Saturday 16 December 2017

New kids on Waterford block won’t accept that old order can’t change

Shane Bennett, Waterford, in action against Kilkenny's Shane Prendergast and Diarmuid Cody
Shane Bennett, Waterford, in action against Kilkenny's Shane Prendergast and Diarmuid Cody

Dermot Crowe

IN 1959, when Waterford last defeated Kilkenny in the hurling championship, the world was more of a black and white affair.

Waterford hurling drew much of its power from Mount Sion, the main generating station supplying the county grid. The team that started the ’59 All-Ireland final replay had five of them, including the captain Frankie Walsh. It made sense. Mount Sion were well on their way to winning nine county titles in a row.

Little changed for a long time. When Waterford re-emerged to contest the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final, old money prevailed: Mount Sion still had five players starting against Kilkenny. Four more were provided by Ballygunner, by then their main rival. Come the 2008 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, Waterford had three Mount Sion men, while a fourth might be contested in that Eoin Kelly had moved to Passage a few years before. Today against Kilkenny they’ll have one. 

This is the changing face of Waterford hurling. Mount Sion haven’t won a senior title in ten years. Ballygunner, winners of the last two county titles, provide four players but the profile of the remainder is a testament to the game’s broadening democracy and diversity. Out of places previously unrecognised have emerged some of the county’s finest hurlers.

The recent Munster under 21 final win over Tipperary offered further illustration with 13 clubs represented. Austin Gleeson was Mount Sion’s sole flag-bearer and none of the two other main city clubs, Ballygunner and De La Salle, had starters. Instead, hitherto unheralded names like Modeligo, Ballysaggart and Bunmahon chipped in. Two years ago Ballygunner won the county under 21 championship and had no player on the county under 21 panel. 

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Stephen Bennett of Waterford shoots to score his side’s second goal despite the presence of the flying hurl of a Clare defender. Picture Credit: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Waterford's Stephen Bennett

Billy Devine is chairman of Ballysaggart which has produced the Bennetts, Shane and Stephen, both of whom are expected to see action against Kilkenny this afternoon. Last year, a third brother, Kieran, was full back on the county under 21 team. Their father Pat hurled for the county in the 1980s but Ballysaggart does not have a tradition of producing major county players and is only a few years out of junior ranks.

“It’s difficult for rural clubs,” says Devine. “They’ve suffered from emigration and financial hardship, so it is very significant for the small clubs to see this happening. It means you can keep a club going in rural Ireland. You are now recognised at whatever level you are at. Before you were only recognised if you were one of the top senior clubs.

“And these are guys of calibre, it is great to see it happening. It gives great life to an area, to a club. We claim we are the smallest club in Waterford. We have only, I think, 85 houses, 280 people in total. We are very fortunate to have the Bennetts.”

All around this part of west Waterford there is a new vibrancy. Colligan, a junior club founded in 1928, is where you’d find Colin Dunford swearing allegiance. Kevin Casey is their club secretary. He describes the club as small, rural and dual, located about seven miles from Dungarvan. They have enjoyed brief spells in senior hurling and football but suffered badly from emigration. Jimmy Beresford played with the county hurling team in the 1980s and they had Kevin McGrath and Michael Dunford on the Waterford under 21 panel that won the 1992 All-Ireland. But Colligan hurlers wearing county jerseys is not something they take for granted.  

In recent years they have lost a number of western junior hurling finals, including defeats by local teams Modeligo and Ballysaggart when those clubs later went on to land county and provincial titles. But junior status doesn’t preclude anyone from consideration if they’re good enough and Waterford has seen clubs rise and make merry. Ardmore won successive promotion from junior to senior hurling in the early years of the last decade. Others are now showing the same ambition and the western intermediate championships is regarded as one of the most fiercely contested competitions in the county.

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Jack O'Connor (Wexford) Colin Dunford (Waterford)
Colin Dunford (left)

“There has always been a certain representation of the west on county hurling panels,” says Kevin Casey. “With the likes of the Bennetts and Colin Dunford, Tom Devine, Patrick Curran, we are lucky I suppose, they are from the west. But the county in general is lucky to have such talent.”

Casey remembers going to see Jimmy Beresford hurl with the county but there is greater optimism surrounding the team now. Colligan need to amalgamate at juvenile level due to small numbers but they are beginning to stand alone at the lower age groups with a view to being able to operate entirely independently in future. Having a county player greatly aids their efforts.

