Munster Final 1951: 'If that's Christy Ring's hurley, Ring isn’t coming in for it'

Munster Final 1951: 'If that's Christy Ring's hurley, Ring isn’t coming in for it'
John Doyle is congratulated after the 1951 Munster Hurling Final

This extract from the John Doyle biography — 'Doyle, The Greatest Hurling Story Ever Told' by John Harrington — covers the 1951 Munster final between Tipperary and Cork, regarded as one of the greatest ever games.

The stewards in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness and they were showing just why.

Whenever a skirmish broke out in the crowd or a knot of supporters attempted to force their way onto the pitch, order was quickly restored by any means necessary.

The stadium was already wedged to capacity a full two hours before the match was due to start leaving thousands more locked outside. Only those who had been willing to queue up for four or more hours before throw-in managed to make it through the turnstiles.

The authorities in Limerick were determined there wouldn’t be a repeat of the lawless scenes that had been witnessed in Killarney the previous year, but the fans locked outside weren’t about to accept their fate meekly either.

An organized charge at one of the gates sent it flying open and a desperate surge of supporters began forcing their way into the ground.

The stadium announcer called for reinforcements and dozens of stewards immediately rushed to fill the breech. Fists flew and heads were cracked until eventually the hard-pressed stewards managed to force the gate shut again.

The stewards were so zealous that even some members of the press struggled to gain admittance to the stadium.

One only made it past the gauntlet when he persuaded the Order of Malta to pretend he was one of their first-aid men, while another successfully masqueraded as a member of a fife and drum band.

One concession was made to the disappointed fans who were refused admission. The stadium’s loudspeakers were turned outwards and a commentary of the match was relayed to those camped outside the grounds.

Little of it was heard though such was the thunderous noise coming from inside the stadium as the combatants earned sustained volleys of throaty roars.

Eventually it all became too much for one frustrated fan outside the ground who flung the bottle of stout he was drinking over the perimeter wall in disgust.

Had he known what became of it, he probably would have been pleased with himself. It struck neither friend nor foe, but a Clare man by the name of Martin Moloney who was surely punished by the Gods for taking a seat that could have been filled by a Tipp or Cork fan.

The unfortunate Mr. Moloney had to be taken to Barrington’s hospital to have six stitches applied to the wound on his forehead. His humour surely wasn’t helped by the fact that he missed one of the greatest ever games of hurling.

It was Christy Ring’s finest hour in the blood and bandages of Cork, but even his heroics weren’t enough to lower Tipp’s colours. Ring was irresistible, but the Tipperary full-back line of Doyle, Brennan and Byrne also chose the day to produce their most defiant performance.

Even their stubborn resistance didn’t look like it would be enough to save their team though such was the pace with which Cork began the match.

Ring started at midfield rather than in his usual wing-forward berth and in the opening quarter of the match seemed to be constantly involved in the play.

He was winning hard ball, jinking and juking his way through the Tipperary defence with those swivel-hipped runs and lashing in shots from all angles.

Against any other team he would have scored a couple of goals in the first half alone, but once again Tony Reddin’s unnatural agility was breaking his heart.

He might have been keeping Ring at bay, but the goalkeeper was finally bested by a scorcher from Tom Crotty that put Cork 1-4 to 0-5 ahead.

A desperate rearguard action from the Tipp full-backs and some typically opportunistic scores from Paddy Kenny were keeping Tipperary in touch, but it was obvious that if something wasn’t done soon about Ring there would be only one outcome.

Tommy Doyle decided he was the only man for the job. He raced over to the sideline to volunteer himself for the thankless task, but Paddy Leahy informed him action had already been taken. Mick Ryan would move from centre-forward to midfield and pick up Ring.

Leahy made the call despite not getting the full-backing of all of his fellow selectors who wondered loudly how a natural forward like Ryan could possibly contain Ring.

It was clear to Leahy though that no man could possibly hold Ring on this day if the tenacious Seamus Bannon couldn’t, so the only solution was to distract him instead.

Ryan was a skilful hurler who was capable of making and creating scores, and Leahy reckoned that attack was the best form of defence. Ring mightn’t be so inclined to roam and run forward if he was leaving a man free who was capable of hurting the Cork defence.

The ploy worked a treat. Ring’s overwhelming mastery of the match waned as he was forced to track the elusive Ryan rather that concentrate solely on his own attacking schemes.

