TOMORROW in the splendid complex of Mallow, four small clubs get a shot at something that, once upon a time, they could only have dreamed about.
Munster junior club finals day has a special significance to it and playing the games in Mallow has worked out very well over the past number of years.
Clubs knowfor a long time what their destination will be if they reach the final.
Most of the participants in this grade might only get one chance at capturing the prize on offer and unless they make it to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final, this is the biggest day of their lives.
Most of the clubs in these finals come from small, rural villages which adds to the importance and interest of the occasion.
Days like this bring out supporters who might not have been present at too many games in the past. It’s an occasion when, as they say, the last person leaving the village can turn off the lights.
Mallow will be a hive of activity tomorrow from early morning, all the more so because the hurling final featuring our own Russell Rovers from Shanagarry and St Mary’s from Waterford has a 1pm throw-in.
The football final involving Na Gaeil from Tralee and Mullinahone from Tipperary starts at 3.45pm — this is to allow for extra time in the hurling match and provide an opportunity for the hurling fans to get away.
Because, let’s be honest, hardly any fans from the hurling game will stick around for the football match.
And not too many football fans will be coming in early to view the hurling match.
So, the times for both games make plenty of sense.
The Mallow club take great pride in hosting these two fixtures, the club officials leave no stone unturned in trying to ensure that the day runs smoothly.
The bookmakers’ odds for the football final suggest that the Kerry team will have it very much their own way.
Mullinahone from Tipperary would be much better known as a hurling stronghold — home to the former Tipp great John Leahy.
The hurling final is expected to be much closer and it’s a huge opportunity for Russell Rovers, for so long just a ‘junior ‘B’ outfit in East Cork to create their own bit of history.
There are always tales to tell about some of the participants on these Munster club junior finals days — tales of past struggles, of maybe trying to exist in a place surrounded by much bigger fish.
The tales are always ones of endurance, overcoming obstacles, and keeping the show on the road.
For Russell Rovers, they have never experienced days like next Sunday.
Divisional champions in East Cork for the first time in 2018 and county champions a few weeks ago, this is a defining day against a team similar to themselves.
Cork clubs have a remarkable record in this competition, winning it 12 times since it began in 2001.
However, over the past six years, Cork and Waterford clubs have shared six titles between them — three each.
That gives an illustration that the junior grade is much stronger in those two counties than it is elsewhere.
The presence of Dan Shanahan on the line for St Mary’s will add to the sense of occasion. One of the best motivators around, he’ll have his crowd really up for this.
These days are for everybody — small communities bonding together in support of the local club.
Any of the four teams on Sunday won’t have thousands supporting them, but for those who will, they’ll wear their heart on their sleeve.
This is the day that rural Ireland comes out to play on the big stage.
In Leinster, not for the first time, three Kilkenny clubs won their provincial grades, Ballyhale in senior, Tullaroan at intermediate, and Conahy Shamrocks at junior level. Chances are that all three will be in Croke Park on the weekend of January 17/18.
Wouldn’t it be great if you had Russell Rovers and next-door neighbours Fr O’Neill’s there too — two Cork, Kilkenny All-Ireland finals.
But there’s a lot of work to be done yet before that would become a reality.