Exceptional talent and greatness to collide as St Mullins face Ballyhale Shamrocks
Marty Kavanagh will lead his team out in the Leinster final against Henry Shefflin's side
St Mullin’s Marty Kavanagh is tackled by Joe Fitzpatrick and Jack Kelly of Rathdowney-Errill in the Leinster club championship semi-final at Cullen Park, Co Carlow. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
It was King Henry he modelled himself upon, and he regularly crossed the border into Kilkenny with his hurling mad father and uncles to watch the Cats during the glory years.
Now 24, it’s hardly surprising that Kavanagh has developed upon similar lines as Shefflin, a centre forward of class and cunning.
The compliments keep coming too because when asked about Kavanagh after their Leinster club semi-final win over Rathdowney-Errill, St Mullins manager Niall O’Donnell – who has moulded the very best at Ballygunner and Carrickshock – said he would “rate Marty Kavanagh as one of the best hurlers I’ve ever seen”.
Greatness will come face to face with greatness, then, when Kavanagh, the St Mullins captain, leads his team out in the provincial final against Ballyhale Shamrocks, who are managed by, of course, Shefflin.
“My father was a big Kilkenny man and so were his brothers. You wouldn’t be going to Carlow matches, you’d be going to Kilkenny matches,” said Kavanagh earlier this year.
Six months or so on, Kavanagh acknowledges it will be a unique and exciting occasion for him on Sunday.
“Playing Ballyhale, it doesn’t get much bigger. They’re the best team in Ireland, going for back to back. Everyone knows the name Ballyhale Shamrocks.
“We’re just trying to look at it as another game but we’ve huge respect for them, and for what Kilkenny generally has done for Carlow hurling. They let us play in their competitions at the start of the year.
“We play in the junior pre-season leagues. So St Mullins can play February, March, April, May, June. It’s important for the club players, it brings their hurling on a lot. So we’ve huge respect for that. We really appreciate it, and now we go up against their most successful club ever.”
Naturally enough the bookmakers don’t give St Mullins a prayer. They are 8/1 underdogs, and the match handicap suggests Ballyhale will probably win by double figures.
“A lot of lads would never have thought that you’d be going up against these in a Leinster final,” said Kavanagh. “But look, you want to play against the best, and we’re certainly going to do that next Sunday.”
If St Mullins can pull it off it will be up there alongside what Mullinalaghta did in last year’s football final. There are only four senior clubs in Carlow, and St Mullins struggled to shake off Ballinkillen after extra time in the county semi-final and just scraped past Mount Leinster Rangers by a point in the final.
Nobody was saying a whole pile about Leinster titles at that stage, but when they took out 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland winners Cuala in the provincial quarter-finals suddenly the picture changed.
Not that they celebrated that day, far from it. It was tears and not cheers in the dressing-room afterwards as the players learned that selector Micheal Ryan had taken ill and suffered an apparent heart attack during the game.
“It was a surreal experience, everyone was crying,” said Kavanagh. “The match was just completely gone out the window, the result, the whole thing. It was completely gone. Everyone’s thoughts were just on Micheal and his family.”
Hours later word came through that the mentor was making progress and there is even talk of Ryan being involved on Sunday.
“It would take a brave lad to stop him from going,” smiled Kavanagh. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with him. He’ll probably be on the line, but I don’t know to be honest.”