'I'm always a proud Russell Rovers man, even in the dark days'

Half an hour or so after Russell Rovers' defeat at Croke Park, Michael Mannion was still struggling to find the right words to explain it all away.

'I'm always a proud Russell Rovers man, even in the dark days'

[team1]Conahy Shamrocks[/team1][score1]0-22[/score1][team2]Russell Rovers[/team2][score2]0-15[/score2][/score]

Half an hour or so after Russell Rovers' defeat at Croke Park, Michael Mannion was still struggling to find the right words to explain it all away.

"I'm normally lost for words after winning games," the manager smiled as the songs and celebrations from the Conahy Shamrocks dressing-room echoed down the corridor beneath the Cusack Stand.

"Look, I'm 100 per cent proud, I'm always a proud Russell Rovers man, even in the dark days."

It felt like a dark day for the east-Cork club for sure but then one look at the logo on their jerseys - Pieta House and the hotline number for the suicide prevention group - put it all back into context.

The bottom line was Conahy Shamrocks deserved their success, the second time they've won the junior All-Ireland, and Mannion couldn't dispute that.

Playing to a typical Kilkenny style of hunting in packs, beginning defence in attack and squeezing the life out of the Cork champions, they led virtually from pillar to post.

Several of their starters including Davy Healy and Brian Healy, who formed the central spine of their defence, also played in 2008 when they beat Moyle Rovers.

Kieran Mooney top scored that day and returned to GAA Headquarters with number 14 on his back, helping himself to four points from play.

Former GAA President Nickey Brennan presented the cup to Eoin Murphy in 2008, a Conahy Shamrocks clubmate, and Brennan brushed away tears at full-time on Saturday, this time looking on from the Hogan Stand press area.

He watched James Bergin give a masterclass of attacking play for the north-Kilkenny club, scoring 0-12 and ultimately bringing his class to bear on the junior grade.

A Leinster U20 medallist last year, the corner-forward and captain will surely come onto the Kilkenny senior radar this year while Tom Phelan at wing-forward displayed an ability to play at a higher level too.

The great irony, of course, is that while Russell Rovers will advance to the intermediate grade, Conahy Shamrocks will return for another year of junior hurling in Kilkenny. That's because they didn't actually win the 2019 junior title, only advancing out of the county due to O'Loughlin Gaels winning the lower grade with their second team.

"Unfortunately for us we have to go back into junior hurling in Kilkenny now and it's very strong, there's nothing guaranteed for us," said Shamrocks manager Paul Buggy, a player himself back in 2008.

"It's testament to the strength of hurling in Kilkenny that we're not junior champions. But we've no regrets, O'Loughlins beat us fair and square that day, if we hadn't learned from that defeat we might not be here in this position now."

Based in Shanagarry and drawing players from Churchtown South, Ballycotton and Garryvoe, it sounded like all of those areas had emptied out and made their way to Croke Park. Every positive action, even a hook, block or turnover, was greeted with huge applause. It was the same for neighbours Fr O'Neill's in the intermediate final with plenty of cross-club support.

Russell Rovers were hamstrung by the loss of four players from last year's team with serious knee injuries and while Josh Beausang started well, they would lose their leading scorer to injury by half-time, a critical development. It was the full-forward who scored Russell Rovers' first point in the sixth minute, contorting his body and shooting back over his shoulder while running away from goal at the Canal End. He added four more points from placed balls before aggravating the shoulder injury that had kept him out of the semi-final win over Micheal Breathnach.

"We always knew it was a possibility with a dislocated shoulder that it could go at any stage," said Mannion of Beausang's setback.

"It would have been more disappointing if he didn't tog out because he basically got us here in the east Cork championship and so on. But it was a big blow to lose a player like that, just before half-time when you know you're going to need scores in the second-half."

Adding insult to injury, Conahy began the second-half with three points in a row, from Mooney and Bergin, and outscored Russell Rovers by 0-6 to 0-1 in total in the minutes either side of the interval. It meant that having fought back from a slow start to be just two points behind after 21 minutes, Russell Rovers went in trailing 0-11 to 0-7 at half-time and by seven early in the second-half.

The closest they got to a hard-working Conahy side that maintained a high intensity throughout was six points. The margin was out to nine points late on as Buggy's men largely controlled proceedings.

"Another day, Russell Rovers could have been a bit slicker," said Buggy. "And you have to accept that they lost one of their best players. That said, I think we were handling Josh before he came off. He's a fantastic hurler but I'd like to think the result would have been the same.

"Admittedly, for any junior club to lose one of their best players is not easy. It's very hard to recover and they won't be like for like substitutes but we felt we played to our game plan, we stuck at it and we played for 62, 63 minutes and we're happy, very happy."

Bergin scored eight of his 12 points from frees though gave an indication of his ability early on when he fielded superbly, winning a free that he converted to make it 0-7 to 0-2. His back to back points from play in the final quarter, one from way out on the right and the other under pressure from a clutch of Russell Rovers players, were the standout moments.

Scorers for Conahy Shamrocks: J Bergin (0-12, 8 frees); K Mooney (0-4); D Brennan (0-2); B Murphy, E Cahill, T Phelan and E Delaney (0-1 each).

Scorers for Russell Rovers: J Beausang (0-5, 1 65); B Hartnett (0-4, 2 frees); L Duggan Murray (0-2); D O'Brien, R Walsh (1 free), D Moynihan (1 free) and K Walsh (0-1 each).

CONAHY SHAMROCKS: P Delaney; L Cass, D Healy, S Callinan; D Cuddihy, B Healy, E Carroll; D Brennan, E Delaney; E Cahill, J Mullan, T Phelan; J Bergin, K Mooney, B Murphy.

Subs: A Healy for Cuddihy (48); T Rice for Cahill (60); T Nolan for Murphy (62).

RUSSELL ROVERS: R Walsh; K O'Brien, E O'Sullivan, P Lane; C Ruddy, JP Ivers, J Kennifick; K Tattan, K Walsh; J McGrath, L Duggan Murray, D Moynihan; K Moynihan, J Beausang, B Hartnett.

Sub: D O'Brien for Beausang (30+2).

Ref: S Stack (Dublin).

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