Fr O'Neill's and Russell Rovers show off the quality of hurling in east Cork

Fr O'Neill's and Russell Rovers show off the quality of hurling in east Cork
Russell Rovers and former Cork Hurler Brian Hartnett is pictured alongside Conahy Shamrocks Hurler James Bergin ahead of the AIB GAA All-Ireland Junior Club Hurling Championship Final on Saturday January 18th at Croke Park. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile *** NO REPRODUCTION FEE ***

LOCATED just off the road from Ladysbridge to Shanagarry, the mixed pebble beach in Garryvoe, has long been regarded as one of East Cork’s most attractive tourist destinations, as well as being a peaceful and tranquil haven for locals.

As the eye gazes south from the beach in Ballycotton Bay, the small Ballycotton Island, with its striking lighthouse is instantly visible on a clear day. 

In the course of automation, the last lighthouse-keeper retired in 1992, but the lighthouse, which was completed in 1850, sits majestically at the top of the steep mound of earth perched in the middle of the sea.

The beach is always busy with walkers but locals from the surrounding areas making that trek over the last couple of weeks have never had as much in common, or as much to talk about. 

Because it’s unique to have two neighbouring clubs from the same area heading to Croke Park on Saturday for an All-Ireland final.

In another sense, it’s not that unexpected since Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers won the Cork Premier Intermediate and Junior county championships respectively last October. 

Since the Munster Intermediate championship began in 2003, Cork clubs have won eight titles, and contested 11 of the 18 finals. 

Cork’s record in the Munster Junior championship has been even more dominant again, with 14 titles secured since the championship began in 2001. 

In total, 17 different Cork clubs have contested the last 19 Munster Junior finals.

Winning All-Irelands are harder again but Cork clubs have still annexed five All-Ireland Junior and three All-Ireland Intermediate titles. 

Tullaroan and Kilkenny Hurler Pádraig Walsh is pictured alongside Fr. O’Neill’s and Cork Hurler Declan Dalton ahead of the AIB GAA All-Ireland Intermediate Club Hurling Championship Final on Saturday January 18th at Croke Park. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile *** NO REPRODUCTION FEE ***
Tullaroan and Kilkenny Hurler Pádraig Walsh is pictured alongside Fr. O’Neill’s and Cork Hurler Declan Dalton ahead of the AIB GAA All-Ireland Intermediate Club Hurling Championship Final on Saturday January 18th at Croke Park. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile *** NO REPRODUCTION FEE ***

It’s never easy to get to All-Ireland finals but one thing that’s almost certain to happen if a club does get that far is that a Kilkenny club will probably be lining up in the other corner; Kilkenny clubs have contested 12 of the 16 All-Ireland Junior finals, winning eight, while they’ve contested nine of 15 All-Ireland Intermediate finals, winning six.

The strength of Kilkenny club hurling is reflected this weekend with teams in the senior (Ballyhale Shamrocks), Intermediate (Tullaroan) and Junior (Conahy Shamrocks) All-Ireland finals.

Conversely, the paths blazed by Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers, combined with Imokilly securing three-in-a-row of Cork county senior titles last October, underlines how much of a golden era this is for East Cork hurling.

Not every club in the Imokilly division is thriving but the majority are still operating at a level far above where they historically would have been.

In the 1980s in east Cork, apart from Midleton, Sarsfields, Cloyne, Erins Own and Youghal, every other club in the Imokilly division was operating at Junior level.

Look at the division now? In the last two decades, Sarsfields, Carrigtwohill, Midleton and Erins’s Own won senior titles. Cloyne and Bride Rovers contested senior finals. 

Killeagh are still senior, while Youghal, Castlelyons and St Catherine’s were also senior over the last 15 years. And now Fr O’Neill’s have joined that group.

Cloyne had their greatest team when contesting three finals in a row between 2004-06. Fr O’Neill’s currently have the strongest team in their history. So have Russell Rovers.

The strength of that culture has been further reflected through Imokilly’s recent dominance; 11 clubs were represented on the 2019 county title winning starting team. 

Imokilly will lose some really good players this year but they’ll still be able to replace them – because East Cork has never been teeming with as many quality players.

What’s more, many of them have been brought up in a winning culture, something so many of their predecessors never had.

The Fr O’Neill’s team which won the 2018 Premier U-21 title were always a force at underage level; they contested county Premier finals at U14, U15 and U-16, while Sarsfields narrowly beat them in a minor quarter-final.

Clubs like Fr O’Neill’s usually don’t win Premier U-21 titles but the manner in which they did so in 2018 was all the more impressive again considering the quality of opposition they beat; Fr O’Neill’s accounted for Glen Rovers, Charleville, Sarsfields and Blackrock before beating Midleton in the final in a classic.

Russell Rovers have also long been regarded as a coming team. 

Many of their players won Premier 2 county minor medals won with St Colman’s in 2013. 

They were beaten in the 2018 county Junior final by four points by a Cloughduv team which went on to contest the All-Ireland Junior semi-final, narrowly losing out to Kilkenny’s Dunamaggin after extra-time.

The hard days have shaped this Rovers team. 

After controlling the All-Ireland semi-final against Micheál Breathnach from Galway two weeks ago, Russell Rovers were hit with a hammerblow when a Micheál Breathnach goal put them ahead with time effectively up. Yet Brian Bud Hartnett nailed a difficult free in the 65th minute to take the game to extra-time, before Rovers won out by 11 points.

A young team showed remarkable composure that afternoon but they were never going to be spooked by the big day, because so many of them have been accustomed to big days. 

When Midleton CBS won the 2013-14 Dean Ryan (Munster U-16.5 Colleges) title, defeating Ardscoil Ris in the final, eight of the starting team were from Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers.

And now on Saturday, Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers face their biggest day of all. 

It won’t be easy going up against Kilkenny clubs, especially with their track record in the competitions.

But Fr O’Neill’s and Russell Rovers won’t forget the strength and quality of east Cork hurling at the moment either.

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