'Blow-ins' help Tipp balance for Lilies in climb up hurling ranks
HEARD the one about the Clare man and the Tipp man who are helping Kildare hurlers to win All-Ireland titles?
No, you probably haven't because the spotlight is so rarely shone on hurling's lower orders but ask Noel McMahon (right) and Brian Lawlor about hurling in the shortgrass county and they'll give you chapter and verse.
McMahon, from Cratloe, has been involved with Kildare's U-21s for nearly a decade and has managed them to the last three All-Ireland U-21B finals. The first two were lost by just a point but they beat Roscommon last year and have entered Leinster's U-21 A this year.
Nine of them have quickly moved into the county seniors, led by captain Gerry Keegan, Evan Dempsey and Niall Kenny who is still in his teens.
After getting relegated last season Kildare have recovered and face Meath in the Division 2B final in Mullingar today, when hurling's disparate minnows battle it out in four different venues to try to leap into a higher pool.
Lawlor, a teacher in Celbridge, took over their seniors last year when, despite a horrendous league run, they recovered to win the Christy Ring Cup.
Even though they then lost stalwarts like Richie Hoban, Paudie Reidy, David Harney and Tony Murphy to retirement, they are since unbeaten and tipped to win today, despite losing Keegan (shoulder injury).
As a designated 'weaker' county Kildare can play up to five 'permit' players - non-natives who live locally but still playing club hurling back at home.
David Kennedy, who won a senior All-Ireland with his native Tipp, played for Kildare for seven years.
Lawlor, from Kildangan, has enlisted three more Tipp men - David Young (Toomevara), Willie Greene (Moneygall) and Dinny Stapleton (Sean Treacys) - for the cause, though injury means only Stapleton starts today.
But Lawlor and McMahon, whose U21 selectors are current county seniors Paul Dermody (goalkeeper) and midfield star Paul Divilly, agree on the degree of talent locally.
Lawlor points out how Kildare hurlers like Keegan (Carlow IT) and Martin Fitzgerald (LIT) hold their own with peers in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
"When I walked into Celbridge 12 years ago I thought I'd be the best hurler in the club but got a rude awakening!" McMahon quips.
"They just don't get enough competitive matches. In Clare you'd have 12-14 senior teams plus all the intermediates. In Kildare there's nine senior clubs but three of them aren't strong so it's only a handful really."
Like many trying to swim out of hurling's backwaters Lawlor's frustration are the anomalies in hurling's shifting formats.
His side beat Meath by 10 points in February and finished four points clear on the table yet must win again today to get promoted.