'When this present generation of players goes, is there another bunch coming through?'

We chat to Carlow hurling boss Colm Bonnar ahead of a huge year for his team.

THE IMPROVING FORTUNES of the Carlow footballers has been well-documented over the past two years, but the county’s hurlers have made arguably even greater strides.

Carlow’s promotion to the All-Ireland SHC proper for 2019 means they’ll be rubbing shoulders with Galway, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin in the province. The Barrowsiders can legitimately consider themselves a top-10 side hurling team.

Colm Bonnar speaks to his team after the opening game of the Walsh Cup. Colm Bonnar speaks to his team before the opening game of the Walsh Cup. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Following the success of 2018 – where they landed Division 2 and Joe McDonagh Cup honours in league and championship – Carlow face a far greater task in the season ahead. 

Survival in Division 1B of the league and making a quarter-final will be the focus in the spring, before the round-robin Leinster campaign kicks off in the summer.

They enter the new campaign full of confidence and safe in the knowledge they have a steady pair of hands on the sideline in Colm Bonnar. The Tipperary native, a two-time All-Ireland senior medallist during his playing days, has managed Wexford, Waterford IT and Ballyhale Shamrocks in the past.

“It’s a huge step-up,” Bonnar tells The42. “The bonus for winning the Division 2 title is very attractive games, when you see the likes of Galway, Waterford and Dublin in it and then you’ve obviously Laois and Offaly too. Hugely competitive games from where we’re coming from. It’s a just reward for us.

“We’re looking forward to it immensely. It’s going to be a forerunner into what’s going to be expected in the championship because we’re going to be hitting some really big teams in Leinster.

“We had a tremendous year last year but the success of that means we’re gone into a higher level in the league and onto the top level in the championship. It couldn’t be any bigger really to tell you truth.

We can’t be foolish ànd say we’re going to go gung-ho. We’ll have to be very wary in terms of how we set-up, how we defend and attack. We can’t have everyone up the field. We’ll have to get a better pattern and better system going.

“We will be clever, it’s not a case where we’re going to park the bus or anything like that. We know where our strengths are and we’ll continue to play to our strengths. We have very, very good forwards and tight backs. It’s a case then of making sure we’re able to defend as a team and transition ball smartly back up to attack and take our opportunities.” 

Colm Bonnar Colm Bonnar checks his notes on the sideline. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Bonnar is entering his third year in charge of Carlow and it will be quite the achievement if they manage to hold their own in 2019. The number of clubs that provide players to the county squad pales in comparison with the other nine top-tier sides.

To get an idea of how thinly spread his resources are, consider this: the Carlow SHC consists of just four teams, which largely populate the county hurling set-up. Compare that with the 32 senior clubs in Tipperary or the 24 sides in Galway (including senior A and B) and it begins to tell the story of Carlow’s achievement in reaching this level. 

“You only have to look at the panel sheet,” explains the 54-year-old. 

“There could be 10 or 11 players from Mount Leinster Rangers and there might be seven or eight from St Mullin’s. You have Myshall (Naomh Eoin) and Ballinkillen who had maybe five in each and Erin’s Own had one or two.

That’s it really and when you look at the intermediate championship, the four senior teams are nearly always the four teams in the semi-finals so that’s how much they’re dominating. It’s in a very, very tight area in Carlow.”

It’s a talented crop Bonnar is working with and they reached the final of every competition they entered in during his first two years over the side. In his first year, they reached the Division 2 final and Christy Ring Cup decider, winning the latter. 

Earlier this year, they made up for the previous season’s loss by beating Westmeath in the Division 2 final and went on to back up that victory by claiming Joe McDonagh Cup honours against the same opposition in Croke Park in June. 

But despite their rising fortunes, Bonnar has some concerns over the future of hurling in the county because of their small pool of talent.

“It’s down to three or four clubs at the moment and it’s very hard to keep hurling sustained when the base is so long,” he says.

The support base wouldn’t be anything like it would be in the traditional counties. It’s just poles apart from where Carlow are compared to the bigger counties. There’s a great bunch of lads there and how long it’s going to last, I don’t really know. 

