Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Comparing Waterford’s Shane Bennett and John Mullane
While Tipperary and Limerick prepare for a Munster final and Kilkenny and Wexford do the same in Leinster, it’s been a chastening championship for Waterford.
As part of a new series in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy, official sponsor of the All-Ireland Senior and U-20 Hurling Championships and the GAA Legends Tour Series, we’ll be comparing rising stars and legends of hurling. This week, we look at two of Waterford’s finest.
Since contesting the All-Ireland final a mere two years ago, the Déise have twice found themselves bottom of the pile. Indeed, last season’s draw against Tipperary is the only point they’ve gained in their eight games within the new provincial structure.
Yet the picture may not be as gloomy as it seems for Páraic Fanning’s men. The team that faced Cork in their final game this season only contained four players that started the 2017 final, a staggering turnover. When you consider that one of those four was Ballysaggart’s 22-year-old forward, Shane Bennett, it further highlights the transition.
That final was the culmination of a journey that had featured six Munster finals and five All-Ireland semis since their previous 2008 final appearance. A rebuild was always likely to be required.
In reality, that phase of Waterford hurling began in 2002 when a young John Mullane scored 0-4 to help the county to a first Munster title in 39 years. It was the beginning of a love affair between the player, his county and their support that endures to this day.
Having experienced little success at minor and U-21, that almost instantly changed for Mullane at senior with that breakthrough Munster win shepherding in an unprecedented run of success for the county.
Martin Breheny’s Irish Independent match report from that final reads like a roll call of budding players amongst the finest produced in that part of the country.
“While the regal Ken McGrath was the main man up front, he got consistent support from youthful allies, including his brother Eoin, Eoin Kelly and John Mullane. Their pace destroyed a Tipperary defence noted for its consistent solidity,” he wrote.
Yet while you can add Dan Shanahan into the pantheon of young players who, alongside more experienced heads like Tony Browne and Paul Flynn, became central to Waterford’s 21st century successes, it was Mullane who came to define the team.
With the raw passion of the man clear in his play, the support took to the De La Salle forward immediately. Although his 3-01 in the 2003 Munster decider wasn’t enough to stop their title being surrendered to Cork, before Wexford twisted the knife in the qualifiers, it was enough to secure a first All-Star for the shaven-headed forward.
The recapture of the Munster title in 2004 was bittersweet for Mullane. A deserved sending-off was tempered by his 14 colleagues avenging the previous year’s defeat by vanquishing Cork in a game for the ages.
While Mullane’s absence was felt when Waterford lost the All-Ireland semi to Kilkenny, his famous ‘I love me county’ interview after the Munster final only enhanced his bond with supporters. His subsequent decision not to go the High Court route often taken to overturn bans recouped kudos lost when he’d struck Brian Murphy with his hurl.
A couple of fallow years followed before a National League in 2007 was backed up by another Munster title. But an All-Ireland final appearance remained beyond him. An off-colour Mullane suffering from a virus was powerless to prevent Limerick’s ambush in the semi.
That elusive final was eventually reached in 2008 as Mullane approached his peak. A first-round exit in Munster had seen Justin McCarthy replaced in the hot-seat by Davy Fitzgerald and Mullane was to the fore from the qualifiers through to the final. His 2-21 was the highest from play in the Championship but alas, a rampant Kilkenny proved too strong as the Déise’s first final since 1963 ended in a 3-30 to 1-18 defeat.
Although 2009 brought another semi-final defeat at the hands of Kilkenny, Mullane’s form was enough to earn a second All-Star, the first of a run of four-in-a-row as he seemed on a one-man mission to drag his team to their holy grail of a Liam MacCarthy.
Unfortunately, a final Munster title in 2010 was as good as it got, an epic against old rivals Cork that took a replay and extra-time to settle. Although late goals from Tony Browne and Dan Shanahan in either game got the headlines, Mullane was in the mix as ever, contributing seven points.
