More than a game for Kilkenny’s finest

Croke Cup Final preview

More than a game for Kilkenny’s finest

“All or nothing...

At stake today is silverware, the glory and bragging rights for ever and a day

Step inside the front door of Kilkenny CBS and the visitor is greeted on the left by a little shrine. High up on the wall is an immense colour photo of the team that won the 1981 All-Ireland colleges final.

Below it is a framed copy of the match report in the Kilkenny People, the handiwork of John Knox at his most awesomely alliterative. “Fantastic first for flashy CBS,” reads the headline over the account of the 3-5 to 1-8 victory over North Mon at Walsh Park.

It was the school’s biggest day ever, one they cherish all the more because there’s never been another. In the intervening three decades Kilkenny CBS, the alma mater of such fabled stylists as Jim Langton and Seán Clohosey, have reached four more All-Ireland finals and lost each one. They’ve tried again and they’ve failed again and sometimes, as when running De La Salle of Waterford to a point in 2007, they’ve failed better, but that wasn’t any consolation at the time and it isn’t any consolation now. And today they’ll try once more against a bunch that specialise in winning All-Ireland finals when they reach them.

One of the schools on show at Nowlan Park this evening has won the last two Leinster titles. One of them is contesting a third consecutive national decider. One of them captured the All-Ireland junior crown last Saturday in Dungarvan. One of them is experiencing nothing less than a golden era for hurling within its walls: the school with the humble but glorious one All-Ireland to its name as opposed to the school that leads the roll of honour with 18.

What better way to atone for losing the last two All-Irelands than by beating those lads from two streets away? It would be the sweetest victory imaginable for the CBS — and, in view of their win against the same opponents in the provincial showdown four weeks ago, the most painful loss possible.

To outsiders, the first all-Kilkenny All Ireland post-primary ‘A’ final may be nothing more than a domestic Noreside squabble, but didn’t Homer fashion the Iliad from such a local row?

Tradition matters in Gaelic games. Yet modern tradition matters too and the CBS have, unprecedentedly, beaten St Kieran’s in the last two Leinster finals. The bookies go 10/11 the CBS and 11/10 their opponents, which is perfectly pitched. It’s one apiece this season so far: victory for St Kieran’s in the provincial league decider before Christmas, victory for the James’s Street outfit — “redrafted a good bit” in the interim, their selector Ger Morrissey points out — in the provincial championship final four weeks ago.

At stake today is the silverware, the glory and bragging rights for ever and a day.

Against Nenagh CBS in the 2012 All-Ireland final Kilkenny CBS were too young, many of them still transition years. Against Dungarvan Colleges last year they were too light; the disparity in strength was, says the CBS principal Tom Clarke, “enormous”. This year they’re just right: strong enough, experienced enough and the hardcore of the team right on the age.

It is, adds Clarke, who hails from near Templemore, a “fantastic tribute to Kilkenny hurling that you have two schools in the All-Ireland final and an indication of the work being done on the ground. The rivalry adds to the occasion and adds to the incentive.”

If a black and amber final was bound to happen sooner or later, this evening’s showpiece is not simply an inevitable and overdue collision of two hurling-mad establishments blessed with enviable depth of playing resources. (For the record, both the CBS and St Kieran’s field Gaelic football teams at provincial junior and juvenile level). What Clarke says next is worth recording, repeating and relaying. He has taught in secondary schools in hurling counties before. He has never taught in one where such practical support was supplied by the local county board.

“The help that’s given to teachers by Ned Quinn and the Kilkenny county board, the recognition — it’s terrific. They’re not just paying lip service. Absolutely not. They want to help and they do. They acknowledge the work that’s being done on the ground and this helps to make a real difference.”

To put it another way, the Kilkenny County Board recognise that secondary schools are not islands. Does every other county board do likewise? There is no single answer to the question of how the CBS, who have broken new ground by putting Leinster titles back to back for the first time, have attained their current eminence. Certainly the school has, acknowledges Morrissey, a staff member since 2002, “become more attractive” for aspiring players. “We’re getting a better quality of hurler than 10 years ago and in the last few years we’ve put aside any fear factor or hoodoo. In my time here it’s never been an issue.”

Tom Clarke counts 12 teachers involved at various levels with the school teams and takes care to mention former staffers like Seán Breathnach, Tom Keane and Mick O’Flynn, who helped keep the game going during times when, whatever about popularity, profitability was rarely a given.

Two members of the current management team — Matthew Ruth, a Kilkenny senior panellist last year, and Brian Tyrrell — are former pupils. The third member, Morrissey, knows what today is all about too, having played in the 1983 Leinster final, another all-city affair. For the other crowd.

The CBS would be popular winners locally, not least because 12 of the outfit that started the semi-final hailed from the three city clubs (Dicksboro, James Stephens and O’Loughlins). But Kieran’s overturned the Harty Cup winners Ardscoil Rís in the other semi-final, have momentum and are endowed with the schools’ equivalent of race memory: a decades-long tradition of producing performances that matter on the day that matters most. Ranged against this is the small matter of the CBS’s modern tradition; the fact that they’ve seen off St Kieran’s in successive Leinster finals; and Ger Morrissey’s contention that any fear factor has long since evaporated.

Although it would take a heart of stone not to wish the maroon and gold well, goodwill alone will not suffice. A third of a century on from their greatest day, it’s time Kilkenny CBS built a new shrine.

(PROBABLE TEAMS) KILKENNY CBS: D Holohan; K Galvin, C McGrath, C Doheny; G Bryan, E Cody, P Deegan; N Mullins, JP Treacy; H Lawlor, L Scanlon, A Gaffney; R Buckley, J Byrne, R Murphy.

ST KIERAN’S: J Barcoe; M Cody, T Walsh, J Keoghan; J Cleere, D Mullen, E Walsh; K Blanchfield, J Maher; J Byrne, L Blanchfield, B Cody; C Murphy, C O’Carroll, T O’Dwyer.

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