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'With Waterford, Your Time Was 100% Hurling And Not Much Else'

'With Waterford, Your Time Was 100% Hurling And Not Much Else'
PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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When Stephen O'Keeffe stepped away from the Waterford hurling panel following the 2020 All-Ireland final, it wasn't with the thought that his inter-county career was done. But then as the year moved on, he enjoyed the extra freedom.

"I suppose at the time when I made the decision I just couldn't make myself give the commitment that's needed at that level but I wasn't making a sweeping statement in my head that this is going to be it for me forever," says O'Keeffe.

"It's just as the year went on and I was enjoying playing with Ballygunner and enjoying having a bit of time back in my own life, I suppose, it was then it became clear from that.

"There's even a few times where you might be in on a Saturday evening and someone would text you to ask would you fancy going for a pint which would have been unheard of over the past 10 years of playing with Waterford because obviously your time was 100 per cent hurling and nothing much else. It's definitely freed up a few of those things and maybe you can go away for a weekend or stuff like that."

On Saturday, O'Keeffe and his Ballygunner teammates face reigning champions Ballyhale in the All-Ireland final. It's the first time that the Waterford side have reached the final.

For O'Keefee, knowing that he'd still be competing at a high level with his club made hanging up his Waterford helmet "less of a big decision".

"You were taking a step back and stepping into it full time with Ballygunner, which is not the same intensity in terms of time commitment obviously as an inter-county team, but it's far from your one training mid-week and your game at the weekend, it's far from that as well," he says.


"You're still doing your three trainings a week and you're still looking after your sleep, nutrition, gym, and all the rest of it. That's all still there, albeit less of a time commitment obviously. It was certainly more of a step back as opposed to a sweeping lifestyle change."

stephen o'keeffe hurling ballygunner waterford

9 February 2022; Hurler Stephen O'Keeffe of Ballygunner, Waterford, pictured ahead of one of #TheToughest showdowns of the year, as Ballygunner face reigning champions, Ballyhale Shamrocks, Kilkenny, in the AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Final this Saturday, February 12th at 3pm. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

O'Keeffe won his first county title with Ballygunner in 2009. Since then, ambitions have changed within the club.

"I remember when we started out on our run in Waterford, the first goal was, without it being said or anything, I think in our heads we wanted to be one of the three-in-a-row teams in Ballygunner," he says.

"There was a great team that won in the '60s and another one in the '90s, to be able to compare yourself to those would have been huge mentally from a confidence side of things."


For young players coming through now, winning Munster titles and getting to All-Ireland finals are the goals. That's partially down to Ballygunner winning eight consecutive Waterford titles, but also the attitude of young players coming through being increasingly serious.


"There's five or six of us on the team that have been involved in this run in Waterford since eight, nine years ago," says O'Keeffe.

"But at the same time there's a group of players there... I think we've four players starting that were on the U20 team. There's a good few young players there coming into the team where this is the standard they've set from the start of their careers as opposed to ourselves maybe who are trying to put a back-to-back Waterford championships together.


"There's brilliant structures that have been put in place in Ballygunner. As with any club, there's a lot of parents helping out with the underage teams but there's also a lot of past players that have come back after finishing their senior careers.

"There's a lot of experience and knowledge being put into those players from an early age, which is invaluable really. I would have experienced that first-hand when we were growing up. We had quite a good team and we'd always have a past player involved. Mick Mahony would have been involved with the senior teams, he would have played on the three-in-a-row team of the '90s and then he's coming back managing you underage.

stephen o'keeffe hurling ballygunner waterford

13 October 2019; Ballygunner players, from left, Stephen O'Keeffe, Conor Sheahan, and Wayne Hutchinson celebrate after the Waterford County Senior Club Hurling Championship Final match between Ballygunner and De La Salle at Walsh Park in Waterford. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

"I do think there's a difference in the athletes that are coming out of their teenage years today than there would have been when we were. I do remember the general consensus when we were 16, 17, was that weights were counter-productive, they'd slow you down and they were only be started in your early 20s, they'd stunt your growth.

"That was the prevailing attitude whereas that certainly isn't the case any more with more research and more education around it. You see 18, 19 year-olds coming up to senior level, physically developed, physically able for it, which I don't think would have been the case before."


It also helps that those young players do not carry the baggage of previous heartbreaking defeats.

"I remember we were trying to get over the hump in Munster for three or four years in a row, coming up against Na Piarsaigh twice, coming up against Thurles Sars and losing by a point," says O'Keeffe.

"Tough losses to take. We finally did in 2018 and I think there's players that have come on since then, that maybe don't have the hang-ups of losing those games and that's including even the loss to Borris-Ileigh in [the] 2019 [Munster final].

"There's just players playing on this team now that they were there as supporters, as children. To be projecting that sense of we have to win this time because we didn't win last time, it doesn't come into it because you've young players coming in fresh that don't know any different, other than going through Munster like we did this year and winning a Munster final.

"That's the standard that they think is the standard to set now, which is what we're trying to follow as the older group almost."

The hurling clash is part of a double header at Croke Park on Saturday, with the AIB GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Club Championship final also taking place at 5pm and will see Kilcoo (Down) and Kilmacud Crokes, Dublin, do battle for the AIB GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Club Championship crown. Both games will be broadcast live on TG4, while tickets are also available now on www.gaa.ie/tickets/.

See Also: Life Has Changed For Colin Fennelly Since Inter-County Hurling Retirement

stephen o'keeffe hurling ballygunner waterford



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