Saturday 24 February 2018

Day of destiny for old rivals as Duignan fights on two fronts

Michael Duignan will be hoping to have cause for a double celebration in Tullamore tomorrow. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Michael Duignan will be hoping to have cause for a double celebration in Tullamore tomorrow. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Offaly hurling is at a low ebb regarding inter-county fare but the county final pairing of traditional giants St Rynagh's and Birr presents a genuine showpiece occasion tomorrow.

There's something for all generations in the audience on the biggest day of the Faithful County's club hurling calendar at O'Connor Park, Tullamore.

Nostalgia reigns before the game as past greats of the historic National League-winning team of 1991 will be honoured for their landmark victory 25 years ago.

That Croke Cup success over Wexford remains the only time Offaly have triumphed in the League, and it was the harbinger of greater glories to come in the 1994 and '98 All-Ireland finals.

And then, ceremonies complete, the real business of the day takes place, with all four teams seeking breakthrough victories.

Ballinamere/Durrow, with former Offaly stars Michael Duignan and Daithi Regan guiding their fortunes, have never won a minor 'A' title.

They face a Kilcormac/Killoughey crew which hopes to bring their club its 16th minor championship, two years after the last title at this level.

Step forward after that, the senior teams. St Rynagh's and Birr share a long history of rivalry, and open up a new chapter tomorrow over 60 minutes of hurling that can determine the mood in both camps for the long winter ahead.

St Rynagh's badly want to shed the 'nearly men' label.

Three times in finals since 2012 they have failed to find the key which would allow the present generation to step across the threshold and join the club heroes of the past as county senior champions.

Birr also know about the pain of faltering at the final hurdle, as they came up short in 2011 and 2013 to Coolderry and Kilcormac/Killoughey respectively.

They do, however, enjoy happy memories of 2008 when a four-in-a-row was achieved, and Birr had already gone five-in-five from 1999-2003 before Coolderry had the temerity to halt them in their tracks in 2004.

St Rynagh's, managed by current Galway hurling selector and former Tribesmen player Francis Forde, came agonisingly close last year to clinching the club's first senior title since 1993.

The game was all but in the bag when they led Coolderry by three points with five minutes to go, only to end up losing by 2-15 to 1-16, with Joe Brady's late goal condemning them to a bitter defeat.

Forde might have thought of quitting the club once he got the call to link up with the Galway management in the wake of the departure of Anthony Cunningham last year, but he just had to give this Rynagh's crusade at least one more attempt.

"The lads would have been very difficult to walk away from," he said.

Birr's boss is former Offaly All-Ireland winner Paddy Kirwan. The club that will forever be linked with the Whelehan family are something of a surprise packet this season.

That said, once Birr get to a final, they present a serious threat to any opposition.

Barry Whelehan, a brother of Team of the Millennium member and multi-honoured Brian, is in the Birr panel tomorrow.

This will be Bhis 15th county final and he hopes to make it a winning occasion.

Duignan and his former Offaly comrade Regan have all sorts of vested interests in the finals day.

Their primary objective is to continue the good work of guiding the Ballinamere/Durrow minors to ultimate success, but then they part company in terms of supporting the rival teams in the senior final - Duignan with St Rynagh's, and Regan for Birr.

This is the first time since 2001 that these clubs have been in opposition in a county decider.

Duignan, who won his fourth Sean Robbins Cup medal in 1993, remembers the feeling in Rynagh's after that championship.

"We won the Leinster club that year as well, and narrowly missed out in the All-Ireland semi-final against Sarsfields," he recalls.

"We were genuinely thinking that with the team we had, we'd be back challenging for All-Irelands the following year, never mind winning Offaly.

"It just shows you the way sport can go. Birr came along in '94, won the All Ireland and went on from there, and won four All Irelands and seven Leinsters and took over Offaly hurling."

Duignan can only hope that this is Rynagh's year.

"It's a big one, but it would mean a lot to lift that monkey off the back for these players. We're all just hoping they can do it and create their own bit of history," he says.

Irish Independent

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