The 1997 Senior Hurling Championship
Clonoulty-Rossmore are the most unlikely 1997 senior hurling champions of county Tipperary. They rebounded from disappointment in their own division to take the highest hurling honour in the county. Along the way they caused one of the great turnabouts in hurling history and produced one of their finest performances to win the county final.
Prior to their quarter-final game against Ballingarry their chances of winning a county final were rated at seven to one by the bookies. This was an improvement on earlier projections and the improvement had come about as a result of a comprehensive victory over Cappawhite, the beaten west finalists, in a contest to decide on the second team to represent the division in the county championship. Clonoulty-Rossmore had qualified for this play-off by virtue of winning the Crosco Cup, the divisional league competition. Earlier they had gone down to Kickhams in the west semi-final. Losing by four points against a team they had beaten fairly easily in the league, they looked disorganised and badly motivated. The defeat had a salutary effect, however, acting as a spur to greater motivation and commitment in later games.
County success created difficulties in the running of the divisional championships but the north was well organised and first to stage its final at Cloughjordan on August 3. In atrocious weather conditions, Toomevara easily pushed aside the challenge of Borrisoleigh, winning by 1-15 to 0-8 and establishing themselves as form horses to win the county final. Since the winners were already league champions in the division there was no need for a play-off to decide on the second team for the county championship.
The west was ready for its final between Kickhams and Cappawhite at Cashel on August 24 but a tragic, fatal car accident in Knockavilla on the Friday before led to a postponement for four weeks. It was eventually played on September 21. The result was worth waiting for from a Kickhams point of view. Their last victory was in 1960 and over the intervening years they were beaten in six finals. It was, therefore, a moment to savour when the final whistle sounded after a rivetting game and the scoreline read 0-19 to 2-10 in their favour. Cappawhite had pushed Kickhams to the limit but it wasn’t enough. They had to turn out the following Sunday at Golden to play the Crosco Cup winners, Clonoulty-Rossmore, but the effort was too much after the disappointment of the previous week. They were well and truly savaged by a re-focused Clonoulty-Rossmore side and suffered the humiliation of a twenty point drubbing on a scoreline of 4-15 to 1-4.
A big win was also the result in the mid final. Played at Semple Stadium on the same day as the west final, it promised to be the contest of the year. Neighbouring parishes Boherlahan-Dualla and Holycross-Ballycahill were in opposition, the former the county champions and the latter age old rivals. Incredibly, apart from the opening ten minutes the game was never a contest and the result, a 1-17 to 0-4 scoreline in favour of Holycross-Ballycahill, was one of the biggest shocks in the history of the division. The county champions were never at the races, scored but a point from play and seemed devoid of any appetite for hurling.
The south had fallen very far behind in its championship and its schedule was put further behind by a draw between Ballingarry and Killenaule in a semi-final. This was aggravated by a tragic, fatal car accident on the night of the draw in which the Killenaule captain, Larry Hayes, was killed. The result was that the replay didn’t go ahead until October 5, the date fixed for the county quarter-finals. Mullinahone, who were already through to the final, were nominated as losers, since they hadn’t contested the south final the previous year, and drawn against the west winners in the county quarter-final. Ballingarry defeated Killenaule in the replay and qualified to play the second team from the west, Clonoulty-Rossmore. The south final was eventually played on November 16.
County Quarter Finals
Three of the quarter-finals were scheduled for the weekend of October 4/5. The first of these was played at Templemore on October 4. The mid winners, Holycross-Ballycahill, played the north losers, Borrisoleigh. It was generally agreed that a draw was a fitting result to this game. Borrisoleigh, after making much of the running, came from behind to level through a Martin Hayes point five minutes from the end. Borrisoleigh were ahead by 0-7 to 0-6 at the interval. They went further ahead in the third quarter but a goal by Donal Duggan in the twenty-second minute put Holycross-Ballycahill in the driving seat and they seemed poised to win. But Borrisoleigh came back for the final point, which left the score 1-9 to 0-12 at the final whistle.
The replay was at the same venue the following Saturday. In a very competitive encounter on a rain-sodden pitch, Holycross-Ballycahill’s better balance and greater commitment carried them through. Borrisoleigh, with the aid of the wind in the first half, led by 0-7 to 1-3 at the interval, the lone goal coming from Duggan, but they failed to score in the second half despite intense pressure. In contrast Holycross-Ballycahill notched up four points to give them a winning tally of 1-7 to 0-7.
