Carrickshock and Clara daring to dream as Kilkenny hosts a novel senior hurling final
Victory in Sunday’s decider would crown a momentous year for either club
Clara’s Lester Ryan and Keith Hogan tackle PJ Rowe of St Gabriel’s (London) in last year’s AIB All-Ireland intermediate hurling final at Croke Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Richie Power: one of the Kilkenny stars hoping to win a first Kilkenny SHC title with Carrickshock. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
In Kilkenny, a senior county medal can be the most elusive prize of all. When Clara and Carrickshock parade around Nowlan Park in tomorrow’s showpiece, it will mark an afternoon for their players and supporters that in a strange way will be more rare and unexpected than the All-Ireland days they have enjoyed.
Both teams will feature players who have enjoyed exceptional days for their county but for whom a senior championship was, until now, a distant and near unattainable ambition.
Clara’s story is faintly magical on the surface: relegated from senior entirely in 2011, they got their act together and won both the county and All-Ireland intermediate titles before carrying their form by winning this year’s league and now booking a place in the senior championship final.
Clara, still surviving as a country parish just beyond the streetlights of Kilkenny city, were county champions just once before, in 1986.
Carrickshock has provided such a steady supply of excellent hurlers to Kilkenny county teams that it hardly seems possible that they haven’t won a senior title since 1951. So whatever the result, the occasion will end with new bonfires. Richie Power Snr has three sons playing for Carrickshock and despite a garlanded career in black and amber which brought All-Irelands and All Stars, he admits that just the thought of seeing his club finishing the day as champions is incomparable.
“Jamie, John and Richie are playing, yeah. Look it, it would be the greatest day of my hurling life time. I was lucky enough to win All-Irelands with Kilkenny, yes. But I reckon this would surpass anything I achieved. This would be the ultimate as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people that have worked fierce hard to keep the club going – and I have seen the club in bad places over the years so there was a group there who kept it going when it was maybe easier to turn your back and walk away. But it would be phenomenal if we could get the right result on Sunday.”
Power hurled in 10 intermediate semi-finals for Carrickshock without ever making the breakthrough to senior level.
In 1982, they made it to the intermediate final where they met tomorrow’s opponents.
“Clara beat us by four points. It was a bad day for myself because I got a bad hand injury. We had a strong intermediate team then but we could just never make the breakthrough. We were close.”
Clara capitalised on their progression to senior by winning that lone title in 1986. But they couldn’t sustain the success. When Richie Mulrooney arrived as principal of Clara national school in 1997, some of the pupils there were the children of that title-winning side. Mulrooney claims he was lucky to come along when there happened to be a group of marvellous hurlers coming up in the school.
Along with John Bolger, they started coaching a special group of youngsters. They lost a Roinn C final in 1998 with a team including Shane and Neil Prendergast and Austin Murphy, the team captain tomorrow. Lester Ryan was in sixth class when they won the C competition in 1999 and it was clear that the school team was going to be exceptionally strong in the years afterwards.
“So we did something that was never really done in the history of that competition,” Mulrooney says. “We applied to skip the Roinn B altogether.”
Clara won the Roinn A against Kilkenny CBS by 4-14 to 1-05. “And that sort of caused an explosion of hurling within the school.”
From 2001-2009 – the shimmering period for the Kilkenny seniors – Clara were as prolific at the opposite end of the spectrum, claiming five A titles and six Waldron Cups, the competition for non-city schools. The pick of those school teams won the Kilkenny minor title in 1997, which Mulrooney also coached. “You become really attached to a group of lads that are that committed to the game.”
The pick of those national school sides now form the senior team. “You have nine fellas who are laden – and I mean laden down – with primary school honours and the other six have All-Ireland medals – Lester and Conor and John as senior panel members. It may have taken them a bit longer than they expected to get where they are,” Mulrooney says.
“They were unfortunate to be relegated from senior in 2011 but it was probably the best thing that could have happened because they really focused and applied themselves and the majority of them are through college and back living in the county.”
