One might be inclined to regard Conal as the Benjamin of the Bonnar boys but that would suggest someone :in need of care and protection. Such would, indeed, be furthest from the truth because Conal is very much his own man and has an impressive record of achievement. He was drafted into the Tipperary senior panel for the 1988 All-Ireland. He was then eighteen years age and his call-up at that stage was an indication of the potential of the player.
That potential had been revealed at underage. He first hit the county headlines in 1986 when he was pick wing-back on the minors. With five of the previous year's panel Tipperary were expected to do well and fulfilled that expectation in defeating Clare. The Munster final was in Killarney and ended in a draw. Conal had to experience the pangs of defeat to Cork in the replay at Kilmallock eleven days later. Playing at centreback in 1987, Conal experienced similar agony at the ultimate stage. The Munster championship was won with victories over Limerick and Cork, the AI.Ireland semi-final impressively against Galway and hopes were high against Offaly in the All-Ireland. However, defeat was their lot by two points.
Born in Cashel in 1969 Conal went to the National School on the Green and later to the C.B.S. He was introduced to competitive hurling in the school leagues. An under-12 west title came in 1981 but defeat by Holycross-Ballycahill in the county semi-final. Real success came in 1983 with the under-14 urban-rural county final, beating Toomevara in the final. Conal was one of four from Cashel, with Joe McGrath, Arthur Fitzell and Michael Perdue, to make the Tony Forrestal team, which beat Kilkenny in the final. There was less success at under-16 in 1985. Cashel got to the county final to be beaten by Toomevara. There was consolation in the interdivisional under-16 competition for the Garda Cup when Conal captained the west to their first success.
Parallel with this club success came substantial school success with Cashel CBS. There was an impressive crop of young players there during these years. The Rice Cup final was lost to Mitchelstown in 1983 but the under-I5 Corn na Phadraig was won. Two Croke Cups followed and two Fitzgerald Cups as well as one McGabhann and Conal captained the Kinane Cup team to victory in 1986.
He made his debut with the Cashel senior team in 1986 and won his first of four Crosco Cup medals, the others were in 1990, 1994 and 1996. The following year he captained Cashel to a minor hurling title but lost the county semi-final. In 1988 there was a west senior medal but defeat at the hands of Borrisoleigh in the county semi-final
In the meantime Conal had gone to UCD. in 1987 to study for his B.Comm. Later he was to get an MBS in Organisational Behaviour. During his time there he played Fitzgibbon Cup for four years, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, without success. Finals were lost in 1989 and 1991, the most disappointing being the former of the two. Having beaten UCC, who had dominated the competition for years in the semi-final, UCD. expected to win the final but were surprisingly beaten by NIHE, Limerick.
Conal played at under-21 level for three years. In 1988 he played at centreback when the county were defeated by Cork. Success came in 1989 with a glorious victory over Offaly at Portlaoise but disappointment was their lot when, in the 1990 final at the same venue, they were beaten by Kilkenny.
Conal had been drafted into the panel for the All-Ireland senior final in 1988. He eventually made his debut on the team at comerback against Waterford in the league at Dungarvan in October. He dropped out of the league in the Spring in order to concentrate on the Fitzgibbon but was recalled for the semi-final. The final was lost against Galway. By this stage Conal had shown he was capable of holding down a position on the team and he made his championship debut against Limerick in the summer of 1989, as a replacement for the injured John Kennedy. By the time of the All-Ireland he had established himself as a fixture on the team. The winning of the All-Ireland medal was a high point and it was to be capped by an All-Star Award at the end of the year. It was to be the first of two, the second two years later.
The year 1990 was in many ways forgettable for Conal. Tipperary were beaten by Cork in the championship. Conal lost the All-Ireland under-21 final. Cashel seniors were beaten by Holycross-Ballycahill in the county final. The under-21 team were beaten by Toomevara in the county semi-final. There was some consolation, mostly in football. Conal won an under-21 football medal when Cashel surprised Clonmel Commercials in the final at Kilsheelan. Also, in that year, as well as winning the west senior hurling championship, Cashel won their one and only west senior football championship. There was also an Oireachtas medal.
In contrast 1991 was a wonderful year. Conal won his second All-Ireland, beating Kilkenny in the final. The second All-Star followed. Cashel senior hurlers won their first ever county senior championship and went on to claim the Munster club championship. It was a year to be savoured.
At this stage of his career Conal was only twenty-one years of age and his achievements were impressive by any standard. Unfortunately, the graph of success wasn't to continue rising. During the remainder of the nineties disappointment and frustration were to be his lot. Two National League medals were to be won in 1994 and 1999 but by that stage these medals had become a kind of debased coinage. A Munster senior medal was won in 1993. The most frustrating year was 1997 when both the Munster and All-Ireland finals were lost. A minor consolation was a Railway Cup medal in the same year.
At club level there were also disappointments. Three senior divisional medals were won in 1993, 1994 and 1995 but there was no further advancement. The most galling of these defeats was in the county semi-final of 1994 against Nenagh. As Conal looks back from the new Millennium his greatest regrets at club level were the loss to Kiltormer in March 1992 and the loss of the 1990 county final to Holycross-Ballycahill. His other major regrets were losing the 1989 Fitzgibbon final and the double defeat by Clare in 1997.
Probably the most frustrating thing Conal had to contend with in the nineties was injury. From 1991 onwards injury was a constant factor in his sporting life. There wasn't a year in which he didn't miss a game through injury. He broke a bone in his back in a college game in 1991 and his back suffered after that. He had an operation in 1997. Before the operation he suffered from sciatica. Apart from this major injury there were many more. His nose was broken four times, his cheek bone twice, all the fingers on his left hand at least once and to these can be added hamstrings, groin strains, calf-muscles, thigh muscles and his Achilles tendon.
On the question of his favourite position he believes it depended on his age. He started as a forward but up to 1989 he preferred the centreback position. After that he slotted into wingback. However, he has a hankering after the forward line but believes to play there needs a higher level of fitness than a back requires.
Assessing Conal's ability as a hurler is less than easy. Many would say he was the most skilful hurler of all the Bonnars. His greatest strength on the field of play was his anticipation, his ability to be in the right place at the right time. He was also good at intercepting a ball and at picking up the breaking ball behind a line of play. Babs Keating remembers him for his athleticism and had him marked out for the Tipperary panel a year before he was selected. Anther quality remarked on is his leadership qualities. He was good at motivating people and through leading by example. Some of his former team mates recall that when the chips were down, when the challenge was greatest, Conal rose to the occasion. A fine example of such a display was against Clonoulty-Rossmore in the 1999 west championship. They particularly recall his display against Wexford and Clare in 1997. Much of his display against Jamesie O'Connor in the latter game was forgotten in the aftermath of defeat. It may come as a surprise to those who know Conal that he suffered from lack of confidence in his later years. This is the opinion of some of those who played with him and they attribute it to the difficulties he encountered with his back, which prevented him from giving the performance he would like to have given. Overall there is a high appreciation of his talent, skill and commitment among those who played with him and they have a high respect for his achievements.
West Tipperary G.A.A. by J.J. Kennedy. Pub. by West Tipperary G.A.A. Board, 2001, pp 396-397