By Anthony Hennigan
The Tooreen hurlers discovered last week who they will face in January’s semi-final of the All-Ireland intermediate club championship. Fr O’Neill’s got the better of Ballysaggart, who were powered by brothers — and Waterford senior hurlers — Stephen and Shane Bennett, by four points after a hard-fought Munster Final in Dungarvan.
It was the Cork side’s first provincial title since winning the junior equivalent in 2006, a season in which they went on to land the All-Ireland honours too, in Croke Park.
Mayo v Cork, in hurling, in an All-Ireland semi-final, in Limerick or Ennis. Musha why would you bother wasting the petrol?
But it’s only the laziest of analyses that could lead one to think Tooreen don’t have a seriously solid chance of reaching a historic All-Ireland final when next they tog out. It’s a fact that Galway — and therefore Connacht — champions have contested four of the last six All-Ireland intermediate club hurling finals. And that’s what Tooreen are. On merit. Connacht. Champions.
What about that they’re going to play a Cork team in the semi-final — didn’t Oranmore Maree beat last year’s Cork champions Charleville by six points in their All-Ireland final at Croke Park, having only had five to spare against Tooreen in the Connacht final, and that after Tooreen had one man sent-off before half-time and another sent-off midway through the second half. Oranmore Maree’s captain Gearoid McInerney, who had lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup with Galway the year before, said afterwards that Tooreen gave them a tougher game than anything Oranmore Maree had experienced in the county championship.
Whatever about the sceptics trying to pass off as an aberration or a fluke, that of Tooreen winning a first Connacht title against Ballinderreen in 2017, the fact that they have now contested the past three provincial finals and won two of them, and have also taken out the London senior champions twice in twelve months, both of whom had seen their clubs previously reach the All-Ireland intermediate final, means they are right up there with the best that this level can throw up. And that in itself is quite remarkable when you consider Tooreen’s dearth of local opposition compared to the intermediate clubs of the ‘traditional’ hurling counties.
In fact, Michael Helebert, manager of the Kinvara team beaten by the Blues in last month’s Connacht final, took it one step further when comparing Tooreen after that match to those in the very top tier of Galway club hurling.
“This is preparing us for senior next year. Intermediate in Galway is at one level and when you come up to Senior B, you’re at another level,” he said. “In fairness to Tooreen, they brought it nearly to Senior A, and that’s the standard we’ve to get to.”
This year Kinvara could boast two Galway seniors in their ranks, namely 2017 All-Star and Young Hurler of the Year Conor Whelan and goalkeeper Colm Callanan, but it was the collective guile of Tooreen that proved of greater worth when the teams clashed in Athleague a fortnight ago. Raising 21 flags to Kinvara’s dozen, the five points margin (0-21 to 2-10) between the sides at full-time was an accurate reflection of where Tooreen stand in the province. Right at the very top.
“For the middle of November, 21 points is good scoring. You can’t take it away from them, we’re disappointed but they were worthy winners,” admitted Helebert.
The question now for Tooreen, though, is where to next? And I’m not just talking about the next game.
Indeed you’d wonder how long before the odd club in Galway starts mumbling beneath its breath, if it isn’t already doing so, because of the oddness of the situation that confronts them. I mean, if it’s a strange thing that the champions of a competition don’t get promoted, it’s an even stranger thing that the team beaten in the final is promoted, as is the case for Kinvara who will feature in the 2020 Galway SHC. Tooreen, in contrast, as the rule stands at present, will retain an annual presence in the Connacht intermediate championship for as long as they keep on winning Mayo’s TJ Tyrell Cup — even if they go and lift this season’s All-Ireland title.
Of course, two out of three Connacht titles hardly constitutes a monopoly, but it should be enough to initiate a conversation about what decisions could, should or, equally, should not be made to aid Tooreen’s continued development as a hurling club and, by extension, the development of Mayo hurling. After all, a rising tide is said to lift all boats.
Is it satisfactory that Tooreen must wait until the autumn of each year before encountering the standard of opponent against which they are capable of playing? They – and Ballyhaunis GAA Club — have submitted applications down through the years to join the Galway intermediate hurling league but every attempt has failed, with Connacht Council’s big fear being that fixtures, as arranged by respective county committees, will lead to conflict. For example, where to turn, the provincial body would have argued, for Tooreen’s dual player if Galway hurling and Mayo football club fixtures are arranged for the same day?
Sources in Tooreen, however, insist that never have they been as well equipped to overcome such an obstacle. Out of a senior panel of 32 or 33 players, they say as few as five play senior club football. The team would, they say, fulfil every hurling fixture in Galway in the absence of any or all their dual players.
As it happens, this year, for the first time ever, Tooreen were invited to field a team in the Galway Junior League, which would suggest that Tribesmen officials could be open to a broader discussion on the topic of Mayo clubs finding a more permanent home in the neighbouring county.
Played during the springtime, there were benefits to Tooreen having to line out without their dozen county panellists, who were tied up in Mayo’s NHL Division 2A campaign, as manager Paul Hunt was able to expose the rest of his panel to regular games earlier in the season than would generally have been the norm. The experience gained has helped add some much-needed depth to Hunt’s squad.
If wanting a glorious example of what can happen when a hurling team from a ‘weaker’ county has the temerity to stick its head above the parapet, Mayo and Tooreen need only to look at Mount Leinster Rangers.
One of just four senior club teams in Carlow in 2012 (there are only four in Mayo too), MLR were that year crowned All-Ireland intermediate champions in what was a first for the county. It prompted Leinster Council to immediately promote the club to the provincial senior championship, which they duly won in 2013. In the space of two years MLR had gone from beating Armagh’s Middleton Na Fianna by four points in the All-Ireland intermediate final to taking on Galway giants Portumna in the senior final, having beaten Na Piarsaigh of Limerick in the semi-final, a team that itself would return to become All-Ireland senior champions just a couple of years later.
Rangers’ run sparked something within Carlow hurling, something that manifested itself last year when the county team became the inaugural winners of the Joe McDonagh Cup and again this year when St Mullin’s became only the second Carlow team (after Mount Leinster Rangers) ever to reach the Leinster senior final.
Remember, a rising tide.