"If I didn't improve, I definitely wouldn't have got in anyway"
2017 and William O'Donoghue was on the fringes.
A good club hurler with a few decent seasons behind him for Na Piarsaigh, with Limerick, he was yet to make an impression.
O'Donoghue was in and out of the panel and hadn't made a breakthrough at 23, and while you wouldn't say the clock was ticking on his inter-county dream, it certainly was the time to be making shapes.
A 'young man's game' nowadays, players in their early 20s are taking off and taking over. The rigorous demands and hectic schedule suits them better than the more experienced veteran, and in Limerick, this was the case more anywhere else.
Youngsters like Cian Lynch, Aaron Gillane and Mike Casey became key men for the Treaty in 2017, and with an average age of 23, Limerick went onto seal a famous All-Ireland triumph the following year.
By 25, you'd want to be in there or risk getting left behind for good. O'Donoghue was on the cusp of it during the 2018 season, regularly featuring as a sub during Limerick's glorious year.
The team was so impressive and so fixed that year that many thought it would be difficult for John Kiely to change it in 2019, but the Na Piarsaigh man gave him no choice.
Despite missing most of the League through injury, O'Donoghue got his chance in the second round of the championship against Waterford and he grasped it with both hands.
He impressed that day, and impressed all the way to Limerick's Munster championship win over Tipperary. The Treaty fell to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, but O'Donoghue was one of their better performers and he explained how consistent intensity was the only way to break through.
"I think if I didn’t improve, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten in anyway," says O'Donoghue at the launch of the Allianz Hurling Leagues on Tuesday.
"You need to be going well now, you need to be going well tomorrow, you very much need to have your finger on the pulse there because someone will come in and take that from you," he says.
"There were takeaways that I had to do to get into the team. There was nothing drastic. It was fine margins, and how to gel better with the team, work better…how to do your job..."
O'Donoghue did a fine job, and he's hoping to keep it up for 2020.
"I suppose personally to get in and to perform to a standard that was acceptable, that I was contributing to the team was great. It’s one thing getting in and keeping your place, but you really need to feel like you’re contributing to the team. So that was something that I was happy with – I felt every day I was going out, I was helping our team perform and helping our team reach targets.
"So that was the main focus. And whether that was off the bench or starting, all you want to be doing is making a meaningful contribution.
"Every session, every drill is a trial. Every contact session, there’s a competitive element to everything. You have to have it that way, because I’m sure the best teams have it that way. You look at soccer teams, football teams… It has to be that competitive if we want to be a successful team. Everyone has to be that competitive with one another. And I think that’s only a positive thing that people are very competitive, because it brings the best out of everyone..."
As for that Kilkenny loss, O'Donoghue hesitates to blame a sideline decision and insists that Kilkenny should never ever be written off, given the desire and intensity they bring to the fray.
"Yeah, I do. It's probably been alluded to a few times where people are putting it down to that we should be very disappointed that we lost to Kilkenny and that needs to be the catalyst for a good year.
"You know, Kilkenny are a fantastic team with a fantastic manager with a fantastic work-rate. People can kind of bring it up as if we just came up to have a puck-around and that's why we were beaten.
"I mean, we got beaten by a fantastic Kilkenny team with brilliant talent and an incredible work-rate. So, I mean, that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that that team were able to do that and probably, you know, could have won an All-Ireland title on another day.
"So, I mean, the hurt is going to be there, obviously, but, I mean, had we won that game we'd still need to find improvements for this year.
"So, you know, we're consistently just trying to build on last week, and the week before. We're just consistently trying to build and find those one and two per cents over the next few months and hopefully they'll all add up.
"We're not carrying any baggage or hurt from it, but we certainly have a lot of energy to try and perform to the best of our ability."
A nine-week festival of inter-county hurling gets underway on January 25th with the commencement of the Allianz Hurling Leagues. The exciting programme features 116 games across the four divisions in a campaign which will mark the 28th year of Allianz’ partnership with the GAA as sponsor of the Allianz Leagues, making it one of the longest-running sponsorships in Irish sport.