“They’re trying to increase the profile of hurling in Carlow because when this present generation of players goes, is there another bunch coming through? You’ll always get good hurlers coming through but it’s the numbers in terms of trying to keep standards where they are at the moment.

Kevin McDonald and Graeme Mulcahy Kevin McDonald takes on Graeme Mulcahy. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“They’re very consistent in terms of what they’re doing and the present bunch of players we have are hugely committed and they’re not happy with second best. They want to give everything the best shot they can and see where it brings them. They’re looking forward to it too but we have to be realistic as well in terms of where we’re coming from.

“I looked at the Mount Leinster Rangers game against Coolderry (in the Leinster club SHC) and I looked at the number of MLR lads that would be playing on the Carlow senior team and I’m looking at Coolderry.

“I know Brian Carroll and the Bradys (Kevin and Joe) would have played very well for Offaly over the years but I don’t think they much else on the county senior panel.

Then when you see club teams beating teams where we might have seven or eight county players on it, it kind of shows that we have an awful lot to do yet. But it also shows the strength of club hurling in a lot of other counties.”

Over the last few months, Carlow watched on as Kilkenny and Galway played a Wild Geese Trophy game in Sydney, while Clare, Limerick, Wexford and Cork featured in the Fenway Hurling Classic in Boston. 

Could the GAA be doing more to reward the lower-tier sides during the off-season by bringing them along on such trips? Bonnar certainly thinks so. 

“They love their hurling and when you look at the small support base they have compared to the bigger counties, I’m delighted for everything they get. 

I still feel they (the GAA) should be doing a small bit more. It would have been such an occasion for the likes of Carlow or Westmeath to be brought on one of those trips from the Joe McDonagh. Both teams are capable of playing at a very, very good level.

“To reward those teams and bring them with your bigger teams and the likes of Kilkenny, Galway (in Australia), Limerick, Clare and Cork and Wexford that went over to Boston.

“It’ll increase the profile of the game hugely inside in those counties and it’s something I think the GAA need to do. Small gestures like that even though financially it would cost a few pound, gestures like that are worth their weight in gold to the different divisions.

Limerick celebrate winning the Are Lingus Fenway Hurling Classic Limerick celebrate winning the Fenway Hurling Classic. Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

“Because you’re the whole time looking up and looking to see what the bigger teams are getting and they deserve it because I know the commitment they put in. But I’m looking at the Carlow lads and the commitment they have and what they’re putting into it and they’re putting in their five or six nights a week in terms of strength and conditioning, hurling and the physical side of it.”

Carlow’s 2018 season culminated in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final loss to Limerick, which arrived just six days after they secured the McDonagh Cup crown. Bonnar describes it as an eye-opening experience against the eventual All-Ireland champions, which left them in no doubt about the step-up they’ll face in 2019.

“Limerick did open our eyes a bit. Now, there’s a lot of things you have to take into consideration. It was six days after we won the Joe McDonagh and there was a bit of celebrating done. When you win a championship it takes an edge off you.

“It was great to get that Limerick game because it did bring us down to earth and it showed us the level the top teams are competing at. There is a difference in terms of where we were at and where they were at, definitely. Obviously it showed and they went on and won the final. For us it was great to get it because it showed we have an awful lot of work to do. 

Whereas if we’d finished without playing one of those teams we might have overestimated where we are and how much we improved. We were delighted with that game, even though we got well-beaten in it. It was the first time I seen the field full at half-time with young fellas hurling, it was an amazing sight to see. 

“There’ll be some big teams coming to Carlow this year and I’m hoping it will continue that supporters will come out and you’ll see the kids with the hurleys. That’s what it’s all about. They’re really doing their best to promote the game down there, they’ve only four teams so it’s not easy.

“So that will stand to us. You can have all the tactics, movements and plans in the world but you need to be able to stand up and compete because if it breaks down in any different area it doesn’t matter what you do really it’ll just cause a gap and it will just flow, flow, flow in one direction.

