoghue will have taken note of the powerful Limerick man's progress and it would be no great surprise to see Burke, Rushe and Ryan all feature in blue in 2024.
Rushe opted out of inter-county activity for 2023 and instead toured the globe with his wife, Sinead, for nine months. They only returned in September and it wasn't until the county semi-final stage that he started his first game of the year.
"He was thrown a little bit it in at the deep end, thankfully it worked out," said Burke, who couldn't shed any light on Rushe's inter-county plans. "I haven't asked him yet, we'll have to see."
Burke's own situation has been frustrating. Nominated for an All-Star in attack after each of the last two seasons, he hasn't played a minute for his club since tearing his hamstring off the bone while playing for Dublin against Clare in last summer's Championship. January is his expected return date and he definitely won't feature this weekend. But what if Na Fianna beat O'Loughlin Gaels and qualify for an All-Ireland semi-final a week before Christmas?
"I'll see how Saturday goes and then we'll probably reevaluate but I definitely won't be taking any risks for this Saturday, unfortunately," he said. "It was always around January that I was hoping to be there or thereabouts for so I'm nearly there, I'm knocking on the door.
"The first goal is to be back training, to get back on the pitch. Once I do that I can get a bit of leeway to see where I am at. I'm back running and stuff at the moment, it's good to be doing something. Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll be able to get back on the pitch."
His personal frustration aside, Burke is adamant that nobody would be happier than him if the hurlers can emulate what the Na Fianna footballers of 1999 did and win a Leinster title.
"I don't think you could have any complaints at all now if they get that victory on Saturday," he said.
Maybe it will help their cause that the game will be played at Croke Park just down the road. Mind you, it's been decades since any Na Fianna hurling team actually played a competitive game there.
"Definitely the surface will be a lot better than what we've been playing on for the last six weeks," said Burke. "It's hard to replicate what it's like playing on that pitch. We'll see. It'll be normal preparations I'd say, we'll probably just treat it as another game."