WHEN Gerry O’Connor thinks Galway of course his mind focuses on the task at hand this Saturday — the huge challenge of facing down the team that have swept all before them in the last two seasons.

League champions, Leinster champions and All-Ireland champions in 2017; seven All Stars at the end of the year; the hurler and young hurler of the year; Leinster champions again in ’18.

“I don’t think you can ignore that Galway, physically and skill are the best team in the country,” he opens. “The reality is that we’re playing the All-Ireland champions and they’ve been unbeaten in championship hurling in two years and rightly so they’re hot favourites because of what they’ve achieved over the past two years,” he adds.

Then comes the challenge of facing that down, but for O’Connor there’s also the added dimension of geography, because as is the case with his captain Pat O’Connor it’s the Galway thing and the relationship between his part of the world and greater Gort and district.

“We’d be near Gortaveha with is less than a mile from the Galway border,” says the Flagmount man. “When we started hurling you’d prepare for the championship and you always played against Kilbeacanty or Beagh.

“Gort would be our home town in terms of shopping and social life when I was growing up. The bottom line is that Gort is the town that a lot of Killanena people went to. I went to school in Scariff — half of Killanena went to Scariff, while the other half went to school in Gort. It was just depending what way the bus went, based on the bus routes.

“The discos. Sullivan’s Hotel and the Classic in Gort. When we were growing up a long time ago that’s where the people went to meet. There’s huge cross-border social inter-action between Clare and Galway. You’ll see that around Gort with the Clare flags out and you’ll see it around Killanena, Crusheen and Tubber with Galway flags out. There is a huge social cross-over,” he adds.

It all crosses over into an All-Ireland semi-final on Saturday — a unique All-Ireland semi-final because there’s been so few of these meetings between the sides at the penultimate stage.

“We know Galway are a physical team, but we would also like to think that Limerick and Wexford were both physical teams and we handled their physicality quite well. Galway are going to be another step up. We know we are going to have to put in our best performance of the year — we are quite capable of doing that.

A fourth in fact, with Clare having won all the other three, and now gearing up the huge challenge of trying to keep that winning record intact. “Going into this game we’d be very happy with the level we’ve got to,” says O’Connor. 

“We know and we believe we have to go up another level again on Saturday but that capacity is well within the team. We feel over the last two and a half months and the six games we have played that there has been incremental improvement every time we’ve gone out, bar a 15-minute blip in the Munster final.

“We set ourselves lots of goals and lots of challenges and targets at the start of the year. One of them was to get to an All-Ireland semi-final and get to Croke Park. Whilst we felt we would have liked to do that by winning a Munster Championship, the route we have taken has got us there.

“When we sat down in January, we felt our journey was going to have seven steps — that was get to a Munster final, get into an All-Ireland semi-final and get to an All-Ireland. It turns out there’s an extra step there. We are six steps into an eight step journey. The seventh step in Croke Park this Saturday is the next step,” he adds.

A massive step and leap that O’Connor is convinced is within the team. “The coaching team, in a very short period of time, have been able to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition,” he says. 

“They have been able to put together a game-plan that allows us to attack the opposition and play our own game on our terms. They did that for a lot of the Cork game and for the Wexford game — we know that our coaching team have analysed Galway extensively and we feel that we will bring our game and will impose our game on Saturday.

“We know Galway are a physical team, but we would also like to think that Limerick and Wexford were both physical teams and we handled their physicality quite well. Galway are going to be another step up. We know we are going to have to put in our best performance of the year — we are quite capable of doing that.

“There is a culture within this group of players and within the coaching team and management of continuously trying to get better — once that culture is there, you’ve got an opportunity to improve every day you go out,” he adds.

And as they go out on Saturday O’Connor is hoping and expecting the crowd to be with them. “We are lucky that along that journey the Clare supporters have joined us, none more so than what they displayed in the Munster final,” he says.

“The location and time of the Wexford game wasn’t appropriate, but we still got a massive Clare support down there. Of the 10,000 that were there, 7,000 were from Clare and they really made their presence felt.

“We’d love to think that on Saturday week we’d get back to the numbers we got to the Munster final. This time we want to give them something to shout about as well. We have come through competitive Munster championship ever. 

“We have earned our spot in the last four and we know the last four is an entirely different ball game. We are going to have to be at our very best but we believe there is a top class performance in us.”

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