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David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE Russell Rovers attacker Brian 'Bud' Hartnett.
# Russell Rovers
From the 'whipping boys of East Cork' to chasing All-Ireland final glory
Brian Hartnett on the rise of Cork’s Russell Rovers to next Saturday in Croke Park.

IN BUD HARTNETT’S mind All-Ireland hurling final day 2001 is regarded as a seminal occasion.

He journeyed with his family to Croke Park to witness his eldest brother Kevin play a role in Cork’s minor triumph.

That was the start of a routine over the next decade, trips to Dublin for major hurling afternoons as Kevin rose through the Cork ranks and they had more cause for celebration.

“I was at everything. I think it was a minor in ’01, the Hogan Stand was being up then so Croke Park was kind of a shell. That was probably my first time up there and from then on it was year after year. Cork were going through a good spell then so we would have been up to support him.”

The wheel has turned. Kevin will fly back from his home in Austin in Texas to take a seat at headquarters on Saturday afternoon to see the youngest Hartnett fill an attacking role. Their club Russell Rovers are bidding to land the All-Ireland junior hurling title when they meet Kilkenny’s Conahy Shamrocks.

A transatlantic trek is worth making for that. There will be other sibling support. His sister Amy moved home from Melbourne last September just as the Russell Rovers were embarking on a run that would culminate on the biggest stage. But his brother Barry will have to follow the events from Perth.

“Barry had has to go back, he was back for Christmas, it was only Monday he left, he wasn’t able to extend it, he needs to go home. Kevin’s coming back. He says he actually can’t watch any of the games, he’s been too nervous. He’s nearly happier with the time difference when they’ve been early games, he can wake up and see the result.

“Look he’s definitely looking forward to it, he’s kind of one of these guys who was playing with the club for how many years with little or no success. Then the wave of guys that have come through now, they’ve East Cork medals, county medals, Munster medals and hopefully come Saturday we can add another one to that. It’s great he’ll be back to experience this as well.”

kevin-hartnett-tries-to-offload-possession Cathal Noonan / INPHO Kevin Hartnett in action for Cork against Tipperary in 2007. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

For Brian getting the chance to grace the Croke Park pitch was something he reckoned had passed him by. He did spells with Cork underage teams. In 2010 he amassed 1-14, including six points in the last ten minutes of extra-time, in a Munster minor semi-final against a Tipperary setup that contained six players who would go on to feature when they lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup last August. There was some time with the senior side but ultimately he was operating away from the limelight.

“With minor and U21 we had good teams underage in Cork but we just never got to make Croke Park. When I was on the fringes of the senior I just didn’t get onto the matchday panels and stuff. Then look for whatever reason, it just didn’t transpire. I had my shot at it. I kind of thought then there’s never going to be a chance to play in Croke Park again. When you think back, to get to do it with your club now is unbelievable.”

brian-hartnett-and-brendan-bugler Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Brian Hartnett in action for Cork in 2013 against Clare's Brendan Bugler Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

This game and the progression over the last few months is significant for other reasons. Hartnett spent a couple years hurling with Midleton before switching back to his native club.

“There is a core group there in Russell Rovers I grew up with and it’s the reason I would have come back really to be honest. I supposed when I was with Midleton it was to try and progress to senior county level. Like I said that didn’t transpire. The main draw coming back was playing with those guys.

“I was three years with Midleton, 2013 was the first year, won the county that year and U21. That was also pretty special for that group. Midleton hadn’t won a county in so many years, it was great to be part of that as well. A lot of my close friends still play with them. I’ve family, cousins still play with them.”

Last Saturday week in Kilmallock he delivered when the club’s need was greatest. His attacking sidekick and their regular free-taker Josh Beausang was ruled out with a shoulder injury. Hartnett stepped up and scored 0-12, the most crucial arriving in the 66th minute when he nailed a placed ball from an acute angle on the left wing. That rescued the game and forced extra-time, preserving the All-Ireland ambition.

“Initially it popped into my head it was the last puc of the game and I got rid of it fairly quick now to be fair. We’d done a bit of work beforehand. Barry Johnson actually from Bride Rovers, a great free-taker, he gave us a bit of help. We went down and did a few sessions with him. He told us a simple message, it was just process over outcome. It didn’t matter about the last one or next one, it was this one.”

An All-Ireland final appearance is a remarkable rise for a club that won their first East Cork junior hurling final two years ago and their first Cork title in the corresponding grade last November.

“There was talk at one point, they were saying should we drop down to Junior B? Try and win that and get it running that way again. The players were against that, we knew we’d a very good crop of young players coming through. What’s after transpiring now is they’re building up the core of our team – 22, 23 year olds waiting to come through. So in hindsight it’s great to have held tough on that.

“It wasn’t in a great place but thankfully it’s in a much better place now. Numbers for juvenile, there is something to be looked at down the line because the numbers are small in the area. But hopefully something like this the winning, the getting to play in Croke Park, the buzz around the place, hopefully that’ll give a lift to all the younger kids and the schools and benefit us in that way.”

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The exposure to quality coaching has helped as well. Donal Óg Cusack guided a minor team, under the St Colman’s banner as Russell Rovers come together with Cloyne, to a premier county success in 2015. Frank Flannery, who had stints with Cork, Waterford and Oulart-the-Ballagh senior sides, was in charge last year. Noel Furlong, set to be Rebels minor boss in 2021, is the current coach.

It’s not easy to dampen the excitement locally. With neighbours Fr O’Neill’s in the intermediate showdown, the Croke Park double-header is the dominant conversation topic in Ballycotton, Shanagarry, Garryvoe, Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge.

“It’s definitely a unique one. It’s funny after we won the county, there’s a lady I met her in the village, she’s married to the O’Neill’s secretary. She said, ‘God if ye go the whole way, imagine it’d be the same day’.

“I didn’t realise that. Now it’s transpired both teams will be up here. It’ll be great because there is a good mix. My own brother is married to an O’Neill’s lady, my girlfriend’s brother (Paudie McMahon) is playing wing-forward for O’Neill’s. So there’s load of those kind connections there. I’m sure they’ll all be in beforehand for our game, I’m sure all the Rovers crowd will stay and support them after. It’ll be great for both teams.

“There’s tonnes of people I’m delighted for now. I know Eoin Ivers is a fierce club man. He would have been playing in goal for us for years, again with little or no success, but what it means to him, every step along the way.

“Before we would have been whipping boys of East Cork. Fair enough to say that we wouldn’t have been seen as any bit of a dangerous or competitive team. Now here we are. It’s been sudden but there’s loads of guys in the club that kept it going for years.

“You can see it after every game, every further step we go, they’re overtaken by emotion. It’s amazing for all of them.”

They have just one final hurdle to overcome.

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