BEING at any provincial or All-Ireland club final gives one a true insight into the strength of the GAA in rural Ireland.
Attendances might not be huge, but those present from the local communities more than compensate for the lack of big numbers.
Last Sunday afternoon, in the old ground of Dan Fraher, in Dungarvan, we got such an occasion when Fr O’Neill’s and Ballysaggart went at it as if there was no tomorrow, two small clubs going into battle in search of a prize that would illuminate their Christmas and early new year.
Both had contested and won Munster club titles in the past at junior level, O’Neill’s lifting the trophy 14 years ago.
This was a much bigger prize. Both teams have graduated to a higher plateau, with O’Neill’s taking possession of the Premier IHC title here on Leeside a few weeks ago, a minefield of a competition.
It was dark and dreary in Dungarvan last Sunday, but the patrons from the two communities were out in force.
It has been a golden couple of years for Fr O’Neill’s, beginning with the lower-tier intermediate championship win of a short few years ago.
Twelve months ago, they won the Cork County Premier U21 title, in a game that still ranks as the best we have seen for a very long time.
Then arrived that PIHC title, against Kilworth, resulting in their graduation to senior club.
They had two games of great contrast in reaching last Sunday’s Munster final, a savage battle with Limerick’s Blackrock, in Kilfinane, and an emphatic outcome against Broadford, from Clare.
Now, it was the best of Waterford up against them to try and put the seal on a magnificent innings.
And what we got was another battle that raged all afternoon, Ballysaggart taking control early on and leading by a couple of points 10 minutes into the contest.
Then, the complexion of the game changed, when Billy Dunne belted home a superb goal for the East Cork team.
It gave them the lead, a lead that they were never going to relinquish thereafter.
They had a two-point advantage at the break, but never once, until the last whistle sounded, did Ballysaggart make it easy for them.
The Waterford team responded again after Deccie Dalton’s superb goal, early in the first half, a score that was wonderful in its invention and sublime in its execution.
The Bennett brothers and Christy Murphy kept Ballysaggart within striking distance, as the skies above darkened.
Going into time added on, there was just a puck of a ball in it, O’Neill’s ahead by three points.
One mistake from them and we had extra time on our hands.
But, despite the tender age of some of the players, this is a battle-hardened O’Neill’s unit now and they were not for turning.
And Dalton made it safe with a clinching, late, late point.
The joy in the stand had no boundaries, the O’Neill’s supporters experiencing that winning feeling again, and the Ballysaggart fans applauding their team for their gallantry in defeat.
For the East Cork team, when the going got really tough, the tough got going.
There is a far greater satisfaction to a victory when you really have to earn it, and earn it O’Neill’s had to do. The first 15 and a few subs are almost written in stone with this team, that great veteran Eoin Conway giving it everything for 40 minutes, before handing over the baton to Liam O’Driscoll.
Jason Hankard came in, too, and both subs get on the scoresheet.
Another great warrior, Podge Butler, has been reinvented in a team that has the capabilities of going much further up the ladder.
On and off the field, this club is getting it right. Down the years, they have secured the services of very strong coaching personalities: James O’Connor with the current crop, preceded by Noel Furlong, Robbie Dalton with the under-21 team last season, and even going back to Cork legend Denis Coughlan, in the ’80s.
The structures are strong at administrative level, too, led by chairman, Michael Hegarty.
But, at the end of the day, it’s all about the players and the club is very fortunate to have this bunch at its disposal.
The respite over the holiday period will be short. There’s an All-Ireland semi-final, against the Connacht champions, Tooreen, to come in early January.
They might look a soft enough touch on paper, but that lot defeated the Galway champions.
Tullaroan, from Kilkenny, will, almost certainly, be in the final, but that’s all for another day. For now, Fr O’Neill’s should take a bit of time out, reflect on a fantastic year, and then refocus for the crack at the All-Ireland.
But whatever happens from here on in, the achievements of the past 12 months have been phenomenal.
And that takes it all back to the local community, to the loyal band of supporters who follow all the clubs through thick and thin.
There will be good days in every club, not so good ones, too, but the cause always endures.
These are special days in Ladysbridge and Ballymacoda and the surrounding townlands, and they must be celebrated accordingly by all those who are fortunate to be a part of it.