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16 players and two coaches - the rugby school key to Cork's All-Ireland hurling treble bid

The influence of Christian Brothers College will be central to the Rebel County’s bid to claim three titles in a matter of days.

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TWO DECADES AGO, the hurling focus on Sidney Hill in Cork at this time of year was narrowed down to the exploits of one young man.

Tomás O’Leary was immersed in the rugby traditions of Christian Brothers College but his sporting input had veered elsewhere that summer.

Maintaining the rich hurling heritage established by his father Seanie, the younger O’Leary captained a Cork minor hurling team that swept past Galway to grasp the Irish Press Cup.

It was a star-studded team – John Gardiner, a pair of Kieran Murphys, Setanta Ó hAílpín amongst the colleagues of the future Munster and Ireland scrum-half.

“It was a big deal at time,” recalls CBC teacher Tony Wall.

“I was teaching Tomás then in Leaving Cert. He was highly talented, an extremely good hurler. There’s no doubt in my mind he’d have gone on to play with Cork, had not the attraction of professional rugby taken him in a different direction.

“There was always an acknowledgement of hurling in the school but we never really had a flow of players, we might have one or two now and again of that standard. But from 2014, we had a serious amount of very good hurlers coming through.”

tomas-oleary 2001 Cork All-Ireland minor hurling winning captain Tomas O'Leary. Source: INPHO

Cork have not been crowned national minor champions since O’Leary’s vintage celebrated.

20 years on, there is an opportunity to redress that statistic next Saturday night.

Four CBC students – James Dwyer, Mikey Finn, Eoin O’Leary and David Cremin – are involved on this occasion. That is one strand of a wider narrative that intertwines a city school, famed for their rugby exploits, with Cork hurling’s quest to land three All-Ireland titles in the space of five days.

It starts tonight with the county’s U20s facing Galway in Semple Stadium. Teachers Donal O’Mahony and Traolach Martin are part of the management team. From that playing pool, Eoin Downey is a current student while Robbie Cotter, Padraig Power, Jack Cahalane, Cian Long and Cillian O’Donovan all previously sat in CBC classrooms.

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On Saturday there is the minor instalment and then Sunday brings the heady glamour of the senior showdown in Croke Park. Seamus Harnedy is a current teacher in CBC while Rob Downey, Robbie O’Flynn, Shane Barrett, Billy Hennessy and James O’Flynn are all alumni.

16 players and two coaches with CBC links as Cork chase the milestone of a hurling treble.

sam-quirke-and-shane-barrett Shane Barrett (right) in action for CBC in the 2019 Dr Harty Cup final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

***

Tony Wall grew up in a different hurling world on the northside of Cork city. He studied in North Mon and won a medal in the Dr Harty Cup, the premier Munster colleges hurling competition, in 1985. Then he started teaching in his alma mater.

“My last action in the North Mon was in 1991, when I was helping out with the Harty Cup team with Gerry Kelly and Nicky Barry. We lost the final to Flannan’s. I got a phone call over the summer from Brother Reynolds, saying ‘Look there’s a job in Christians.’

“The only thing that was stopping me from taking the job was leaving hurling. Little did I think 24 years later, we’d be starting out in the Harty Cup with Christians. That’s the way things worked out.

“The irony was I took a career break in 1998 and Donal O’Mahony actually came in to replace me for that year. So then he stayed on, Donal in fairness has really been the driving force. I’ve been involved with Glen Rovers primarily with my coaching and I did the senior team in 2012 and ’13.

“Donal approached me one day, would I come into the hurling in the school, I said I would. I had done rugby for 10 years previous to that. I’ve been really focused on Christians hurling since 2014 and it’s been an incredible run since. Donal and Dr Larry Jordan deserve enormous credit for having the courage to evolve. It’s something we never imagined that it would have that ripple effect when we went up to the Harty Cup. It’s fantastic for all parties concerned.”

tony-wall Tony Wall. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

***

Donal O’Mahony was between the posts for a Cork minor hurling team that won the Munster final in 1990. Fergal Ryan, Brian Corcoran and Mark Landers were amongst his team-mates. He repeated that victory in 1993 at U21 level, while fitting success with the Cork minor footballers in between.

Later coaching took hold for the Bishopstown native. Working with the goalkeepers during Kieran Kingston’s first spell at Cork boss, joining John Meyler as a senior selector and now coaching the U20s alongside Pat Ryan.

All the while he was investing time and energy into furthering the hurling cause in Christian Brothers College.

“I was there from the very start. When you went up hurling training, you didn’t know how many fellas were going to come out of the dressing-room. We started off with six or seven. It was hard at the start but I suppose any change process needs a good driver. The principal at the time, Dr Larry Jordan, he drove that.”

donal-omahony-and-john-meyler-celebrate Donal O'Mahony and John Meyler after Cork's win over Limerick in 2019. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Jordan’s knowledge of the local hurling scene was completed by the progress of his son Joe, who lined out for Cork at every level, making a senior bow in the 2009 league against Kilkenny.