“Our championship was the Joe McDonagh and everything was geared towards that whereas Limerick’s championship was the Liam MacCarthy and they cut loose when they came down here. They weren’t taking anything for granted and you could see what’s needed in terms of that mentality.”

Mentality. It’s a word that regularly crops up during the conversation with Bonnar.

Colm Bonnar Colm Bonnar during Carlow's Christy Ring Cup final win in 2017. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

After they sealed promotion to Division 1B back in April, Bonnar told reporters that he felt a “different mindset” would be required by his players now that regular games against the big boys were on the cards.

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Expanding on his point, the Cashel native gave a little insight into how highly he values the mentality of a player as much as his skill level and physical abilities.

“The whole mindset of a senior player, when you’re playing your Waterfords, Galways and Dublins, they’ve been programmed into a mindset and they’ve been competing at such a high level that they’re looking for the provincial and All-Ireland title.

To be able to compete and survive in that environment, when you get rattled or things aren’t going your way you still have to have the mindset that you don’t start losing your focus. It’s easy say these things but it’s only when you’re put to the pin of your collar against the better players that you learn to control your emotions.

“Have huge passion but have ice (in the veins). Sometimes when you’re up against a better player and he’s starting to beat you, do you start getting frustrated? One or two decisions go against you and you start getting a little bit more frustrated, give out to the referee and your game is going downhill.

“Sometimes that can happen when you haven’t been exposed to that type of environment on a regular basis. The more you’re in that environment the more you learn to control everything like that. You realise that your mentality has to change because within a couple of thoughts you can go from being the best player to the worst player.

“We had issues with Carlow and a small bit of indiscipline. A lot of it comes from frustration so that’s something we’ve been working on over the two years and that mindset that’s needed to be able to compete at the highest level. A lot of it is having the confidence and ability and saying, ‘I’ve as much work done as the player beside me.’

“Having the confidence to work for the whole game and not to be looking for excuses and saying, ’The ball didn’t run this way or it was a poor decision.’ That’s the mentality we’re looking for, that players are able to problem solve on the field without getting frustrated and instead of going hiding, that they’ll come forward more and will look for more and take on more responsibility. That’s what the bigger teams do. It’s a lot of different things and the preparation they do coming into it plays a big part.

Richard Coady lifts the trophy with Diarmuid Byrne Richard Coady lifts the McDonagh Cup trophy with Diarmuid Byrne. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“The mindset of a Kilkenny hurler and the mindset of a Carlow hurler…where Kilkenny were and what they’ve been doing for the last 10 years, that’s a very tough, teak mindset with huge belief in what they do. They go through it and that’s the mindset where the likes of Carlow and Westmeath need to get to that we can believe we can compete with these teams.”

Bonnar has an intimate understanding of the inner workings of Kilkenny hurling. He managed kingpins Ballyhale Shamrocks for three years, guiding them to All-Ireland glory in 2015.

It was a driven group of players, but he was struck by the immense work-rate of star players like TJ Reid and Henry Shefflin.

“When I was in Ballyhale, the likes of Colin Fennelly and Mike Fennelly, moreso TJ and Henry all the time we’d be trying to hold them back a small bit. No matter how hard we trained and no matter how much physical work we done, they were always back doing more, doing more, doing more. It was amazing to see it.

“Whether it was their own individual runs they were doing to keep topped up and keep them at a higher level than anybody else, or whether it was the hurling they were doing after every training session.

“It was amazing to see it like and when they put the jersey on it’s just hell for leather. The Kilkenny championship is the toughest championship I’ve ever seen. I always said it, when the Ballyhale lads get out they’ve been well tested.

“Obviously, I know all those lads having trained them and the younger lads coming through. They’re an incredible, incredible club.  All their fathers and grandfathers have won and they’re doing something similar. The tradition there is just crazy.”

Shefflin has now assumed the mantle as Ballyhale manager and in his debut campaign led them to Kilkenny and Leinster titles. 

“Delighted to see Henry get in there and winning in his first year as manager.  I didn’t think he’d go in as quick as he did. And then to take on his own club. If Henry Shefflin had said last year before taking on Ballyhale that he was going to go into management, he would have got umpteen offers around the country.

