Colm Bonnar: ‘If I was worried about pressure I wouldn’t have taken on this role’

Seán Moran’s team-by-team guide to Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League

Tuesday was like a made-to-order demonstration of what lies ahead for Colm Bonnar. Appointed Tipperary manager after Liam Sheedy's retirement last year, his task was already daunting with the amount of rebuilding that will need to be done, as the garlanded generation of the past decade moves on.

A press briefing had already been arranged for the morning when news broke that Pádraic Maher, a titanic presence in all three of the recent All-Ireland victories, had been obliged to retire on medical advice despite being ready to stay involved.

"He has been such a leader, a warrior, he always stood up," says Bonnar. "He was a colossal man in terms of being under the high ball. His power under that high ball always amazed me. I remember one of the games at full back he was marking Henry Shefflin, and he was just pulling ball out of the air for sport. What a skill that is in the game."

So it’s not just another vacancy but a particularly large one.

Did he ever reflect on the pressure of having to rebuild a team while at the same time not falling off the competitive standard demanded by a county with Tipperary’s traditions?

“No, I never mentioned pressure. If I was worried about pressure, I wouldn’t have taken on this role. This is a challenge. I love being a Tipperary man and putting on that jersey is part of my DNA. Going up to Tipperary [from where he lives in Waterford] just feels so much like home to me. No, I’m not bothered.

“This might look easy to say but pressure doesn’t come into my head in terms of what we are doing. I’m just trying to build those connections with the players, trying to develop a team and bring it as far as I can – wherever that is – once I know I’m getting the best from the players and the support we’re offering them is the best, and we’re getting the reaction.

“If I start focusing on results or start focusing on having to win an All-Ireland, then yeah I’m going to add huge pressure on myself, but also on the team. It’s a work in progress and I’m excited to see where this journey is going to end.”

It began last month with Tipp's first defeat in competition by the Kerry hurlers. The Munster Cup match also cost them a long-term injury to the experienced Willie Connors. The team was largely a development selection but it did feature a number of the up-and-coming players from the recent All-Ireland under-20 and -21 wins whose inclusion has been pushed for in the past year.

“It was a setback, in terms of the result, against Kerry but we were in a process there where we had committed to a number of players we had seen in the Miller Shield [an inter-divisional competition convened by Bonnar and his management to function as trials]. It was a case of trying to help them in their development to become a Tipp senior player and that process continues.”

Bonnar clarified the situation concerning John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, whose absence from the panel had ignited a firestorm of speculation that he had been dropped. The absence is injury-related and there was some welcome positive news about that.

“He got his second scan on it last week and went to the surgeon. The news is a bit more positive. He has a small operation to go to release the fluid in the knee and a bit more rehab work on it.

“We’re hoping maybe in the next two or three weeks he’s going to be able to get back on to the field and start doing the conditioning that’s needed to build the fitness you need to play at the highest level.”

The league campaign starts on Saturday in Laois. From then on, it’s a rush of activity up until the unfamiliar championship start-line of April. What would he like to have achieved by the end of the Division 1B season?

“What I’d like to think is that I’ll have a team together, that I’ll have 32 to 34 players that have bought into everything . . .

“Obviously we are going to be judged by the outside world on results but my philosophy is you should enjoy hurling, love what you are doing – to be given the chance to be up in Thurles on a Tuesday or a Thursday or a Saturday or whenever with the best players in the county doing something you love to be doing.

“It is only part-time. Everybody has their work or whatever to go back to, so I’m in it with them on that journey and every time I go up I can see that bit of magic happening with the players and that’s what keeps me going.”

Seán Moran’s team-by-team guide to Division 1B

Darren Gleeson
2021: 4th Division 1B; lost Leinster QF to Dublin and AIQ prelim to Laois
Opening fixture: v Kilkenny (a)
Antrim's progress in the past year was most felt in the league. They have been bringing along a group of young players whose education has immensely benefited from the exposure, even if they lost their MacCarthy Cup spot without experiencing the round-robin format. There is enough experience to guide them, with Neil McManus still going strong.

Mattie Kenny
2021: 5th Division 1B; lost Leinster final to Kilkenny and AIQF to Cork
Opening fixture: v Waterford (h)
A disappointing year for Mattie Kenny's side in both league and championship and they have started 2022 on a mission. A week ago they walloped Wexford in the Walsh Cup final and looked in good shape for January. The need for more penetration up front will have to be addressed but they are primed to give it a go.

Brian Cody
2021: Joint winners, Division One; Leinster champions to Dublin and lost AISF to Cork
Opening fixture: v Antrim (h)
Brian Cody's perennial ability to knock a tune out of whatever collective available hasn't been able to compensate for the fall-off in quality as historically great players have left the field. The league task is complicated by Ballyhale's customary progress to the club final, which removes half the county attack. Will be competitive but hard to see massive improvement.

Séamus Plunkett
2021: Won relegation playoff; lost Leinster QF to Wexford and AIQ R1 to Waterford
Opening fixture: v Tipperary (h)
Séamus Plunkett turned around last season impressively and Laois hurling had the encouragement of an historic club campaign by Clough-Ballacolla, even if the final was a disappointment. They have decent performers and gave Kilkenny a rattle in the Walsh Cup. With the playoff they successfully exploited last year, they have every chance to stay up.

Colm Bonnar
2021: 3rd Division 1A; lost Munster final to Limerick and AIQF to Waterford
Opening fixture: v Laois (a)
It's been a fair old trial for Colm Bonnar since taking over. The sudden retirement of Pádraic Maher came out of the blue when managing to lose a Munster Cup match to Kerry looked like being the biggest setback so far. There's no secret about the task: rebuilding a team and giving game time to younger players while staying competitive. Tough.

Liam Cahill
2021: 2nd Division 1A; lost Munster QF to Clare and AISF to Limerick.
Opening fixture: v Dublin (a)
Liam Cahill's decision to stay despite the vacancy at home was well received by all. Injury undermined last year but eventually, the team that came together went on a great summer run, pressing their credentials as Limerick's closest competitors. Ballygunner's historic run means that players like Dessie Hutchinson will need some rest but otherwise they're in good shape.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times