Tuesday 21 November 2017

'We used to kill each other in the garden' - Bennett brothers taking nothing for granted as Déise gun for U-21 glory

Stephen and Shane Bennett taking nothing for granted as Déise gun for U-21 glory

Shane Bennett celebrates with Cormac Curran, Austin Gleeson and brother Stephen after their 2013 All-Ireland minor final victory over Galway – tonight, three years later, Waterford bid to repeat the dose as U-21s in Semple Stadium. Picture: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Shane Bennett celebrates with Cormac Curran, Austin Gleeson and brother Stephen after their 2013 All-Ireland minor final victory over Galway – tonight, three years later, Waterford bid to repeat the dose as U-21s in Semple Stadium. Picture: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Most descriptions of Ballysaggart identify it as a small Waterford village housing no more than 250 people with a church, a pub, a shop, a garage and a petrol station as well as a GAA playing field.

But to hurling folk, it's the home of the Bennett brothers.

Coming from good GAA stock - their parents Anne and Pat both played for Waterford - Stephen and Shane Bennett have helped put the rural area of west Waterford on the hurling map with their displays for club and county in recent years.

Both were to the fore when the Déise ended their 65-year wait for an All-Ireland minor title three years ago and later that winter, while still raw teenagers, they played a huge role in Ballysaggart becoming the first Waterford club to win Munster junior honours.

With 35 registered players and two adult teams, Ballysaggart would put many clubs double or treble their size to shame. Age is never a boundary to participation either, with Stephen proclaiming "anyone that can play, does play".

Barbed wire

In February 2014 they made it all the way to Croke Park despite an unplayable pitch which forced training to be relocated to a farmer's sheep field under two generator lights, where they'd hop over barbed wire to gain entry.

Such stories are the heart and soul of the GAA and with little else to do in the village, the brothers "grew up with hurley in hand" and the silky touches on show in Semple Stadium this evening were honed in their garden, where competition was always fierce.

Along with their eldest brother Kieran, they made family history in 2012 when lining out together for the county minors, and they could yet play senior championship as a trio, with Kieran joining them on the extended Waterford panel.

Another unique family scenario arose in the 2015 Fitzgibbon Cup semi-finals when Stephen (UL) and Kieran (LIT) ended up marking each other while their father was operating as a selector alongside good friend Davy Fitzgerald with LIT. But it was nothing new - the boys had marked each other their whole lives.

"Being the one age we were always out in the garden killing each other. You'd always be hearing stories about Dad and all you wanted to do was to try emulate him," says Stephen (20).

"We'd be flaking each other in the garden," adds Shane (19). "But it was great, we'd spend hours out there. Sure every child growing up around Waterford just wants to pull on that jersey at some stage and we were no different."

Moments of genius, like Stephen's samba-style overhead flick to set up Peter Hogan's crucial second-half goal in the Munster U-21 final, showcase the freedom of expression at this grade in recent seasons. There is little evidence of sweepers and systems, and the off-the-cuff approach is something both relish.

"It's fun, it's enjoyable," Stephen says before his younger brother adds: "You're just expected to go out and hurl, there's no 'do this do that', they leave it on your own shoulders - once you cross the white lines it's all about what you do yourself."

As well as that, U-21 hurling has provided the Bennetts with opportunities to overcome senior heartbreak.

While Derek McGrath has led Waterford to national success, it hasn't been without setbacks and the 21-point Munster final mauling at the hands of Tipperary left the county reeling.

But the Waterford faithful never left the players' side and huge crowds turned up at Walsh Park the following Wednesday for the Munster U-21 semi-final with Clare. Trailing by two points at the break, there was a sense that Waterford's whole season was hanging by a thread.


Their young guns responded in clinical fashion, however, putting on a masterclass of attacking to play to obliterate the Banner by 18 points and spread optimism around every corner of the county.

"You didn't have much time to think," Shane says. "You woke up the next morning and you were concentrating on the U-21 two days later; it was good to raise the county again so quickly and have everyone supporting us.

"If you were waiting two weeks you'd be thinking about it and getting down about yourself, you'd always have your doubts after what Tipperary did to you, thinking 'are you up to that level?' but getting back on the horse so quickly was great."

The excruciating Semple Stadium replay defeat to Kilkenny, which both Bennetts started, was followed a week later by a clinical semi-final annihilation of Antrim to set up a remarkable minor/U-21 double bid.

In a repeat of the 2013 minor decider, Galway stand in their way and Sean Power's exciting Déise side will be taking nothing for granted, with the Bennetts aware that having exceptional talents like Austin Gleeson and Patrick Curran in their ranks doesn't guarantee victory.

"With the few senior names people will say 'oh sure ye'll walk that' but if you look at Galway, they're every bit as good," Stephen says.

"We're nearly at a disadvantage because we have 11-12 playing senior and we haven't gotten together. We trained the Monday before the Clare game and that was the first full training we had together. There's 18 players who've been training together the rest of the time on their own."

You'd imagine hurling dominates the talk in the Bennett household before big matches but they don't focus on GAA matters until they arrive on the team bus. "It's grand living in Ballysaggart to be away from all the hype," Shane says.

Waterford are crying out for All-Ireland titles and many are hanging their hat on the U-21s believing the nucleus of this talent-laden squad can win Liam MacCarthy for the first time since 1959. The Bennetts share that dream

"We have the minor, hopefully this weekend we'll get the U-21 and maybe the senior some day," Stephen says.

Centra have launched their 'Bin Challenge', which is the final of their #LiveWell Challenges. Centra is calling on hurling teams everywhere to give it a go for a chance to win fruit and water for their team next year. See Centra.ie for more info.

Irish Independent

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