Sweet taste of success heightens expectation
The knock-on effects of Mount Leinster Rangers' club run will take time to kick in, writes Dermot Crowe
For the Division 2A league final against Kerry on April 5, Carlow manager John Meyler faced a selection teaser. The Mount Leinster Rangers players had reported back for duty after their extended club run and Meyler had to decide whether to play them or stay with the side that had got them there. He went for broke, playing half a dozen of the Rangers from the start.
Kerry won by a goal and it is a matter of conjecture as to whether the result would have been any better had the Rangers lads been held back, sprung during the match for added impetus, or perhaps used in lesser numbers. It is natural that those players pushed out of the team, or off the panel from the resulting domino effect, cannot have been best pleased. Meyler was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.
The success of Mount Leinster Rangers is seen as a massive lift for Carlow hurling, club and county, but the practical benefits may take a while to be seen. "The expectation is so high now," says former county minor selector and Ballinkillen clubman, Joe Nolan. "I suppose we are looking past the idea of Christy Ring and Division 2 titles. We would see this (defeat to Kerry) as a setback. I mean, look, the famous phrase of being six inches away from a clap on the back or kick in the bum comes to mind. Maybe the last three weeks haven't been good for us as a county but for hurling going forward things are still very bright."
Carlow lost all their matches in Division 1B last year but were impressive in some, almost drawing in Limerick and being highly competitive against Wexford, a five-point loss, and Offaly where they went down by two points after playing most of the tie with 14 men. Getting back up to Division 1B immediately was the priority and, in the absence of the Mount Leinster Rangers players, Carlow looked on course, winning their opening three matches comfortably before losing in Kerry. They secured a place in the final with a 14-point win over Westmeath but lost it 3-13 to 3-16 and the chance to play Offaly in the promotion play-off.
The championship started with a draw in London last weekend, Marty Kavanagh's late point rescuing them from a defeat. In the league Carlow beat London by ten points without the Rangers players so to drop a point there is a serious blow to their chances of making it out of the round-robin group. They face Antrim in Dr Cullen Park today needing a win to keep their chances of a top-two place alive. The winners of the five-county round robin play Wexford in the Leinster championship quarter-finals with the runners-up facing Galway. The bottom team will be in the Christy Ring next year, and the second from bottom finisher faces a play-off against the winner of the Christy Ring.
"I suppose everyone would have seen London as handy points," says Joe Nolan, "but London will be a tricky enough assignment for any of these counties. We will always have to beat one of the bigger teams like Antrim or Laois; I think on Sunday there will be a backlash from our hurlers. I think they will be out to prove the critics wrong. I know (Antrim manager) Kevin Ryan is doing great work up there but I have a sneaky feeling we will produce a big game on the day. I think the lads feel they owe the hurling population in the county a big game."
A win for Carlow is vital with a trip to Laois next weekend followed by a home tie against Westmeath the weekend after. Kevin Ryan had four years in charge of Carlow before Meyler's arrival, winning the Christy Ring Cup in 2009 and the following year making a real mark with an All-Ireland qualifier victory over Laois. Next up they hurled Antrim and led by 2-6 to 0-3 after 23 minutes before being overhauled. In the next round Antrim put out Dublin and rattled Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Last year they were close to defeating Wexford in the senior championship and in the Leinster under 21 championship they put out Dublin at Parnell Park. Nolan was involved as a selector with the same group as minors when they ran Dublin to two points in Dr Cullen Park in 2010 so he was not surprised to see that result. The under 21 manager then, and still, is Pat English, a son of the former Wexford All-Ireland-winning captain Jim, and whose nephew David is part of the current county senior squad and hurled for Leinster this year.
"In fairness to the players they are are all working hard," says English. "I have seen the guys training twice this week already, and they are working as a team. You always have to take the positives, they were seven points down with 20 minutes to go in London and came back to draw the game and could have won it had they another minute. After 70 minutes they were two down and they got two attacks and two points. They could have said, 'Good luck, this is a bad day, let's go home'."
English notes that the age profile is young with only one player over 30 and most nearer 20. They still have their sights fixed on making the Leinster quarter-finals. "Carlow are in championship hurling, you have to go and win your matches. As John (Meyler) has said to them, there are going to be stages where they will not play that well, they have to work through it. They have a point, they need to go and win the next three matches."
English is managing Ballinkillen this year and is in no doubt but that the success of Mount Leinster Rangers has positive spin-offs for Carlow as a whole. The Rangers players took a week and a half off after losing the All-Ireland final, then went back training with the county. "You have to admire them for that; they could have said, 'No we're tired' but they did not, they answered the call to Carlow. They are all Carlowmen and they love their hurling."
All Carlow senior clubs are now competing in Kilkenny and Leinster league competition, the kind of environment which gave Mount Leinster Rangers the platform to win a Leinster Championship. "It has shown every club in Carlow they can go win a Leinster championship if they put in the effort," says English. "This did not come about last year, it came over four years. As trainer of a team in Carlow, I can say we can do this."
Joe Nolan says the impact of Rangers' long journey is bound to have left players tired and this could explain dips in the Carlow performance levels. "They are teachers, builders, students, they all have a day job and they are going for three and four nights non-stop for the last year. It is so hard to keep giving that. You are going to have off-days. But the amount of good they have done for Carlow is incredible.
"I was interviewing James Hickey after they won the Leinster intermediate club final against Celbridge, for one of the club videos, and he publicly thanked the other clubs in Carlow, because he said that without them pushing them, they would not be where they were. Ballinkillen drew with them in the first round. The only other team to not lose to Rangers was Portumna. So we get a lift from that."
But the Rangers' exploits were extraordinary, too. Prior to last season, Carlow senior clubs' record read 29 played in the Leinster championship, with 28 defeats and one win.
But for a spell in the 1960s when they had a few seasons in the top league division and defeated Cork, with Christy Ring on the field, Carlow hurling has mostly existed in a state of relative obscurity. They're not content with that anymore; they are growing restless.
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