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INPHO Lynch, Nash and Hegarty.
# Dual Stars
'He would have had opportunities in England, no doubt' - the sporting lives of Limerick's stars
Before they started dominating hurling, the Limerick players showed signs of sporting talent

THEIR SPORTING PATHS were not always clearly marked out for all to see.

Now they are at the peak of their hurling powers.

They have carried Limerick to a time of riches that seemed unimaginable to their county’s supporters not so long ago.

Bidding for a fourth All-Ireland in five seasons, completed Munster four-in-a-row last month. Those are the collective honours, there has also been individual recognition – Hurler of the Year titles, All-Star awards and widecspread acclaim.

But they could have travelled in other directions. In Limerick hurling reigns supreme now, yet in this group’s formative years there were plenty competing sporting interests.

Soccer brought Cian Lynch to Dublin, Gaelic football provided inter-county recognition for Gearoid Hegarty and William O’Donoghue, the schools rugby game was a stage for Barry Nash.

Coaches in different sporting spheres worked with them then and wished them well when hurling became the singular focus.

And like everyone else, they’ve been watching on and left hugely impressed by what they have become.

****

Cian Lynch was spotted in a tournament in Galway. He was playing for Mungret Regional at the time but the teenager’s soccer talents were soon to be transported to Dublin.

“The manager of that team in St Kevin’s was Joe Quinn,” recalls Alan Caffrey.

“He spotted Cian and another player from Limerick called Evan Shine. He convinced them to come up and play for us. They felt our setup, training ground, facilities were brilliant and Dublin was the right place to showcase their talent. You’re testing yourself against the best.

“I remember when Joe said it to me, I was like ‘How are they going to train Tuesday, Thursday and play a match on Saturday, with the travel up and down?’

“But they did do it. It’d be either Cian’s Dad would drive up on a Tuesday and Evan’s Dad would drive up on a Thursday. It was an amazing commitment by the players and by their parents to do for so long.”

cian-lynch Bryan Keane / INPHO Cian Lynch. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Caffrey is now Shelbourne’s Sporting and Technical Director and was previously the head of the St Kevin’s Boys Academy. He oversaw plenty emerging talents, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Dara O’Shea all passed under his watch. The club’s capacity to generate players surfaced again this week, their former player Dawson Devoy making the move from Bohemians to MK Dons.

When Lynch joined, he slipped into a team filled with now recognisable names. Jack Byrne is the standout, Eoghan Stokes subsequently moved to Leeds and Alex O’Hanlon joined Liverpool.

They were highly successful. Lynch was a natural fit in a team operating at a high level.

StKevins St Kevin's. Cian Lynch (front row, second left). St Kevin's.

“Cian played out wide,” recalls Caffrey.

“Good pace, good on the ball, hard as nails. Yeah, a good lad. You could see he could take up positions, read the game and understand the game, anticipate things. He was at a club and in a team that were really successful. So that winning mentality would have rubbed off on him I’m sure.

“They were very talented group of players and very enjoyable to watch as well.”

jack-byrne Ryan Byrne / INPHO Jack Byrne was a team-mate of Cian Lynch's. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Lynch kept hurling all the time, juggling Patrickswell commitments with St Kevin’s.

Having GAA players involved was not an alien concept. Meath footballer Matthew Costello and Dublin’s Cameron McCormack both played for St Kevin’s, current Dublin forward Aaron Byrne was a team-mate of Lynch’s.

“Dara O’Shea who’s at West Brom always played Gaelic,” says Caffrey.

“So you can see the boys that play GAA, they’re tough, they can take a tackle. They’ve got a good mentality. So you could see that in Cian.

“We never did and never would say, ‘it’s hurling or football.’

“At the end of the day, the player has to make that choice which path he wants to go down. West Brom were interested in Cian about going on trials to England at the time. He would have had opportunities in England, no doubt.”

Lynch spent a couple of teenage years, committed to the trips up and down the N7, describing himself more recently as ‘being young and naive’ when initially agreeing to join and not considering the travel it entailed.

Eventually hurling tugged at his heartstrings.