While Clara’s 1-17 to 1-14 defeat of St Martin’s in their semi-final was in keeping with their form, Carrickshock’s elimination of Ballyhale Shamrocks, the reigning county champions, caused a national ripple. Ballyhale were the club to emulate Carrickshock’s 1940-43 vintage when they went on a four-year winning spree from 2006, claiming two All-Irelands in the process.
“We are next door neighbours and there is a solid, honest rivalry there,” Richie Power says. “We would have been the bridesmaids to the Shamrocks for a number of years – we had a wonderful quarter-final there seven years ago and they beat us by a point.
“But what they went on to achieve was four senior championships and a couple of All-Irelands. So we did find it hard to get over them and to do that was great for the players. But Clara are going to be a younger team and they are really well-balanced.”
As it happened, Ballyhale were Clara’s opponents in that 1986 final. That team was comprised of six Ryans. Three of Johnny Ryan’s sons – Lester, Liam and Tom, are playing tomorrow. Three Prendergast brothers are playing. Three Nolan brothers are there too. The links to the 1986 team are strong but the ’86 team came out of the blue.
Lester Ryan remembers his brother Harry hurling in junior games when he was as young as 16: the club was going through a tough phase and it was a question of cobbling teams together.
“So they had a lot of experience under their belt when they played senior,” Lester explains. “It was super time. It was our first and we weren’t expected to win it. Ballyhale were in their prime at that time so to beat them was extra special. You don’t realise what it means to people. You see people in tears after the game and you think: ‘God, this is a hell of a lot bigger than you could imagine.’ It is a fantastic thing really.”
But the maturation of this Clara team has been long anticipated. Lester Ryan appreciates the continuation of family lines in the team but is keen to point out that the influence of work of new club members has been critical.
“Yes, there are lads there who wouldn’t be the traditional names as such but they have as much right as anyone to be there and are adding as much to this team. I think the beauty of this team is that it is a real team effort across the board.
“ There is a great unity and they are good friends. Names don’t matter. Who you are doesn’t matter. And that is great for a small country club. What you need is every name. You need them all. You can’t afford to be exclusive in anyway and you need to bring everyone along.”
This final exposes the myth that everything in hurling comes easily and naturally within Kilkenny. Richie Power points out that Carrickshock have been affected by emigration like any other rural club.
One of the reasons they were unable to build on their senior final appearance of 2010 (they lost to O’Loughlin Gaels) is they suffered injuries to key players like Michael Rice and John Tennyson. To compete, they need everyone healthy. He knows none of this happens automatically and he knows more than most these opportunities can be fleeting. If a county final is the gauge of that county’s wellbeing, then what does this novel decider say about Kilkenny?
As winter closes in, it remains to be seen if Henry Shefflin decides to commit to another year in black and amber. Either way, one of the very greatest Irish sporting careers is drawing to a close. Clara’s sudden rush for glory has created the impression, however temporary, that hurling hasn’t so much moved as lurched in a dramatic new direction. It isn’t lost on Kilkenny hurling people that one of the reasons why this year’s final was greeted as so novel is that the black and amber team did not feature.
But it remains to be seen if hurling has entered its post- Kilkenny phase. After all, Brian Cody will be in Nowlan Park tomorrow, watching, thinking, planning ahead.
“I always think Kilkenny won’t be too far away because you will pick up a couple of young lads,” Richie Power Snr says.
“But there is no doubt about it. Clara have thrown out a phenomenal warning to every other county now. They have raised the bar in fitness and are coming with a young team and have a manager that is driven. He reminds you of Brian Cody. But we had frustrations in Carrickshock because we seemed to miss key players at crucial times and this year we went in with all our big players fit. Kilkenny were struggling all year with injuries and I expect that if they sort those out they will still take a lot of beating.”
Thoughts on the county are for another day, however. Tomorrow’s game is what it is about in Kilkenny. Both clubs want this so badly that they are almost afraid to articulate what winning would mean.
“I will enjoy watching the video afterwards if they manage to win,” says Lester Ryan. “I am not a good supporter. I get too wrapped up in it.” It’s the old story in Kilkenny. The game means everything.