“To go in and take on your own club, sometimes that’s the most difficult because that’s where you’re rared and bred. To go in there was a very brave thing to do. To be fair to him he hit the ground running with them.

Henry Shefflin celebrates with TJ Reid Shefflin and Reid celebrate Ballyhale's 2015 All-Ireland victory. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Henry Shefflin commands huge respect and if Henry Shefflin asks you to do it, you’ll do it because you know he’s not asking you to do something that he never done himself.”

Prior to embarking on a successful career in management, Bonnar enjoyed a distinguished playing career as a defender/midfielder with the Premier County. 

Bonnar and his brothers Cormac and Conal are part of a unique piece of history in GAA circles.

Just five families share the distinction of having three brothers win All-Star accolades – the Dooleys of Offaly (Johnny, Billy and Joe), Hendersons of Kilkenny (Pat, Ger and John), the Spillanes (Tom, Mick and Pat) and Ó Sés of Kerry (Darragh, Tomás and Marc), and the Bonnars.

“It’s special when you look back on it and when you meet up. We’re a close family anyway. When we were playing on the local team Cashel King Cormac’s, when we played football and there could be five of us on the team.

Sometimes on the hurling team there could be five too, Brendan and Aidan were playing along with the three of us. It was always great times and we had great fun playing it. It was always good to have family around you when you’re in the thick of it. I used to play closer to Conal and we had a good system going between wing back and midfield.

“The most important thing was that we were able to compete at that level and obviously to get recognised it was a huge achievement for us. Our parents had come from Donegal so there hadn’t been much tradition there in terms of hurling. 

“When you’re playing you don’t take a huge amount of notice in it. You’re just fighting so hard to stay in the team and to bring your game to a level that’s good enough to compete and win. It’s only when you sit back and it’s over. Cormac was five years older than me and Conal was five years younger, so there’s a ten-year gap between Conor and Cormac which is a fair bit.

“Cormac got his first full game when he was 29 and in the three years he was on the Tipp team he won two All-Stars and two All-Irelands. It was a dream. Whereas I would have been on it for 13 years – through good, bad times and it was all knock-out championship. You’re training for six months, playing one game, getting knocked out and that was it and having to go back the following year. That happened a good few times too.”

Colm Bonnar Tipperary 17/8/1997 Bonnar won two All-Irelands as a player with Tipperary. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

They won All-Irelands together in 1989 and 1991, and only for a strong Galway side emerging at the same time he feels they might have picked up a couple more. 

“We were unfortunate that we came up against such a good Galway team. They would have stopped us on three different occasions from going on and maybe winning an All-Ireland final.

“It was down to how good they were and when you look back they only go two All-Irelands out of it and we got two out of it. Whereas I would say if we had a bit more about ourselves we could have won three or four. Every team will say that but when I look back on that Galway team they were exceptionally strong.

“They had been beaten in two All-Ireland finals (in 85 and 86) before we met them. We came out of Munster in 87 and possibly that was out best chance to maybe do something. They had a couple of players that possibly would have retired and there were players moving off to the States around that time.

“Being beaten again for a third year (in a final) it could have maybe stopped that Galway team but they came back to haunt us in ’87 (semi-final) and in the All-Ireland final of ’88. They came back to haunt us again in the All-Ireland semi-final in 93.

“That’s when we were in our prime really, between 88 and 93 we were an extremely strong, competitive team. It was between ourselves and Galway but Cork slipped in between us and won one (in 90). We were happy to have won (two) and we could easily have lost them.

“Everyone will have regrets and think they could have done more but when you’re close and you’re there you’d like to do as much as you would.”

Bonnar admits there remains a lure to managing his home county and hasn’t ruled out the prospect of wearing the bainisteoir bib on the Tipperary sideline in the future.

“I’m in management and coaching. If an occasion ever came or whatever…I gave 16 years playing with Tipperary, it’s a third of my life at this stage. I’ve huge ties back there and all my family are there. You never say never, that’s for sure.”

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