Two more semi-final defeats in 2010 and 2011 to Kilkenny and Tipp, two teams cultivating a rivalry bringing the game to another level, brought more heartache. When the 2012 season saw Tipperary have too much in the Munster final, it was an all-or-nothing All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork once again.
A wild-card tactical switch that saw Mullane drift back into centrefield to utilise his ball-winning ability wasn’t enough to get over the line. The Déise saw a three-point lead on the hour-mark ebb away as the Rebels outscored them seven points to one in the final stanza to emerge on top. The one player that every neutral in the country was willing to an All-Ireland would miss out again.
Little did we know that the sight of Mullane prostrate on the ground, hauled down by a Cork back as he desperately tried to generate the goal chance that would have forced extra time, was the last we’d see of him in Championship action.
Despite a fifth All-Star, the string of near misses had finally taken their toll. In January 2013, Mullane announced his retirement.
“I felt in the end that mentally it just broke me – I had enough. Physically I feel I could have gone on for another year or two, but mentally I'd had enough,” he said as we bade farewell to potentially the greatest hurler to have never won a Celtic Cross.
“The sense of genuine pride I got from wearing the Waterford jersey and representing the county I love will live with me forever.
“My relationship with the Waterford supporters has always been a very special one and I sincerely thank them for their support in both good and bad times. Déise Abú.”
A number of teammates who toiled with him in his final game added another National League in 2015 and saw two more All-Ireland semi-final exits in 2015 and 2016 before that two-point defeat to Galway in the 2017 decider.
While the evergreen Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh were the only players that straddled those finals in ‘08 and ‘17, another six survivors from Mullane’s final game featured in the latter loss.
Also starting was 20-year-old Shane Bennett. Although the day may not have gone as he’d have hoped, with injury curtailing his involvement after 22 minutes, the experience he gained should be valuable as more responsibility moves onto the young corner-forward’s shoulders.
Bennett stood out at underage level for the county, bagging All-Ireland minor and U-21 titles in ‘13 and ‘16. He’d already made his senior debut against Laois before the U-21s victory and made his mark as Waterford reached another National League final in 2016.
He was instrumental in Waterford’s game-plan during their run to the 2017 All-Ireland. Goals against Offaly and Kilkenny helped ease the Déise’s path through the qualifiers and singled him out as one to watch despite falling to Galway in the final.
Similar to Mullane, Bennett now eschews free-taking duties, generally taken by his elder brother Stephen. While he may not be as overly aggressive as the man who’s called him “possibly Waterford's best forward”, they share a knack for goal and the ability to look comfortable anywhere around the forward line.
After stepping away from the panel last year, Bennett re-emerged as one of Waterford’s bright sparks this season. Goals against Carlow, Dublin and Galway marked his return in another run to a competitive league final defeat to Limerick.
Like Mullane, it’s Bennett’s ability to produce the unexpected that marks him out from the pack. His assist for Jamie Barron in the comeback league win over Galway was a great case in point. He dummied walking away from a sideline cut before tapping the ball a matter of inches, leaving Barron free to pop the sliotar onto his hurl and move up the pitch to take his score.
And with six All-Stars sitting in the stands as the management rang the changes for their last Championship game till 2020, it was Bennett who gamely tried to keep the Déise in touch. The goal in his tally of 1-02 had brought Waterford back to four points before Cork’s experience pulled them clear in the last 20 minutes.
At 22 and with National League and All-Ireland final appearances under his belt, it’s only the Munster Championship that has yet to see the best of Bennett’s potential. With this rising star certain to be central to Páraic Fanning’s rebuild, those long-suffering Déise fans will be praying he can have even half the impact of the legend that is John Mullane.
Bord Gáis Energy sponsors the GAA All-Ireland Senior and U-20 Hurling Championships, as well as the GAA Legends Tours of Croke Park. Every Wednesday, they release GAA Rewards as part of their Rewards Club, offering fans exclusive ‘money can’t buy’ experiences and unmissable rewards.
Waterford’s rising stars of today will get their campaign for the Bord Gáis Energy U-20 Munster Championship underway on July 9 against Tipperary.
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