Anyone looking at the results of the Kilkenny senior hurling championship the other weekend would have been forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief. For the first time in 44 years, Bennettsbridge, aka “The Bridge” are into the county senior final, after a stunning victory over 2015 champions Clara. They will face up to the challenge of hot favourites, Ballyhale Shamrocks, in the final on this Sunday, October 28.
It was an incredible encounter last Sunday week in Nowlan Park, as Sean Morrissey proved the key difference between the sides. Morrissey hit an astonishing 2-5 as his side edged to a thrilling 5 point win on a scoreline of 3-19 to 2-17. It demonstrates a remarkable turnaround for the club, who, just four years ago, were emerging from the junior grade.
If the last forty years have been a lean spell for the club, the 50’s and 60’s were anything but. In fact, from 1952 to 1971, they managed to snare an almost implausible 11 county championships. At the time, the side was peppered with any number of inter county stars such as Noel Skehan, Paddy Moran, Jim Treacy and Seamus Cleere.
While the “Bridge” haven’t won a county senior title since 1971, their influence has still been seen at inter-county level. From 1957, until James McGarry exited the Kilkenny scene in 2008, every senior All-Ireland winning side from the county featured a Bridge man on it. Even during the lean years of the 80’s and 90’s the likes of Noel Skehan (82&83) and Liam Simpson (92&93) flew the flag. It was an astounding record, and while the club’s domination of the county side has lessened in recent years, with Liam Blanchfield, Robert Lennon, Enda Morrissey, Sean Morrissey and Jason Cleere now members of the squad, that looks like it’s about to change.
Standing in their way though, will be the kingpins of the last decade and a half, Ballyhale Shamrocks. Since 2006, the side has won 6 county championships as well as 3 All-Irelands. Nowadays, the talisman of the past, Henry Shefflin, is the manager, and while there are still some familiar old faces there, such as TJ Reid at centre forward and Michael Fennelly at centre back, it’s perhaps the young guns who have really driven on the success of the side this year. They include Shefflin’s own nephew, Evan, and county minor star of the last few years Adrian Mullen, who along with his brother Darren, have really given the side a new dimension. On saying that, the side only barely scraped through their own semi-final against Erin’s Own of Castlecomer by 1 point last Sunday, on a scoreline of 1-16 to 1-15, and they needed a late goal by Evan Shefflin in order to do it.
One point in favour of Bennettsbridge is a statistical anomaly of the Kilkenny championship. In the last 11 years, the winner of the county senior final has always finished in the top 2 of their 6 team group. This year the Bridge finished second in their group, Ballyhale meanwhile, finished third. And they managed to secure second spot, by beating Ballyhale in their final group game in September.
Moving down the levels to the intermediate grade in the country, there’s perhaps an even bigger story occurring. Whereas Bennettsbridge dominated the Kilkenny club scene in the 50’s and 60’s, historically at least, Tullaroan are the Daddy of them all. In fact, in terms of overall senior county titles won, they sit on top of the pile with 20. Not only that, but the club featured two men (Paddy Phelan and Lory Meagher) on the Hurling team of the century. And if the team of the current century was being picked, it’s inarguable that another Tullaroan man, a certain Tommy Walsh, would feature on it.
The club’s stock has fallen in recent years. A lot of their success occurred in the early part of the 20th century, when no parish rule existed and players could play for whichever club they wished. As a rural, sparsely populated area, their influence has waned over time. Indeed, the club went 36 years without a senior title before winning their last in 1994, where Liam Keoghan delivered one of the all time great county final performances. Nowadays it’s Liam’s son Martin, a current inter-county star, who is flying the flag, along with the aforementioned Tommy and his brother Padraig, who is leading the side, not in defence as he does for Kilkenny, but from the centre-forward position.
Despite stepping down from inter-county hurling a few years ago, it’s tempting to say Tommy’s profile has never been higher. Certainly, if one is to take into account the IMRO Radio Newcomer of the year award he gleaned a few weeks ago, his popularity nationally is as great as it ever was. It seems that he’s taken to the media as easily as he took to the hurling field. But despite all the success he’s had (9 All-Ireland senior medals, 9 All-Stars) there’s one honour that’s always eluded him. A county championship medal at senior level.
It’s perhaps the juiciest storyline of all therefore, that the side standing in the way this Sunday is Tullaroan’s greatest rivals: Graigue Ballycallan. Not only do the 2 clubs have one of the biggest hurling rivalries in the county, but there’s always been a debate as to which side Tommy himself should actually represent! Certainly, if one was to read Jackie Tyrrell’s autobiography last year, one would have no doubt of Tommy’s true feelings towards the club he derisively labels as “bluebottles”.
In it, Tommy hilariously described how part of the family home is actually in the Graigue side of the parish, but it’s not where Tommy lives, just where he goes to do his dirty business! Graigue themselves have a proud history. The club won 2 senior county championships in 1998 and 2000 and were only denied a famous All-Ireland senior club title in 2001 by Athenry. Most agonizingly of all, the side was only minutes away from winning the title that year, and were 4 points up coming into injury time, when things went badly awry. Nowadays the likes of the Ryan brothers, Sean and Billy, are the sides main scoring threats, while current Laois senior manager, Eddie Brennan is still going strong up front. And on the sidelines, the club have heavy hitters in the form of ex-All Ireland winner John Hoyne and Tipperary football great Declan Browne.
Graigue will be hoping to redeem themselves for last year’s failure at the final stage when they lost to St Patricks of Ballyragget. And in case you’re wondering, yes, it’s that Ballyragget. Of “Acting the maggot in Ballyragget” fame. One hopes, whoever of Graigue or Tullaroan wins on Sunday, that their celebrations will be a little more…restrained.
So whoever does win the finals next week, there will be a familiar ring to it. And while it’s logical to expect a Ballyhale victory, somehow, the old romantic in me just can’t help but root for the Bridge.
Kilkenny Intermediate Hurling final
Graigue Ballycallan V Tullaroan, 1pm, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, October 28th
Kilkenny Senior Hurling Final
Ballyhale Shamrocks V Bennettsbridge, 3pm, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, October 28th