In the mean time, Boherlahan-Dualla had caused a sensation in the second quarter-final of the north-mid encounter. Played at Nenagh on October 5 a re-juvenated side turned the tables on the north champions, beating them by 2-12 to 0-14. After the trouncing in the mid final not many supporters expected the result in spite of the club’s impressive record against the ‘Greyhounds’ in 1995 and 1996. Toomevara had been installed as everyone’s favourites, not only to win but to go ahead and win county honours. But, it was Boherlahan who had the hunger, the commitment and the will to win in an encounter that degenerated into ugliness on several occasions. It was a great team performance, a result to savour and a memory to cherish.
On the same day in Cashel Mullinahone were establishing their credentials as meaningful contenders for county honours. Led and inspired by John Leahy the team showed it was no one-man band but one with plenty of talent scattered around the field. They took some delightful scores, with no less than eight of the team getting their names on the scoreboard, and were impressive in their fast ground play. The Kickhams performance, in contrast, was disappointing. The team never really got going, missed too many chances and were guilty of no less than fourteen wides.
The last of the quarter-finals was played at Cashel on October 12. Clonoulty-Rossmore gave a boost to their county aspirations by defeating their south opponents, Ballingarry, by 4-9 to 1-10. They got off to a great start with a James Ryan goal after fifteen seconds. They led by 3-3 to 0-4 at the half-way stage and were ten points ahead with fifteen minutes to go. Then there was a spirited Ballingarry resurgence, led by an impressive Liam Cahill, which reduced the deficit to four points but this was killed off when Maurice Quirke got Clonoulty-Rossmore’s fourth goal and by the final whistle there was an eight-point margin between the teams.
The County Semi-Finals
The county semi-finals were played in Semple Stadium on October 19 with the two mid teams fancied to take the honours. Mullinahone had other ideas and showed great spirit and skill in overcoming the mid champions, Holycross-Ballycahill, by 1-20 to 3-11 and qualifying for their first ever county senior hurling final. The effects of going out for their third championship game in three weeks showed in the mid men’s play and they never really got to grips with the occasion. This, however, does not detract from Mullinahone’s win and from the tremendous fighting qualities they showed in the second half. Having led by 1-7 to 0-6 at the break their advantage was cut to a point following a David Burke goal after eight minutes. Nothing daunted they turned on the style and hit six points on the trot, without a reply. But Holycross-Ballycahill were not lying down either and brought the sides level with goals from John Ferncombe and Tony Lanigan, in the course of two minutes, followed by a point from Ferncombe. The game hung on a fine edge but, in the remaining minutes, it was Mullinahone who had the extra reserves and scored five points to two for the losers to secure an historic three point victory.
The second semi-final has already become the stuff of legend. There are stories of patrons having left the grounds feeling the result a certainty and returning for the sensational ending. There’s a story of a publican who rushed home to fill the pints for the winners only later to learn they were for the losers. And, there’s the story of the Bansha man who went home certain of Boherlahan’s victory and wasn’t disabused until he read the Examiner on Monday morning!
All of this was possible because of a sensational and quite unbelieveable last gasp comeback by Clonoulty-Rossmore. With three minutes remaining in what had been a very pedestrian game of hurling, Boherlahan led by 4-11 to 1-12. The score might have been 6-11 to 1-12 had Philip O’Dwyer put away two almost certain goal chances. Then the sensational happened. Declan Ryan goaled from a free. He goaled again in the 30th minute after Seamus Coffey shot just wide. And, then, within a minute, Maurice Quirke delivered the coup de grace with another goal which sent Boherlahan reeling out of the championship and Clonoulty-Rossmore into paeans of ecstacy.
Anything that went before that final three minutes became irrelevant in the aftermath. One of the talking points was Declan Ryan’s free-taking. A la Paddy Kenny of old, he threw a first-half penalty shot about ten yards forward before striking it. He didn’t succeed in scoring then but he did twice in the second half and had spectators asking the question why he wasn’t taking the close-in frees for the county team. The sides were level at the interval 0-8 to 1-5, Aidan Flanagan getting the goal for Boherlahan. Clonoulty-Rossmore went ahead with Declan Ryan’s goal in the third minute of the second half but then Boherlahan-Dualla took over and were heading for the county final when the thunderbolt struck in the final few minutes.