Ring was still at the heart of most of Cork’s best moves, but Ryan was also hurling a lot of ball and would ultimately play a crucial role in the winning of the match.

The growing influence of Phil Shanahan in the Tipperary midfield also helped level the balance of power. Nicknamed ‘The Gorgeous Gael’, Shanahan was a handsome man and so was his brand of hurling.

He had a stylish, sweeping stroke that enabled him to land points from distance, and two typically sweet strikes brought Tipperary level. They moved two points clear by half-time, but neither Ring nor Cork were finished yet.

Early in the second half they won a free 30 yards from the Tipperary goal. This was Ringy territory.

Running at the ball in a straight line he scooped it forward a good five yards without breaking stride before launching himself at the sliotar like a human sling-shot.

A mixture of hopeful anticipation and dread silenced the crowd as he started his run and when ash met leather a resounding THWACK echoed clearly around the stadium.

Reddin must have been the only man who saw the ball in flight because no-one else on the goal-line moved. Even his supernatural reflexes weren’t quick enough though. He got the tip of his hurley to the ball but that wasn’t enough to prevent it ricocheting past him into the net.

“Doubta Ringey Boy!” roared the Cork fans as the Gaelic Grounds erupted in acclamation of the strike.

When two more Cork points from Ring and Willie John Daly put Cork three ahead Tipp were teetering on the brink, but Paddy Leahy had another trick up his sleeve.

The order went out to the six forwards to begin swapping positions incessantly, and with the confused Cork defenders pulled this way and that, Tipp made the most of the space that was created by scoring two quick-fire goals.

Mick Ryan had a hand in both. A smart pass set up Ned Ryan for the first, and then Sonny Maher scored the second when Ryan’s attempted point was blocked down into his path by Cork goalkeeper Jim Cotter.

Tipp were three points ahead, but during the final seven minutes of normal time and another seven of extra-time Cork applied ceaseless pressure.

Two pointed frees from Ring closed the gap to the minimum and still Cork kept pressing. They nearly surged ahead when Ring unleashed a stinging ground-stroke, but the ever-alert Reddin saved.

As he cleared the ball a hurley flashed past his head like a tomahawk and ended in the back of the Tipperary net.

“Whose hurley is that?” demanded Reddin. “It’s Ring’s isn’t it?” 

“Ah Jaysus Reddin, don’t do anything with it now,” said Tony Brennan.

“I’m not going to do anything to it, but Ring isn’t coming in for it. This is my goal, and he’s not coming past me.” 

Ring didn’t force the issue. He must have known by the look in Reddin’s eyes it would have been a fruitless venture so he made do with a replacement hurley that was thrown in from the sideline.

A couple of minutes later the umpire beckoned over Reddin. “Tony, there’s a Cork County board man here who wants Ring’s hurley.” 

The goalkeeper didn’t even turn around to see where the request had come from. “Tell him he’ll have to wait until after the game.” 

With time almost up, Cork had a chance to equalise when they won another free, but Ring struck it wide with his new, unfamiliar hurley. Reddin belted the puckout down the field and Paddy Kenny clipped over a point that edged Tipp two clear.

Cork summoned one last charge. In the seventh minute of injury-time they won a free in the middle of the pitch. The only option was to float it in and hope the sliotar could be doubled to the net.

Christy Ring, Willie John Daly and Tom Crotty lined up on the 21-yard line. Facing them stood Doyle, Brennan and Byrne on the edge of the small square, their knuckles whitening as they tensed their bodies for the test to come.

As soon as the free was struck the Corkmen charged and the Tipp defenders rushed to meet them. Red and blue jersies crashed into one another in an almighty collision of flesh, ash and bone.

When the sliotar dropped from the heavens, it landed in the midst of a ruck of flashing timber and straining limbs as the stadium trembled to the half-mad roars of 43,000 souls.

Men swung hurleys like they were scything corn, and the sliotar spun this way and that off sticks and shins.

Time seemed to slow down as everyone waited for the decisive stroke. After a couple of seconds of frenzied chaos it finally came when the ball was spat over the end line by a splintering clash of hurleys.

A waving pair of white arms signalled a wide, Cork’s defeat and Tipperary’s third Munster title in a row.

One of the greatest hurlers, John Doyle won eight All-Ireland senior medals with Tipperary. This biography Doyle, The Greatest Hurling Story Ever Told by John Harrington tells the story of his career and also the building of the most feared full-back line in the history of hurling – the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. It was published in 2011 by Irish Sports Publishing.

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