St Colman’s take on Our Lady’s, Templemore in the Harty Cup final today, a contest which has launched a thousand inter-county careers.
Does it still have that cachet? James Barry won an All-Ireland with Tipperary last year to go with his Harty Cup medal with Thurles CBS in 2009. It’s a good indicator of the hurling health in a county, he says: “Absolutely, we’d be happy with any Tipperary school doing well — Nenagh won it a couple of years ago, Templemore now, as long as you have a Tipp school involved you feel things are going well. You’d like it to be your own school, but if Tipp teams are going well you can expect lads to come through onto the minor and U21 teams and then onto the senior team.
“In my time, Noel McGrath was the main man with Templemore, for instance, so you knew he’d be coming onto the county minor team and so on.”
Seven years before winning an All-Ireland senior medal with Cork, Fergal McCormack featured in a St Colman’s side which won the 1992 Harty Cup. He feels it prepares players well for inter-county minor competition by pitting them against opponents they mightn’t encounter otherwise: “It’s the cream of the crop when you get to the latter stages of the competition. You’re talking about lads who will play county minor and in some cases who have played county minor already, it’s a good calibre of player.
“From my own days and watching it since, it’s fair to say it’s a big step. Colman’s is a hotbed because it’s drawing from St Catherine’s, Castlelyons, Bride Rovers, all of them hurling-mad.
“They mightn’t all be senior clubs but hurling is very strong in all those places, and if you’re making your name with a school representing those places, the next step is county minor and U21. Fellas always know the names, lads who are playing hurling are into it and follow the papers and know the names. In my own time, I remember playing Templemore in 1992 and I was marking Terry Dunne, a brother of Tommy. You’d know who lads were, even if it’s a different proposition to playing against lads you knew playing with your club.
“Different fields, different players — they’re great tests, and if you can come out and do well there it’s a great stepping stone. I certainly enjoyed it myself and found it a great learning experience as a player, great preparation for the next step.”
Barry agrees, particularly when it comes to encountering different styles of play.
“When we were playing, a lot of the Cork colleges teams were playing a similar style to the Cork senior team with the two O’Connors and so on, that would have been filtering down to schools teams — the same nowadays with the Waterford colleges sides, they mirror the senior team.
“In our time we would have come up against that Midleton CBS team with Paudie O’Sullivan, so you knew someone like him would be on the Cork minor team too, they’d be progressing on so you get a taste of what you’ll be up against.
“People also talk about winning habits, and when you have schools from a particular county, whether that’s Tipperary or Cork, winning games and competitions, that has a massive influence within that county.
“You only have to look at De La Salle down in Waterford, they were very successful when Derek McGrath was in charge of them and you see what he’s done with the county team since. Even now you’re playing at senior intercounty level against fellas you probably played against first at colleges level, then minor and U21. It’s colleges you meet them first.”
A Harty win creates huge positivity, of course — inside and outside the school.
“I was a boarder in Colman’s,” says McCormack. “We were treated differently, which can create a good atmosphere, though sometimes there can be a sense of ‘why are they being treated differently with an extra bowl of soup’ or whatever.
“You were doing a lot of training, so it was disheartening to lose and go out — there were no groups or second chances back then — but the buzz when you won was fantastic. We had a few close matches along the way to winning the Harty, there were great memories.”
There’s an “aura” about the competition, adds Barry: “Definitely, in terms of the attention and the buzz. And there’s also the fact that these are fellas you grow up with, that you’re in school with from nine to four, every day, your best friends.
“You often see there’s a panel of 40 or more on a Harty team, but that’s necessary, too. There has to be a balance and some of those guys who may not make the team itself are needed to keep the atmosphere light, maybe.
“You’d meet lads who didn’t go on to play for Tipperary but they have a Harty medal, and it means a huge amount to them. Winning it was a huge boost not just for us in the school but the whole community — we were in the St Patrick’s Day parade in the town after that.”
McCormack’s looking forward to today’s game: “Gus Kelleher, who was teaching us in Colman’s that time, got on to a few lads to meet up before the game for a coffee before going to the game, so we’ll see each other, lads from different eras.
“Colman’s have had a bit of a drought — Cork in general has had a dry spell — so hopefully they’ll come out on top.”
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