“The funny story was that I remember him going to Joe and saying he was going pack it in and go down the hurling route,” recalls Caffrey.

“Joe asked me to speak to him and basically convince him to stay.

“And I spoke to him in my office, Joe was there, I think Cian’s Dad might have been there. It was just the way Cian spoke, he had ambitions to play for Limerick in the All-Ireland, at that time Limerick weren’t the big team in hurling, obviously Kilkenny were winning stuff.

“After the meeting when they left, Joe said, ‘Jaysus you didn’t try too hard.’

“I was like, ”Yeah but you just have to listen to him talk, he’s got a belief that he’s going to play senior hurling for Limerick and he has a dream to play in All-Irelands.’

“When somebody has that conviction, I just thought there’s no point in trying to convince him to stay because he seemed to have his heart set on wanting to become the best hurler in the country.”

By 2018 that ambition was officially realised. Last year Lynch followed up with the second award that recognised him as the best hurler in the country.

Injury has interrupted his 2022 championship, he’s sidelined again tomorrow by another seetback.

Yet tracking his progress remains a source of pride.

“It’s been great to watch his star rise,” says Caffrey.

“He’s a great lad, his parents are lovely people. When they won their first one, I remember being at home like cheering on Limerick and I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’

“I don’t even know anybody in Limerick and I don’t know much about hurling. But it was just great to see him fulfil a life dream, I just love seeing that.

“I love watching the Sunday Game, one of the very best hurlers in the country that I’ve had the pleasure to come across and coach.”

******

When John Brudair became Limerick senior football manager, one thing became crystal clear after his first season in 2014. The top level needed to be fed from below, that paved the way for senior selector Declan Brouder to become U21 boss.

The Newcastlewest native was in charge for three seasons. They ran Cork to five points in the 2015 quarter-final, Kerry to three in the 2016 semi-final and Cork to six in the 2017 semi-final. No silverware but a bunch of future seniors to show for their efforts, those providing the core of Billy Lee’s current team.

Other products went elsewhere. Scan the Limerick teamsheet from 11 March 2015 and the midfield that night in the Gaelic Grounds jumps out.

Number 8, William O’Donoghue.

Number 9 and captain, Gearoid Hegarty.

Pillars back then, pillars now for Limerick.

“2014. Na Piarsaigh won the county intermediate football title,” says Brouder.

“Na Piarsaigh were an extremely talented hurling team, but they were very good footballers as well. Will was midfield on that team.

“The same year St Pat’s, who are Gearoid’s club, were in the senior football final in Limerick.

“Gearoid had been in the senior team with us in John’s first year, that was his  breakthrough year.

“Before we knew it Will was in testing with the seniors, gym work inside in UL in late 2014. That was the plus side of working hand in hand, 21s and seniors. Some of the results of that project were the likes of Gearoid and Will playing in the middle of the field for the U21s.”

william-odonoghue-celebrates James Crombie / INPHO William O'Donoghue. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

There were notable future high achievers across the national landscape of U21 football that year. The All-Ireland finalists were Tyrone and Tipperary, the former having Frank Burns and Cathal McShane as their 8-9 combo, the latter having Steven O’Brien and Colin O’Riordan.

Limerick’s campaign was shortlived but their midfield produced towering displays.

“One of the Cork midfielders was taken off on 17 minutes and the second midfielder was gone minutes after half-time,” says Brouder.

“It tells its own story when you think about the boys, the physical attributes that they have and their kind of no-nonsense approach.

“They showed a lot of leadership. Gearoid was our captain that year at U21 level. He was very much leading the charge.

“Cork were going for five-in-a-row in Munster U21 level at the time. I think Cian (Sheehan) got a goal with 15 minutes to go to level it up and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow this is on.’

“For us it was the start of something that showed that we weren’t just there to make up the numbers.”

Later that summer Hegarty was above in Omagh, pitting himself against Tyrone in a senior qualifier. He would later describe his 2015 version as a raw operator with scope for major physical development.

peter-harte-and-gearoid-hegarty Presseye / Andrew Paton/INPHO Gearoid Hegarty in action against Peter Harte in 2015. Presseye / Andrew Paton/INPHO / Andrew Paton/INPHO

“I remember the beep tests, Gearoid was absolutely bombing through them,” says Brouder.