Last autumn he helped his club Blarney win a county final to reach the senior ranks and this year his work as a doctor specialising in sports medicine, saw him involved in that role with Dublin hurling outfits.

“It was interesting that Joe was passing me on the line when we played Dublin (in the 2020 All-Ireland U20 final) in July,” says O’Mahony.

“We were laughing about it that night.”

If there is a starting point in the modern hurling rise of the school, perhaps it can be traced back to 2015. A February Saturday afternoon in Ballyagran in south Limerick, CBC contested a Munster senior B hurling final. St Joseph’s from Tulla took the trophy home to Clare after extra-time but the game laid the foundations for their Cork opponents.

Billy Hennessy captained that CBC team, Robbie O’Flynn started in attack and Rob Downey came on as a sub. Michael O’Halloran, a recent Cork senior and county winner with Blackrock last October, was their scorer in chief. The development that season persuaded the school to take the plunge and enrol for the Harty Cup in the autumn of 2015.

That October they won the school’s first game in the competition for 97 years, High School Clonmel defeated in Clashmore in west Waterford in a landmark occasion. That kick-started their progress.

Quarter-finals were contested in 2016 and 2017. A semi-final loss in 2018 to the eventual champions Ardscoil Rís. Final appearances in 2019 and 2020 were significant, but bittersweet occasions due to the losing outcomes. If the marquee Munster silverware has eluded them, the consistency has been undeniable and the series of players who have moved on to make their mark on bigger hurling stages.

The sphere of influence on Cork GAA by past students has extended beyond this week’s flag-bearing hurling outfits. In July when Cork at last triumphed the 2020 All-Ireland U20 final, an event stalled by the pandemic-enforced sporting shutdown, Tommy O’Connell started with Declan Hanlon and Owen McCarthy on the extended panel.

Niall Hartnett joined Cahalane on the Cork U20 football team that picked up Munster medals while the elder Hartnett, Brian, was involved with the Cork senior footballers.

The input moved outside county boundaries as well. The Daly brothers from Lismore, Carthach and Iarlaith, have moved from CBC Harty Cup campaigns to Waterford hurling squads.

Last December, Iarlaith broke new ground for the school with an All-Ireland senior hurling final appearance, drafted in during the first half against Limerick when Waterford’s defensive fulcrum Tadhg De Búrca was struck down by injury.

iarlaith-daly-celebrates-after-the-game Waterford's Iarlaith Daly. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

***

If there were fears the rise of hurling would correspond with the rugby sporting wing being neglected, the results have disproved that. In the Munster Senior Schools Rugby Cup since 2016, CBC have won two titles, lost another final and shared the 2020 crown with city rivals PBC, the decider was one of many fixtures scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the equivalent junior competition, CBC have also contested three finals in the same time frame, winning one, while they also shared last year’s title.

Donal Lenihan and Donncha O’Callaghan are amongst the celebrated rugby names who attended the school, Wall helped out at U15 level for years and came across Munster graduates.

“I would’ve coached Billy Holland at U14, Darragh Hurley was another and Stephen Archer, they were all on the same team. Tomás O’Leary was probably the most famous one, who went on to establish himself at international level. Duncan Williams was there as well, a lot of those lads went on to play for Munster. They won everything with Christians – Junior Cup, Bowen Shield, Senior Cup. It was a glorious time of success for the school.”

billy-holland Munster's Billy Holland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The priority always with hurling was for peaceful co-existence.

“We’d be respectful of the rugby tradition, we’re just catering for those who want to play hurling,” says Wall.

“We’ve over 900 students, most of them are rugby orientated but there is a cohort who just don’t play rugby. So this is a fantastic opportunity for them. Our primary focus is always on education but we think sport plays a huge part then in personal development.

“We don’t have a local club as such. When I was in the Mon, it was Glen Rovers and Na Piarsaigh, they backboned those teams. Nowadays with the dispersal of people living in the suburbs, it’s not as easy any more, you can’t be reliant on one or two clubs any more, you need bigger areas and more clubs contributing.”

“We’re well down the road now, we’ve showed that they can both co-exist,” outlines O’Mahony.

“The fear was that the rugby would suffer as a consequence of the hurling coming into the school and doing well.

“But a few years down the line, we’ve never been more successful in rugby.”

***

It’s not the sole factor underpinning an improvement in Cork’s hurling fortunes but a better output by schools does help. The revitalising effect Ardscoil Rís had on Limerick becoming a hurling superpower did not go unnoticed, nor the De La Salle crop that Derek McGrath brought through to the Waterford ranks or the relentless production in St Kieran’s College of Kilkenny players.

