Does tomorrow’s Leinster final between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Naomh Moling count as a local derby?
By road, there are about 20 miles between the village of Ballyhale and the village of St Mullins. A straight line, a bird’s line? Scarcely 15 miles. Yet the two places would not see, ordinary course of events, much interaction. All the more reason to welcome the unusual turn of events that made this Leinster final.
Parishes can be close without proximity. Pat Coady recognises the bridge: “People talk about hurling outposts… We are genuinely completely consumed by hurling in St Mullins. There’s hardly anything else, and I’d imagine Ballyhale is the exact same.
Coady is one of Carlow’s finest hurlers. Born on January 25, 1975, he featured at all inter-county levels, was awarded a second tier All-Star in 2005 and 2006, and remains the county’s highest scorer of all time. This man won five senior titles with Naomh Moling.
His age frames tomorrow’s opponents in a certain light. As Coady explains: “I grew up with the old Shamrocks team, their first great team that won so much in the 1970s and the 1980s, the Fennellys and Maurice Mason and all the rest. Ballyhale were the kingpins, and had the All-Irelands to prove it.
“I can remember as a young lad, in our previous pitch, a farmer’s field over in Coolyhune, St Mullins playing Ballyhale in a practice match in the mid 1980s. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less about the St Mullins lads, to be honest! I went over and went standing in the middle of the Ballyhale team talk at half-time, looking at all the Fennellys, looking at the Adidas boots they had from being with the county.”
St Mullins and environs is a small parish. Even so, the place contains different affiliations. Coady glosses this dynamic: “There’d be certain parts of St Mullins, maybe a majority of it, with a leaning towards the Wexford side of things, because of the boundary with Rathnure. And a lot of our lads, in the lower part of the parish, go into New Ross for secondary school. But I would always have been leaning towards Kilkenny, after growing up in the northern end of the parish.
“The first time I ever set foot in Croke Park was for the 1982 All-Ireland final, when my father lifted me over the turnstiles. That was the Noel Skehan final, where he kept Cork out on his own. I can still see Brian Cody’s solo run down the Hogan Stand side of the field, hopping the ball on the ground, and going on again. Ger Fennelly and Liam Fennelly were massive at the time. We admired them, up my end.”
Twenty miles away, Willie Coogan offers informed perspective. A member of the Ballyhale Shamrocks senior panel that won County, Leinster and All-Ireland honours during the 2006 season, he managed Naomh Moling in 2018. Pat Coady acted as one of his selectors. Twelve months ago, their lot was defeat to Mount Leinster Rangers in the senior final.
Coogan remains emphatic in his admiration. “They’re obviously a club that take a bit of pride in themselves. They have the place well set up down there. They’ve basically renovated a dressingroom into a gym. They have a flood-lit pitch and indoor facilities, a weights room. St Mullins actually have a strength and conditioning coach in the club, a guy who’s qualified and gives the players individual programmes.”
Each hurling county faces challenges specific to the lie of its land. As Coogan details: “There are only the four teams at senior in Carlow, and they know each other so well. Too well, maybe. People get to know each other quite easily because they’re playing each other so regularly.
“In terms of having a definite style of play, you can’t really maintain it. You can’t maintain the same style of play over the long term in Carlow, really, because people will counteract and then it gets dumped. Whereas Kilkenny have 12 senior clubs. Ballyhale could go for years without meeting a specific club in league or championship.”
Coogan likewise appreciates the difficulties inherent in so restricted a pool of hurlers: “Early on in the year, last year, getting numbers to the field was quite difficult. Your better players aren’t there. Carlow went on an extended run, won the Joe McDonagh Cup and reached an All-Ireland quarter-final.
“So we didn’t, at club level, have as much time together as we would have liked, in the lead up to the championship. It took a while before you had numbers in the field, while you were trying to get a gameplan up and running. When you’re not working with the players who eventually will be playing, it’s difficult.”
He continues: “It’s like any other club with a lot of county candidates. You don’t see those players regularly. In Carlow, you have so few clubs feeding into the county hurlers. The majority of your stronger players are going to be gone to a county team of some description, be it U21 or senior.”
art of Naomh Moling’s current success probably lies in the whole panel training together over an extended period. Coogan feels general opinion underestimates their chances: “The bookies have St Mullins written off for this weekend, but they had Borris-Ileigh written off for last weekend, and they still won. At the end of the day, it’s a two horse race, a 50:50 game.
“On a given afternoon, conditions can be a great leveller. A sending-off or a bad refereeing decision or a break in play, all of them can be a great leveller. Teams can gain or lose momentum. St Mullins were far from favourites to beat Cuala, and they still managed it.”
He notes Naomh Moling’s pedigree in their four most recent games: “They came back from the dead in their Carlow semi-final with Ballinkillen, to get a draw and win in extra time. Kicked on then. Won the county final by a point. Beat Cuala by a point. Beat Rathdowney-Errill by a point.
“Ever since then, they’ve been really spirited. They’re totally pulling together. That crucial work ethic is there with them. St Mullins are used to being in tight scrapes, and to coming out the right side of them now. That’s always a fine sign of a team.”
Coogan highlights the central channels: “The big test will come on the like of James Doyle and [Martin] ‘Mouse’ Kavanagh, when they’re matching up against Michael Fennelly and Joey Holden. If those two were held, a lot of St Mullins’ firepower is tied up. Ger Coady is going to have his hands full at half back with TJ [Reid]. Paul Doyle at full back is going to have his hands full, whether it’s Colin [Fennelly] or Eoin Cody in there.
“They are the four standout battles. The team that starts winning those will be the team that’ll probably come out on top. Those match-ups make games, and are the reason people come in the gate to see a game. Inter-county hurlers marking inter-county hurlers in a club context… People love those battles.”
Pat Coady concurs on the importance of individual contests: “How do you answer the TJ question? Do you say ‘let him off, he’s going to score 12 or 13 points anyway’? Do you try and nullify him with a man marker? Could Ger Coady, who’s an athletic player and mad for action, do that job?
“But I always think TJ doesn’t rely on speed per se. It’s speed of thought, speed of hand. He just has that genius. I reckon TJ could still be hurling, at club level, nearly as good as he is now when he’s 40, because TJ doesn’t blitz anyone with pure speed. It’s his touch and his vision, the way he always finds the right option.”
Still, he detects glimmers in Naomh Moling’s current approach: “The team seems to be more confident in their own ability and in their teammates’ ability. That’s one thing ‘Mouse’ Kavanagh has, as well as TJ, the ability to see a pass.
“Our lads are moving well as a unit. You can see they’re really enjoying this run. There’s a camaraderie and a togetherness there.
“I think the older lads on the team are coming to the realisation that they’d better be getting the best out of it while they’re still able to be there.”