‘These lads come from counties that couldn’t give a damn about hurling, within provinces that care even less about them’, was the quote from The Sunday Game analyst Ger Loughnane after the Ring/Rackard/Meagher Cup finals a few years ago as Mayo raised the Rackard Cup in Croke Park for the first time in their history. The Feakle clubman calls it as he sees it and he wasn’t a hundred miles off in his analysis of the lie-of-the-land in the world of hurling.
Fast forward eighteen months to the present day and ten of the players who picked up All-Ireland medals on that glorious June day in 2016 now stand within 60 minutes of returning to the hallowed ground. Make no mistake – it will take a mammoth task for the East Mayo men to even stay within touching range of the Kilkenny champions, let alone overturn the aristocrats of the small ball game.
But being out-and-out underdogs sits very well on this fledgling group of young hurlers from Mayo who care very little for traditional hurling gentry. All bar one of the Tooreen side have come through the underage structure within the club, and, if we look back through the club’s underage achievements, we see a pattern of winning Connacht U16 club titles against Galway opposition who – in the past – would be expected to leave Mayo after handing out a considerable hammering to the locals.
The year 2005 was the first notable scalp as the Tooreen U16 crop of that year claimed their first Connacht U16B title against Beagh from Galway in the final in Ballyhaunis. Beagh had earlier won the Galway U16B title and were expected to come down to Ballyhaunis and put on an exhibition of hurling and show the locals how it was done.
However, that Tooreen side – led by Cathal Freeman, Kenny Feeney, Michael Morley, Alan Freeman (yes, that Alan Freeman) and Ciaran Charlton – were the players who exhibited the purer skills on the day, so much so that the Beagh side walked off the field in disgust with five minutes of the game remaining. Their refusal to return to the field saw the title awarded to Tooreen – their first in the club’s trio of such Connacht U16 titles.
The Tooreen U16 team of 2005 who claimed the club’s first Connacht U16 club title. Six of this panel now make up the Tooreen senior side. (Photo: Adrian Hession)
It took six years for the Tooreen club to get back to that position again as the crop of 2011 found themselves facing Abbeyknockmoy of Galway in the showpiece Connacht U16 final in Tooreen. The club now had their home grounds fully developed which was an added bonus in holding onto players and banished the nomadic existence of the previous decades.
On that fine autumnal day, it was Tooreen again who showed their dominance in outclassing Abbeyknockmoy to record a comfortable victory. Ten players from that Tooreen side of 2011 now feature on the club’s senior panel, most notably David Kenny, Fergal Boland, Aidan Henry, David Harrison and Joe Henry Jnr. There was less fanfare around this Connacht win in 2011, as this time the Tooreen side expected victory due to their dominance in North Galway club competitions at the time.
The Tooreen U16 side of 2011 who beat Abbeyknockmoy in the Connacht U16 club final. Nine of this side make up the current senior panel with Fergal Boland and David Kenny as the driving forces of that success. (Photo: Adrian Hession)
The completion of this trio of Connacht U16 victories came in 2013 when Tooreen again hosted Galway opposition in the form of Ahascragh/Fohenagh, this time at the Connacht GAA Centre in Bekan. Again, a comfortable win for the Blues ensued with the bulk of this side now waiting in the wings to get their senior chance.
Four of the class of 2013 now feature regularly for the seniors and will see action at some stage on Saturday in Limerick. Daniel Huane, Brian Morley, Sean Kenny and Bobby Douglas have all made a fast transition from underage to the senior ranks, with all four prospects recently being called into Derek Walsh’s county panel when their club campaign is over.
The Tooreen U16 side of 2013 who beat Ahascragh/Fohenagh in that year’s Connacht club final in Bekan. Nine of that side are on the senior panel with four pushing hard for starting places. (Photo: Adrian Hession)
So for the players and management within the Tooreen camp, competing and beating Galway’s Intermediate club sides has become part of the norm down through the years. Hence the victory over Ballinderreen last November. The belief that comes from these wins is immeasurable and will enthuse the next generation of Green and Red stickmen. Repeating the task outside of Connacht will now be the litmus test for manager Paul Hunt and his backroom team. It’s worth remembering that it took thirteen attempts to win a Connacht adult title but maybe this group is different.
So onto Saturday and Ballyraggett, or St Patrick’s as they like to be known locally. There was nothing too holy about their rise to stardom last October as they claimed only their second Kilkenny IHC, their first coming in 1979. Their celebratory story after that win got out of hand but, in fairness, their results have been consistent since.
Wins in Leinster against Kildare, Meath and Wicklow opposition have got them back up on the horse but the impending duel with a Mayo side will be a first for all of their charges. The thoughts of losing to a Mayo side won’t enter their psyche unless the exchanges on the big day are tight.
But if the unthinkable happens in Limerick on Saturday, the story will rock the hurling world again – sending Fifi-gate to the ha’penny place. St Patrick’s of Ballyragget will be the most famous Kilkenny Intermediate Hurling champions of all time, again for all the wrong reasons.
Has anyone told Ger Loughnane that this game is on? There’s definitely a couple of classic Loughnane quotes waiting in the wings here …
Tooreen take on St Patrick’s, Ballyragget of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Intermediate club hurling semi-final on Saturday (20th January) at the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, throw-in 2pm. If you can’t make it there, the match is being streamed live by AIB in co-operation with Local Streaming – full details here.