Club Championships | The Heart of Hurling
Winter spent on a hurling field. A gym. On the wall. On the bus. In the alley. Off the beer. Dry January? No big deal if you’ve a match on the horizon. You have to brace yourself. A crisp night will add a sting to any sliotar. Drive them over the bar til’ you find one that suits. Christmas? Where did that go. There’s plenty of Christmases when you’re finished. The familiar craic on the bus. Maybe a box set on the DVD player. Love/Hate anyone? Laden with water. Fruit. A few bars. The craic is good. The lads are on form. And the hurling? The hurling’s why we’re here. You might get a crack at an All-Ireland semi every few years if you’re lucky. Could be a one off. All that work. All that time. All that effort. For one hours hurling. You wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ballygunner. Seventeen years ago, the club’s only previous All-Ireland semi-final ended in a loss Clarinbridge. It’s a long time to wait. Buoyed by their win over Na Piarsaigh. Ballygunner, the club that brings us Paul Flynn, Feargal Hartley, Páuric Mahony. Stephen O’Keeffe brings his wealth of experience between the sticks. Wayne Hutchinson, Philip Mahony and Harley Barnes patrol the half back line with Pauric O’Mahony at 11 and Conor Power has been weighing in with the goals all season. Will the familiarity of Thurles help them? The fine details always a marginal gain with club teams. On paper underdogs. But this game’s not played on paper.
Ballyhale… the most successful hurling club we have seen. Shefflin, the Fennellys, TJ, Cha. Six All Irelands with a bid to make it seven up, under the watchful eye of King Henry. They lost in their first final but haven’t looked back, winning their first title against a JBM led St Finbarrs. They have the pedigree, the class and the hurlers. Kilkenny and Waterford, Ballyhale and Ballygunner. Croke Park awaits. But first Thurles for what could be some game.
The words of club legend James McNaughton adorn the wall in the Cushendall Club gym ‘Give me your Ruairi Óg heart.’ Inspirational. The first Antrim championship as recently as 1981, fourteen since then, eleven Ulster titles. One appearance in an All Ireland Final in 2016. The Ruairi Óg passion passes on, through teak tough veteran Sean Delargy, double jobbing preaching the Ruairi Óg gospel to the Go Games youngsters, to inspiring captain Paddy Burke, the indestructible Arron Graffin, mercurial Alex Delargy and on-field leader, by example, Neil McManus. The exploits and tales of ‘Dall hurlers from the past spur them on. James Mc Naughton, Danny Mc Naughton, Sambo and Leonard McKeegan: Karl McKeegan and Shane McNaughton. And not to forget the legend that is Wee John McKillop. This team’s Ruairi Óg heart beats strong and true.
Galway’s St Thomas won the whole thing in 2013, defeating Ulster kingpins Loughgiel en route in a rancorous enough contest. Shane and Conor Cooney are a significant threat in the middle third, aided and abetted by the imperious David Burke and livewire Eanna Burke. In the tight claustrophobic confines of Parnell Park, no quarter will be asked or given.