Shane Dowling ready for the next challenge
By Eoghan Tuohey
Na Piarsaigh, the back to back Limerick county champions, the current Munster champions face a familiar foe on Sunday, one that has been feverishly attempting to dismantle them since 2011.
The Caherdavin team remain a model of professionalism, calmness exemplified, with a skillset to boot, personified by the pivotal Shane Dowling.
He admits that he has been having shoulder problems of late, and will ultimately require surgery, which will see him sidelined for up to six months. Six months that he simply doesn’t have.
“Basically the shoulder pops out and slips back in,” Dowling reveals. “It's happened three or four times, I'll eventually have to get an operation on it. It takes six months to recover from and I don't have six months to spare so. I don't think I'll ever have six months to spare, but I'd imagine someday, more than likely, not definitely, it'll pop out and it won't pop in. That's at the stage I'll obviously have to get them things done.”
Playing through the pain barrier is something he’s just had to get used to, as Na Piarsaigh and Limerick’s success means that he’s been hurling non-stop for two years.
It’s an incredible commitment, and difficult to sustain. But such is his passion for the game, the club, the county, and the historic achievements that beckon, he’s ready, willing and able to go for as long as possible.
Losing last year’s club final to Cuala is a defeat that has haunted Dowling. He ponders on the bizarreness of sport, to go from such a low in March, to claiming the ultimate prize in his discipline in August.
“Yeah it was the worst experience of my life in March, no two ways about it,” Dowling admits. “I won't talk about that because I still can't and probably never will be (able to). I mean at that stage there, you think your sporting career is a disaster.
“You've a free 40 yards out in front of the goal to put your team four points up and its game over and you miss it. Then a penalty goes in the other end and you're beaten in a replay. You just couldn't write that stuff.
“The highs and lows are very, very close to each other. It was amazing the way it worked out. Would you have taken that club final if you knew what was going to happen five months later? You probably would. I was lucky enough to have one already and it was magic what happened. It's something I always dreamed of. So it's been a mad six months.”
Not playing isn’t an option. He describes the pain of having to watch last season from the stands, and the trauma that a knee injury inflicted on him, mentally as well as physically.
This is a player who, ultimately, can single-handedly turn a game for whichever team he’s playing for. He knows that himself, and so to not be able to contribute is a slow form of mental torture.
“It killed me, especially the way we played, the boys in the first half, Ballygunner tore them asunder,” Dowling recalls.
“The only consolation was we only went in a point down. We hadn't pucked a ball. I was hoping that they'd come to life in the second half and they did but it's a very, very touch watch. Especially when you know you can be out there doing something but listen I'm 25, and that was my first serious injury. I can't be giving out too much, I've been lucky, touch wood.”
A player of paramount importance, along with other impact players such as club-mates Peter Casey and William O’Donoghue, on the All-Ireland winning Limerick side, it has nevertheless been put to Dowling on several occasions whether some of the Na Piarsaigh representatives have been victims of their own success at club level.
The theories are endless, had Na Piarsagh not got so far would there have been more than one player from the club starting for the All-Ireland final? Would they have picked up an All-Star? These questions will always arise, but it’s not something these record-chasers are overly concerned about. The journey takes its toll, but, for Dowling, it’s worth it.
“I don't think victims of our own success is the right terminology, but I hear what you're saying,” Dowling says. “We started off with Limerick in November '16, and that finished in July '17 when Kilkenny beat us.
“It was straight back in with Na Piarsaigh up until March '18 and then it was straight back in with Limerick until August this year and it was straight back in with Na Piarsaigh.
“So it's two years on the trot, an odd week here or two weeks here. It's been fairly relentless but I'd rather be sitting here in front of ye talking to ye about that.”
They’re a close-knit group of players who have grown up together, and a fiercely competitive spirit has driven them to extraordinary achievements, as well as more modest, yet important victories.
“You need a mental break more so than anything but listen we've a driven bunch of players. A competitive bunch of players. Peter Casey called over to the house the other night and we played a board game called 30 seconds and I'm not joking you, you don't want to lose that because if you lose that, it's bad. I'm not joking, the competitiveness within the group is huge and I think that's what drives us on.”
Dowling is in no doubt that this Sunday’s confrontation will see their opposition as primed like never before. It is no secret that Ballygunner have longed for and targeted a Munster title for some years, while Na Piarsaigh have their sights set firmly on matching the all-time record currently held by Cork’s Blackrock.
“Their greatest attribute is their battling qualities, when the game seemed to be gone from them, they kept on going. When people look deeper into us and Ballygunner, the last two times we played them, there's only been a point in it both times at 58 minutes.
“It's been very very close, we're not that far ahead of them, even though the scoreline on both days may have looked that way, but that hasn't been the case. I mean, you put yourself in a Ballygunner dressing room with Fergal Hartley at the top of the room, you know, what are you saying?
“You're saying, enough is enough, right they've got the better of us a couple of times, now it's time we set the record straight here. We're well aware of that, but we're ready for it.”