Similar pride is coursing through Clashmore-Kinsalebeg, a club with two senior players, Tadhg de Búrca and Brian O’Halloran. O’Halloran was the first, winning a Munster senior medal in 2010 before his career stalled through injury. De Búrca has been one of the mainstays of the Waterford defence. His father, Tim Bourke, is club chairman. They are a senior club in football and intermediate in hurling and traditionally more of a football area.

“We got to the western [intermediate hurling] final and were beaten by Modeligo,” says Bourke. “The western intermediate championship is probably the most competitive in the county; any one of six teams could win it. We were in the final last year and have lost two matches this year already. We are intermediate for ten or 12 years and were junior before that.

“I would say the development squads and the roles of the colleges in the Harty Cup have been big factors in helping clubs around here. The current selectors go to a lot of intermediate matches. It isn’t about what club you are, it is about how well you are playing. We are very proud of the two boys. To say we have two hurlers, it is a big honour.”

The club also had two players on the Waterford minor team that won the All-Ireland three years ago. “We were basically a senior football team traditionally,” explains club secretary, John Foley. “The youngsters now are looking up to those two boys. The tradition of the football is still there. We see that there is no preference, between football and hurling. We don’t lean towards one more than the other.”

Vincent O’Donovan was the first secretary of Modeligo, that produced Tom Devine, when it was formed in 1977. “We started off with a group of young lads, kind of went on from there. We are on a high here in the club with the last seven or eight years. We won a county junior and went on to win a Munster junior.

“Last year we contested the intermediate county final, we played Portlaw, and lost it by two points and Tom Devine wasn’t playing; he got injured the Wednesday night before the match. We nearly went from junior in 2014 to senior at the end of 2015. We just have this group of young lads at the moment.

“We had one great teacher, Micheal Phelan, who played for Waterford back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, who was principal in the school in Modeligo for over 30 years.”

Phelan hurled in goal for Waterford in the Munster Championship in 1976 and was sub goalie for the two ill-fated Munster final defeats to Cork in 1982 and ‘83. He finished up playing for Modeligo after hurling at senior level for Cappoquin, five miles away. Modeligo is located between the Knockmedaldown and Comeragh mountains.

“When we started off we hardly knew how to catch a hurley,” says O’Donovan. “That’s the way it was. There were years we barely fielded a hurling team; we always had a football team. But then this group of lads came.”

They defeated Clashmore in the western final last year, before losing the county final to Portlaw. Phelan, the retired school principal, says the improvement in these areas is explained to some extent by better facilities. “You were always playing in grass that was way too high. The skill levels just couldn’t be there I think. That is why football in the rural areas would have been the easier sport to play. It was only back in the 1980s, in Modeligo, that the field was first bought so the improvement in facilities I think has improved the standard of hurling.”

Like a lot of clubs around this area, they are punching above their weight, way above in some cases. The success Waterford has enjoyed in winning Munster titles and National Leagues, and frequently challenging for titles, has also fired the imagination and inspired others to follow.

“To win the intermediate [for Modeligo] would be an amazing achievement,” says Phelan. “Once in a blue moon you get this group that comes along. It used to be east was hurling, west was football in Waterford. Whereas the thing has changed completely. Now a lot of it is down to the underage structures, the coaching and the development squads. But I would still go back to a lot of the clubs; they built their fields. If you have facilities, only then can things happen.

“And the county has had success. It is a fantastic time to be a Waterford supporter. For years we went to Munster first rounds and that was all you expected.”

Tuorin have won a county senior hurling title in the past but currently ply their trade in junior hurling. Still they provide the two Fives to the county senior team. Paul Flynn, the former county player who is part of the county under 21 management team, acknowledges that hurling is thriving in areas that previously didn’t figure. He cites the influence of the Harty Cup on schools in the catchment area as a contributing factor to rising standards.

From these upwardly mobile clubs of west Waterford followers will begin their journey to Croke Park to lend support to the county’s bid to defeat favourites Kilkenny today. More clubs than ever are now queueing up to serve in the county’s mission to win a first All-Ireland since ‘59.

“People say we haven’t a hope against Kilkenny,” says Billy Devine of Ballysaggart, home of the Bennetts. “But the majority of us are going up on Sunday believing we can do it. It is an outside chance, we accept that, but we live in hope. It is a place a lot of counties would love to be in. There is a bit of a buzz.”

He adds that it would be more of a buzz “were we meeting someone else” but these are people who have broken the mould in their home places. They have learnt that because something was this way once, it doesn’t have to be this way forever.

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