Top-class coaches ready to face off

IN 1989 and 1991, under Babs Keating, Tipperary won the All-Ireland senior hurling title.

In 1990, under Justin McCarthy, Cashel King Cormac’s won the West Tipperary senior hurling title, reached the Tipperary county senior hurling final, and won the All-Ireland title the following year for the only time in their history.

With Tipp back in something like the hurling doldrums from which he rescued them in 89, the call again went out to Babs, and he’s back at the helm in the Premier county. In the meantime, in 2002, McCarthy guided Waterford to their first Munster title in nearly 40 years, repeated that achievement two years later and now seeks to lead them to that final peak, an All-Ireland title.

Pivotal to both Tipp and Cashel back in the days was centre-forward/full-forward Cormac Bonnar, the Viking. This puts him in a unique sort of position to assess the qualities of the two most high-profile managers in hurling, two charismatic figures whose teams go head-to-head in Páirc Uí Chaoimh tomorrow in the semi-final of the Munster senior hurling championship.

“You’re putting me on a right spot!” laughs Bonnar, now a teacher based in Killarney.

“That’s a hard one. I was privileged to have been coached by both. Babs came first. I was lucky to be on that Tipperary team at all. I didn’t play my first full game of championship hurling until I was over 30 years of age. I had played championship prior to that, but never a full game; that was against Waterford, in 1989, in the Munster final when I had just turned 30.”

That was the year of the big breakthrough, when Tipp went on to win the All-Ireland. So, what was it like, under Babs?

“Everyone talks of the manager, but they’re just the ones to face the media. They always have a good background team and that was the case with both Babs and Justin. Babs was one of a trio — Donie Nealon and Theo English were also heavily involved. Then there was Phil Conway, the former international field athlete. A very charismatic person, he did fantastic work with that team. He didn’t just have us in superb physical condition, he also had us prepared mentally.

“We went into the 1988 All-Ireland final as little boys, Galway tossed us aside, and fair dues to them. But Phil changed that. For a man coming in from a different sport he did a tremendous job. It’s very hard to say one person was responsible for everything. Any good leader will realise, ‘I can’t do everything, so let’s get in the best people to do it.’ Babs did that.”

Nevertheless, Babs had his philosophy and put his mark on the team.

“He did. Babs was probably one of the most skilful hurlers of his time, and skill is what he always wanted to bring out in his players. Then there was the way we played and the discipline. Babs impressed on us that we should all be role models; the parents who watched Tipperary wanted to be able to say, ‘I want my son to be like that.’ He wanted us to be role models, good role models, for future generations.”

And Justin?

“Justin was a different type. He got involved in coaching at a very young life. He had a mission in life, a hurling mission. He didn’t just coach hurling, he was immersed in it; he had a wonderful charisma. He brought a different style of training. I loved the camaraderie, he built up the self-esteem of individuals, of every single player, he had fellas fighting for each other like never before. He didn’t just get us thinking bigger, he got us believing in ourselves.

“We got to a county final in 1990 and were beaten. But he made us take the open-bus tour around the town anyway, around the Rock. And that really drove it home. It reminded me of 1988 when Tipp came home to Thurles having lost the All-Ireland final; I remember standing beside Donie O’Connell, looking at the crowd that had gathered in the square. Donie said later that’s what drove us all to come back and win it the following year. It was the very same in Cashel. It was a shocking wet night in 1990, we’d lost, but people still came out to see us, and that was the affection that was there from our own people. It was a lonesome trip; when you lose you have nothing to celebrate, but here we were driving around, in the cold and the rain, with nothing to show. You felt you’d left people down.

“Definitely that had an impact; some lads were thinking of retiring, but not after that. I can’t give enough credit to Justin for what he did in Cashel. I’m indebted to him for the rest of my life for what he did for me and my hurling. He’s a Corkman, but I got on very well with him. Mind you, I also got on well with Babs, Donie, Theo, I have great regard for them all.”

But which of the two will be smiling on Sunday evening? “The game against Limerick will really have brought on Tipp. We’ve always found it hard to get over Limerick. Every championship match is 50/50, but Waterford are not at full strength and that will probably be a spur for them.

“But I would see Tipp being that little bit stronger.”

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