'Two refs, no frees yet, it must be history' - Irish sport greats line out for return of all-star game

A star-studded cast lined out for the Hurling for Cancer Research event this evening. 
'Two refs, no frees yet, it must be history' - Irish sport greats line out for return of all-star game

FIRE BURNING: Brian Cody, manager of Davy Russell's Best, with selector Ursula Jacob.
Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It has become to sound a bit twee now though it remains an important symbol of sticking it to the man but Newbridge Or Nowhere is now immortalised in a mural just outside St Conleth’s Park but last night, there wasn’t anywhere else a lot of people wanted to be.

It was hurling with a difference because it was Hurling For Cancer Research. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of its inauguration, the concept has raised in excess of €1.2m for cancer research services.

The vast majority of that figure has come through the turnstiles, or at least through tickets sold but organisers had to be creative in the past two years, auctioning valuable lots and selling vintage jerseys.

But this has always been a social event and having the crowds back in the stands and on the pitch was Hurling For Cancer in a nutshell.

Cancer is ubiquitous and there aren’t many who haven’t felt it’s icy grip, directly or otherwise. To take it on in a communal event feels right.

GAA and horse racing are heavily linked, the twin pursuits of rural folk in particular, though not exclusively of course.

Thus it was a racing man who thought up Hurling For Cancer and venerable trainer, Jim Bolger is a GAA man too. More than that, he is a Wexford GAA man.

You need a rival to make a match and for him, given Wexford had such memorable clashes with Cork in the 1954 and 1956 All-Ireland finals, which were won in order, by the Rebels and the Yellowbellies respectively, he considered jockey Davy Russell a suitable and likeminded joint headline act. And so we had Jim Bolger’s Stars v Davy Russell’s Best.

Bolger played in goals in the inaugural game. Now 80, he is entitled to pass on those duties to Damien Fitzhenry.

OOH-AAH: Paul McGrath throws in the ball.
OOH-AAH: Paul McGrath throws in the ball.

Russell was still at it last night, though starting now at corner-back rather than at midfield, as he was a decade ago. With a fellow Youghal man, Brendan Coleman on the Cork selection committee, his dream of wearing red somewhere other than here or on a race track might still be alive.

Because of the split season, we had the most illustrious affair ever, though Brian Cody’s appearance on the line as boss of DRB has never been impacted by that, even if commentator Ger Canning noted that that the great man was essentially achieving a lifetime ambition of managing a team from Cork.

He was there in Year One and whether Kilkenny were involved in a few days or not, he was there every other year, pandemic allowing. The only reason Ursula Jacob was by his side rather than on the pitch, is that she is expecting her first child. Classic-winning jockey Shane Foley was their second selector. He was there for everyone’s safety.

Liam Griffin has been the omnipresent JBS manager, his beatific status assured by ‘96. He had new Tipp supremo Liam Cahill as one of his lieutenants. Dave Bernie (Wexford) was another. Bolger was making sure he would be a part of the brains trust too.

The bonus of the split season was the sight of Limerick contingent Dan Morrissey, Kyle Hayes (Griffin et al notably selecting him at wing-back rather than the attack – take note John Kiely), Darragh O’Donovan and Tom Morrissey, as well as Kilkenny crew Richie Reid, Adrian Mullen, TJ Reid, Miriam Walsh and Richie Hogan, all lining out for JBS. Walter Walsh, Padraig Walsh and Eoin Cody were on the bench. Bolger is one cute hoor.

Not that the opposition were light. Russell was in his element lining out alongside fellow Rebels Darragh Fitzgibbon, Tim O’Mahony, Ashling Thompson and Patrick Horgan, as well as Wexford’s Lee Chin and Matthew O’Hanlon, Clare’s Peter Duggan and Ryan Taylor and… The Two Johnnies. Waterford ace Dessie Hutchinson was being kept in reserve along with Laois sharpshooter Cha Dwyer.

And then you had the legends of yore: JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Jackie Tyrell, Paul Murphy, Eddie Brennan (Kilkenny), TJ Ryan (Limerick), Brendan Cummins (Tipperary), Ollie Canning (Galway) and Larry O’Gorman and Martin Storey (Wexford). Among others.

Ooh Ah Paul McGrath was there also, along with Niall ‘The Mighty’ Quinn, Sonia O’Sullivan, as well as racing royalty umpires Rachael Blackmore, Ted Walsh and his daughter-in-law, the dancing queen Nina Carberry, local legend Willie McCreery, Kevin Manning and David Mullins.

Yep. A who’s who.

MIRIAM MEETS: RTÉ's Miriam O’Callaghan with Brian Cody.
MIRIAM MEETS: RTÉ's Miriam O’Callaghan with Brian Cody.

There were many interesting clashes but we’d be lying if we didn’t say we weren’t looking forward to any 50-50 involving Thompson and O’Donovan, who are going out with one another. Thompson struck first blood – on the scoresheet at least.

How serious was it? Not a bit, though one always remembers the steam rising from Russell when Cody took him off late on one year. Nature of the beast.

“You’ll see what I told them in a minute,” said Cody beforehand. “Davy Russell has them ready.” Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Cyril Farrell ‘refereed’.

“We told them there were no red cards and no black cards, so they can do what they like,” revealed Farrell.

“Cyril is the senior man of the operation, he’ll call the shots,” deferred a smiling JBM, who I swear to God (yes, JBM himself), that he should have been togged and would cause wreck if he did so. The way he stood in the middle with arms folded could be presented as a strong counterpoint though.

Damn skippy, it’s craic.

JUMP BOYS: Davy Russell leads out his team. Picture: INPHO/Ben Brady
JUMP BOYS: Davy Russell leads out his team. Picture: INPHO/Ben Brady

“We’ve two refs and no frees yet, it must be history,” co-commentator Michael Duignan pointed out.

“You’d nearly want to be on RIP.ie to get a free here,” agreed Ger Canning alongside him.

To be fair, you saw dirtier strokes as Milltown and Round Towers’ 7s, 8s and 9s took to the field at half-time. Closer marking too.

STATSports noted Thompson had covered most ground at 3.4k in the opening period. Jamie Codd, one of the greatest amateur jockeys of all time was just behind and he clocked the maximum speed at 3.5m per second. There were no stats for the slowest or least active.

At that juncture, JBS were ahead by 6-7 to 2-10 and though Davy’s mob gave it a right rattle after the resumption, they fell just short by 9-13 to 8-15, before the throngs flooded the pitch. It was like Newbridge Or Nowhere all over again.

“I’d like to thank all the players for coming, and a lot of them came from distance, and also everyone who came here this evening. It’s a very worthy cause and it’s very appreciated,” said Bolger.

And so say all of us.

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