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Cratloe just two wins away from Munster senior title

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Cratloe's Conor McGrath scoring against Ballygunner

Cratloe's Conor McGrath scoring against Ballygunner

SPORTSFILE

Cratloe's Conor McGrath scoring against Ballygunner

JUST before the 2002 Clare junior football final was due to begin, the Cratloe and Doonbeg teams were called aside, told that the referee was late and that throw-in would be put back for 50 minutes.

Doonbeg immediately took to their dressing room, gently wound themselves down, stretched out, took in some more fluids and got rubs. They found it hard to kill time, however, and about 23 minutes into their waiting game one of their players looked out and raised his eyes to the heavens when he saw what the Cratloe boys were at.

Their rivals never left the pitch. Instead of retreating to the pavilion, they stayed on the field playing crosses and volleys, soccer versions of three-goals-and-in and knock-out. They were having great crack too if the whoops and screams were anything to go by. An outsider would have laid money on Doonbeg to win that game but Cratloe came out on top by two points. They always had the players and the talent, you see. It was just a matter of when they applied themselves.

That win - and the arrival of Colm Collins as coach - awakened the club to the game of Gaelic football. They won the county intermediate title in 2004 and a stack of successful minors and under 21s emerged from 2007 onwards. As it stands, they are two wins away from a Munster senior football title.

They are at the same juncture in the provincial hurling championship and their journey for a unique Munster double picks up again this afternoon when they tackle Thurles Sarsfields in the Munster SHC semi-final.

Financially, logistically and physically, everything should be against them but due to the close, feelgood culture that has been established in the little village - not always typical of a suburban village that enlarged during the boom - they are more than just surviving. Indeed they are thriving.

Consider that many counties, never mind clubs, struggle to challenge on two fronts, and it's astonishing what Cratloe have achieved. In many ways they are exactly what the club championships marketing team pray for - a close-knit community pushing for glory on two fronts, with father-and-son combos, a small parish taking on the big guns.

They don't make a fuss either. A few miles either side of them, in both Limerick and Clare, there are clubmen who would stick a knife in a football if they saw one. But Seán Collins, their senior football manager, says their set-up and culture has helped them become the first team in Clare in 100 years to win both senior hurling and football titles in the same season. After they beat éire Óg in the county football decider, Collins told reporters that the club would relish their two-pronged assault on the Munster championships.

"It is not a problem," he said. "There is mutual respect between the codes in our club, there is never an issue and there is a lot of credit due to the bedrock of the club. We train for hurling one week and we train for football the next week depending on what match is on and there's never any bickering. Everyone is playing for Cratloe, we are all pulling the same way so it is very easy when that's happening."

Meanwhile, out of the victorious football championship-winning team, 11 starters played in the hurling final just a week before. David Ryan, Shane O'Leary and David Collins came off the bench in the football final, meaning that they had 14 dual senior medalists playing successive finals within seven days.

Perhaps you need to take a trek to south-east Clare, just down by Limerick city, to appreciate the magnitude of what they have achieved. For a team right on the Limerick border, and 20 minutes from Ennis, it would be easy to struggle for identity. But from the time that Toomevara native Joe McGrath started coaching the crop of youngsters that currently backbone their football and hurling teams, they have held resolute belief in their culture. When the village underwent a population boom in the early 1990s there was a danger that the GAA could get lost in the comings and goings.

But it worked in the opposite fashion. Apart from McGrath, others to make the short hop from Limerick were the parents of Cathal McInerney and Liam Markham. Colm Collins came from Kilmihil, Phil Ryan moved from Lattin-Cullen. Now Joe McGrath's son, Conor, is one of six inter-county players representing the club, alongside Conor Ryan and Podge Collins. Seán Collins, Cathal McInerney and Liam Markham are also on the Clare hurling and football panels.

Today, they tackle a Thurles Sars team whose players would seldom have seen a football. With Pa Bourke on a high from scoring 1-3 and captaining the team to their 33rd county title - and out to prove a point to the county selectors - and with the talents of Lar Corbett and Mickey Cahill on show, the Sars will be hard to stop in what should be the game of the day.

There is a feeling of unfinished business in Munster for Sars. They had it relatively easy to get through their domestic campaign and this afternoon's clash at Ennis should be intriguing because both teams are dotted with ball players. But while the Tipp champions are on a high, they will face a team with all the momentum in the world; men intent on living history as they write it.

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