Prattle of billing Ballygunner as the undisputed kings of Munster club hurling is nothing but words stacked upon a hill of beans for Stephen O’Keeffe, because he has viewed that same mountain top from its very base.
Following Sunday’s semi-final win over Na Piarsaigh, Ballygunner are now just one victory away from a remarkable third successive Munster club senior hurling title – the Waterford champions will face Clare’s Clonlara in the provincial decider on the first weekend of December.
In September, Ballygunner claimed a tenth consecutive Waterford senior hurling championship. These are the glory days.
They will be strong favourites to defeat Clonlara and, with defending champions Ballyhale Shamrocks out of the equation this season, a second All-Ireland club title would certainly appear to be a realistic goal.
But this has been no seamless overnight success story for Ballygunner, they’ve endured their share of setbacks along the way.
Ballygunner’s first ever Munster club crown was mined in 2001 but, despite their success in Waterford, it would be 2018 before they added a second provincial title. There were Munster final losses in 2005, 2009, 2015 and 2017.
O’Keeffe was between the sticks in 2009 when Newtownshandrum clipped two goals beyond him in the Munster final, and he was also in goal for defeats to Na Piarsaigh in 2015 and 2017.
“We tried to climb that mountain a lot of times and got knocked back often in a Munster final,” recalls the 2017 All Star goalkeeper.
“Which just makes it very, very hard to get back up and go again. Once we finally did get over the line, there was a bit more freedom and I think we got a bit more belief in ourselves that we can do it.
“We did it before so you try and replicate that again, but there was a lot of heartbreak definitely in the build-up trying to get over Munster for the first time.
“I think Na Piarsaigh beat us three times before we finally got over them so we’ve massive respect for them, the battles we’ve had are incredible. I think we’ve played each other possibly six times in 11 or 12 years in Munster so obviously there’s a big rivalry there and we’ve been on the other side of it where we’ve been beaten so we know how that feels and definitely won’t take these days for granted.”
No outfit has ever won three Munster club senior hurling titles on the bounce, so it would be a significant achievement should Ballygunner make history next month.
Still, it is hard to avoid a feeling that another Munster title would be viewed by Ballygunner fans more as base camp on the way to an even greater goal – scaling the All-Ireland mountain once again.
“It’s about looking at the next game, the next team, where their danger men are, where our strengths are, and just trying to get over the line the next day,” cautions O’Keeffe.
“I know it does sound like a cliché but we’ve genuinely been good at only looking at the next game. It’s going to be no different this time.”
Life could have been somewhat different for O’Keeffe this season though, had he answered the county call once again. One of Davy Fitzgerald’s first moves when taking over the Waterford hurlers for a second stint was to get in touch with the Ballygunner goalkeeper and invite him to return to the county fold – O’Keeffe had stepped away following the 2020 All-Ireland SHC final.
However, the 32-year-old was not for turning, a decision which no doubt allowed him focus totally on the club front.
“Potentially, but life kind of moves on as well,” says O’Keeffe on his decision to stick solely with Ballygunner. “You try and build a career for yourself, you have a young family at home as well, there are only 24 hours in the day but the amount of stuff you have to fit into that 24 hours seems to go up and up.
“I think you’re seeing it more and more now, the majority of county players aren’t going too far past 31, 32 these days. I think it’s a lifestyle thing at the moment, I’m not sure if I see that changing.”
One notable aspect of Ballygunner’s performance on Sunday was the harrying and aggression from their forwards in getting pressure on the ball coming out from Na Piarsaigh’s defensive lines. “The work rate from the forwards was brilliant,” adds O’Keeffe. “It’s great to see that kind of work and the tackles being put in by the forwards.
“Coming up to Limerick to play one of the best teams in the country, these days are to be celebrated a little bit, we’ll refocus during the week on Clonlara in the final.”