The County Final
The county final on November 2 was unique in a number of ways. Never before had there been a south-west contest at this level. It was Mullinahone’s first time to appear and it brought to twelve the number of appearances by south teams in county senior finals. It was thirty years since a south team won the final. Mullinahone were slight favourites on the basis of their displays in the quarter- and semi-finals and Clonoulty-Rossmore’s fortuitous win over Boherlahan-Dualla. The interest generated in the contest was reflected in the huge crowd of over 17.000 which attended, the biggest number at a county final since the fifties.
The game was always close and whereas the hurling may have been moderate most of the time, the uncertainty of the outcome kept the interest alive. Like so may games it did not follow the pattern many expected. Declan Ryan, who played such a pivotal role in the quarter-and semi-finals, had a relatively quiet hour. The Mullinahone trio of John Leahy, Brian O'Meara and Paul Kelly, on whom so much depended failed to deliver. Leahy worked extremely hard but his finishing, particularly his free-taking, left a lot to be desired. Paul Kelly threatened spasmodically but was never the force he was in previous games. Brian O’Meara, apart from his goal, had a quiet game and ought to have been moved off Aidan Butler much earlier.
In contrast, Clonoulty-Rossmore were a team of heroes. Andrew Fryday was brilliant with his puckouts. Noel Keane never put a foot wrong and lifted his team with a great point. Aidan Butler was outstanding at centre-back. Kevin Lanigan-Ryan troubled John Leahy greatly in the middle of the field. Maurice Quirke got two points to remember. Michael ‘Shiner’ Heffernan deservedly got man-of-the-match for four points from play and making a fifth for Bonny Kennedy. And, what can one say about the latter that would be adequate to describe his contribution? He scored seven points but his contribution ranged all over the field especially in the final ten minutes when the chips were down.
On a murky day in greasy conditions, there was no appreciable wind to interfere with the game. The sides were level on six occasions in the first half but by half-time Clonoulty-Rossmore were in front by ten points to seven, the difference between the sides reflected in the number of wides, three to the west, nine to the south. The west men remained in front until Brian O’Meara’s goal brought the sides level and there was all to play for in the final ten minutes. Bonny Kennedy gave Clonoulty-Rossmore a two point cushion during this period and with about three minutes to go, Mullinahone got a thirty yard free. Leahy blasted for goal but it was saved. He got a second chance and it came off the post, leaving the advantage to Clonoulty-Rossmore and victory by 0-17 to 1-12.
It was a hugely disappointing result for Mullinahone and their supporters, who came in such great numbers to cheer on their heroes. It was a game they could have won and that realisation will make the defeat more difficult to take. For John Leahy, despite scoring seven points, the memory will be one of missed opportunities. Obviously his display was effected by his hand complaint and there were few instances in the game when he reached with confidence into the clash of hurleys to grab the ball as only he can do so brilliantly. Added to that was the failure of the team’s forward line to score with any kind of facility.
But any mention of a below-par Mullinahone performance must be balanced by a superb display from Clonoulty-Rossmore. They were a transformed side and their display was better than their most fervid supporters could have dreamed of. The oldest among them were keen, hungry and committed and played out of their skins. The youngest among them gave performances that will be remembered in parish folklore. Above all the whole team had a physical edge, allied to a leaven of experience, which made life difficult for Mullinahone and never allowed them to settle into the kind of fluency they so desired. Unlikely county champions after the west semi-final, Clonoulty-Rossmore made themselves deserving champions by seizing the opportunities presented to them. Carpserunt diem!
Clonoulty-Rossmore: Andrew Fryday, Michael Ryan, Noel Keane(capt.), Peter Brennan, Michael Heffernan, Aidan Butler, John Kennedy, Kevin Ryan, Kevin Lanigan-Ryan, Michael Brennan, Maurice Quirke, Michael Kennedy, James Ryan, Declan Ryan, Michael Heffernan. Sub; Seamus Coffey for James Ryan.
Mullinahone: Liam O’Connor(capt.), Tony Dalton, Sean Brett, Jackie Bolger, Paul Cahill, Noel Leahy, Kyran Vaughan, John Leahy, Eddie Carey, Paul Kelly, Brian O’Meara, Damien Maher, Mossie Tobin, Edward O’Brien, Pat Croke. Sub: Eoin Kelly for Edward O’Brien
Referee: Michael Cahill (Kilruane-MacDonaghs)
Man of the Match Award: Michael Heffernan (S), (Clonoulty-Rossmore)
Tipperary G.A.A. Yearbook 1998, pp 65-67