The Christy O'Connor column: Junior hurling on Leeside is hard to beat

The Christy O'Connor column: Junior hurling on Leeside is hard to beat

St Catherine's Shane Cotter hooks Brian Dillons' John Horgan during the Cork County JAHC final replay at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN Páirc Uí Rinn on Tuesday night, with the rain coming down in sheets, the place was still rattling like a boiling tin as St Catherine’s and Brian Dillons battled like warriors in the Cork County Junior hurling final replay.

Dillons led by 0-12 to 0-9 after 45 minutes but St Catherine’s had levelled it up six minutes later. Dillons, who began to run their bench, were clearly running low on energy with two games inside two days and Catherines eventually got over the line by one point.

It was another devastating defeat for Brian Dillons, who lost the 2012 final replay to Kildorrery in similar circumstances. In that replay, Dillons led by three points entering injury time but a Finbarr Stapleton goal and two points from Peter O’Brien snatched victory for Kildorrery by one point.

Eleven of that Brian Dillons 2012 team played on Tuesday night, all of whom had also tasted bitter defeat to Mayfield in last year’s city Junior final. For a club that don’t have an underage production line, and one hemmed in between Mayfield and Glen Rovers, winning a county Junior title would have been a massive boost, and achievement, for Brian Dillons.

The standard of the game wasn’t as high as the drawn match last Sunday, which was completely understandable in the circumstances, especially with fatigue. And yet it was still defined by the same electricity and drama that the crowd of roughly 2,000 would have fully expected.

No other county junior county final in the country would attract that kind of a crowd, or generate that kind of an atmosphere, but the Cork Junior championships are unlike anything else in the GAA.

When St Catherines began their campaign earlier in the season, they drew with Lisgoold, winning after extra-time. They beat Lisgood again in the East Cork semi-final before taking out Russell Rovers in the final. Catherines had to negotiate their way past Russell Rovers again in the county semi-final before eventually making their way through the matrix after two epic battles against Dillons.

St Catherine's Shane Kearney bursting past Brian Dillons' Tomás Lawrence during the Cork County JAHC final replay. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
St Catherine's Shane Kearney bursting past Brian Dillons' Tomás Lawrence during the Cork County JAHC final replay. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

In that first game in East Cork, Lisgoold were up by four points heading into injury-time. After losing the city final to Nemo Rangers, Dillons had to take out Banteer and Dromina before they could get another crack at Nemo in the county semi-final. Getting to the final alone is an ordeal because no other championships in the country, hurling and football, is loaded with as many booby-traps and roadblocks.

Size and the sheer volume of clubs is the obvious reason, especially with so many clubs – at least 100 in the Junior football championship - starting out on the road through the seven different divisions.

That statistic alone highlights how much of a juggernaught Cork GAA is – and should be at inter-county level. It is almost a province in itself, which heightens the glory and achievement of winning a county Junior title.

In the vast majority of other counties, most Junior championships are made up of clubs’ second, and third teams, with the top side in those clubs operating at senior or Intermediate level. In that regard, the Junior championship if often only an afterthought.

The mindset in Cork is totally different because a club operating in the Junior championship often represents its community with as much passion and professionalism as many senior clubs around the country.

Bandon were Premier Intermediate hurling champions, and Intermediate football champions, in 2016, while they were county Junior football champions in 2015. It was a brilliant two seasons but it would be inconceivable in most counties for a town of Bandon’s size to have its flagship football team – especially in a strong footballing area – in the Junior championship, as Bandon had been for 22 years.

The first teams in other big towns - Charleville and Fermoy – won county Junior hurling titles in Cork in the last 10 years.

The standard is often so high in the Cork Junior championship that teams use it as a platform to go on to greater things; Castlelyons were Junior hurling champions in 1997, and Intermediate champions a year later. After being crowned All-Ireland Junior hurling champions in 2003, Ballinhassig contested an All-Ireland Intermediate final in 2006.

When Newtownshandrum launched their glorious crusade in the 1990s, which led to their first senior title in 2000, they clearly did so on the back of a golden underage generation. They had only been Intermediate champions in 1996 but Newtown had arrived into that grade without having won the county junior title. They went up to Intermediate after having lost the 1992 Junior final to Newcestown.

In the 14-year history of the All-Ireland Club Junior hurling championship, the competition has been dominated by Kilkenny and Cork clubs. Kilkenny clubs have contested 11 of the 14 finals (winning seven) but, with just 41 clubs in total in Kilkenny, the sheer size and scale of the Cork Junior championship makes it a much harder road to negotiate before arriving in Croke Park.

The agony for Brian Dillons last year was surely compounded by watching Mayfield go on to win the All-Ireland club Junior title, a team they could have defeated in 2016 Cork City final.

On Sunday, St Catherines set off on that road as they take on Ballybacon-Grange in the Munster club Junior championship. Playing three tough championship games inside a week in November will be a hard ask. Yet whatever happens from now on, St Catherines can at least bask in the warm afterglow of having secured the most coveted – and hardest won - Junior hurling championship in the country.

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