“I was fortunate enough to be in the North Mon in the 1980s when Cork hurling was going through a golden period,” says Wall.

“North Mon won the Harty Cup four times, Farna won it once and Midleton won it once. St Colman’s and Chríost Rí got finals. Cork ended up winning All-Irelands in ’84, ’86 and ’90. There’s definitely a sense that Cork took their eye off the ball with (the) Harty Cup. Now it seems that we’re more competitive at that level and hopefully it’s translating into inter-county success as well.”

Since 2015, CBC have been one of four Cork schools – along with Rochestown College, St Colman’s and Midleton CBS – to have reached Dr Harty Cup finals. Shane Kingston, Niall O’Leary, Sean O’Leary-Hayes and Ger Millerick are now involved in the most prominent hurling arena having been schooled in that enivronment, featuring in those deciders.

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“Playing Ardscoil Rís or Thurles CBS, meeting these fellas when they’ve their school jersey on, it’s less intimidating then when they put on a Limerick or Tipperary jersey,” says O’Mahony.

“One of the big things for me initially was the refereeing. When we started the project in the school, at times we were getting very frustrated and then we realised that the game was being refereed differently in Limerick or Tipperary, then it was in Cork. That helped significantly when you’re going playing the county games.”

***

They don’t need reminding of the showpiece that will attract the greatest attention this week. O’Mahony developed a strong attachment to this present Cork senior group.

“I think everybody’s rowing in the same direction. There was immense pride in the victory on Saturday. Kieran was there a couple of years ago, did a fantastic job. John came in and continued that with more great work. It’s leaving the thing in a better place than what you’ve got it.

“In ’18, the team were on the brink of beating what has transpired to be an exceptionally good Limerick team. That was a tough defeat to take but the fact that they came back, were in a similar enough situation against Kilkenny, but showed fantastic character to dig out a result.”

Wall’s wishlist is influenced by local motivations as well.

“It’s very exciting for the Glen to see all the players involved and obviously the God of hurling in the Glen is Patrick Horgan. I’m sure there’s 31 counties in Ireland would be shouting for Patrick to win an All-Ireland.

“He’s just a fantastic player, always has been, a big-time hurler. Just keeping the fingers crossed that the hurling Gods will shine on him and he’ll get what he thoroughly deserves which would be a Celtic Cross.”

Recent weeks have seen some recent CBC students take huge strides in their hurling careers.

robert-downey Cork's Robert Downey. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Shane Barrett’s after a fantastic year between Blarney winning the county, him winning the U20, being brought onto the senior squad,” says O’Mahony.

“Then Robert Downey, got an opportunity against Clare and has just got better and better. The biggest players play their best when it’s needed most. Towards the end of the Kilkenny game, every ball that was going into the full-back line, he was coming out with.

“The forwards get the scores and the man-of-the-match award but I was particularly delighted for Rob Downey. It’s been a while now since I’ve seen a full-back dominate aerially when there’s no better man to test you than TJ Reid.”

Wall has coached Downey at schools and club level, praising his selfless attitude and adaptability in comfortably slotting into a range of positions. Another Cork player has also impressed him.

robbie-oflynn-and-james-madden Cork's Robbie O'Flynn. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“Sometimes when you’re coming into the team at a young age, it just takes a while to establish yourself, but there’s no doubt this year that Robbie O’Flynn has gone to a new level. His finishing has been first-class but his work rate is off the charts. He covered most of the blades of grass in Croke Park last Sunday week when he was on the pitch and the only reason he went off, was he couldn’t run any more.

“They’re all fantastic young fellas. We’d text them good luck before matches, there’s a great bond there. It’s great for us to see them playing at such a top stage. The clubs deserve tonnes of respect, we just borrow them for a short period of time.”

***

Cork’s bid for silverware begins with the U20 team tonight. They claimed Munster glory recently after a breathless, high-scoring encounter with Limerick.

The full-forward line of Robbie Cotter, Pádraig Power and Jack Cahalane caught the eye with a combined total of 1-9 as they excelled with their offensive interplay.

“It was a proud moment,” says O’Mahony.

“I was texting Larry Jordan when we named the team, ‘Did you ever think you’d see the day that a Cork team would have a full-forward line of Christian fellas?’

“He was laughing at that. It definitely helps that these fellas have played a lot together, they’ve a good understanding.

“There’s a great buzz around Cork at the moment with the hurling, to be helped that at all three levels is very encouraging from a school point of view.

“School is back soon after the summer and you’d think lads will be talking about soccer after the Euros or rugby after the Lions, but now we’ll have fellas coming back to school with a real grá for the hurling.

“There’ll be a great atmosphere in Christians, hopefully talking about a great week in Cork hurling.”

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