“He was right up there in the top five, hitting big scores.  Look Gearoid had a good way about him. He wasn’t afraid to step forward and carried himself very well. When he came back with us at U21 level, he really did have all the right attributes.”

He kept juggling both codes for as long as he could. In the spring of 2017 he was sharing a Sigerson semi-final pitch with players of the calibre of Michael Fitzsimons, Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Shane Ryan. That afternoon in Mayo almost ended in UL upsetting UCD but Hegarty crashed in a late shot that just whistled past the post.

“I manage UL currently and Gearoid was there before my time. But I’ve heard great reports from UL in terms of him trying to play football and hurling. He tried to do it as long as he could but it’s not straightforward any more, so ultimately hurling won out in the finish.”

gearoid-hegarty-dejected-after-missing-a-late-goal-chance James Crombie / INPHO Gearoid Hegarty and Jack McCaffrey during the 2017 Sigerson Cup semi-final. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

O’Donoghue curiously only played football at U21 level in 2015, not involved in hurling at that grade for Limerick. But the exploits of Na Piarsaigh put him in the shop window.

The gravitational pull of hurling ultimately brought Hegarty and O’Donoghue away from Gaelic football.

It’s familiar tale in Limerick of sampling different codes. Limerick’s hurling coaching genius Paul Kinnerk was part of a county U21 team that contested a Munster final in 2005, coming off the bench in that game alongside future Irish rugby international Sean Cronin.

Hurling prowess does not sever the connection to the football heartland.

“I often say this with some of the teams I’ve been involved in the last couple of years, it was a privilege really to work with the likes of Gearoid and Will and other lads that have gone on to great things,” says Brouder.

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“They’ve been fantastic ambassadors for Limerick. The way they’ve represented the Limerick hurlers has been something we take great pride in.”

******

Limerick in the 2000s, undisputed rugby country. The Munster odyssey to reach the peak of European rugby gathered pace as the decade unfolded. In Limerick the city was gripped by it, homegrown heroes starring on a continental stage.

The effect trickled down to schools’ level, a scene that always tended to be vibrant. In September 2000 a new addition joined the ranks as the doors of Castletroy College were opened.

18 years later the school welcomed back six past pupils. The Liam MacCarthy Cup accompanied them as Dan and Tom Morrissey, Gearoid Hegarty, Barry Nash, Lorcan Lyons and Andrew La Touche Cosgrave had all been involved in the Limerick hurling camp.

“We had them back into school and the whole place was electric,” recalls Declan English.

“It was a huge thing. You’ve clubs like Ahane, Monaleen, it’s a very strong GAA community.”

English has been teaching in Castletroy from the start. He has coached various rugby teams and they featured some famous hurling names.

“The Morrissey twins, Paddy and Tom, played junior cup. Paddy played on the wing and Tom was second row. Barry Nash played 13 and 15. Lorcan Lyons was hooker, they were all county minor players for Limerick.”

In 2012 their junior team reached the semi-final of the Munster Cup, losing out to CBC Cork.

Of all the names, one stood out.

“Barry Nash was the superstar, very talented,” says English.

“He was very fast and very strong with the ball in hand. He just had it, he was gifted.

“He could have gone either way. I reckon he was good enough to play professional rugby. But his passion was always hurling. He was definitely from a GAA family.”

Combining hurling and rugby duties was promoted at the start but ultimately a choice was required to be made.

“What happened in the school was Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you played rugby. Then Tuesday and Thursday was GAA. So there was never a crossover, they were encouraged to play everything on the way up. When they were specialising and getting better, they were basically told, you need to follow their main sport. They were never forced to do anything.

“So after Junior Cup, those lads would have gone off to hurling and the way the Harty Cup worked anyway, it clashed with fixtures so it would never work. Even when they were out of the Harty Cup it was too late to come back into the Senior Cup Rugby, they kind of missed too much. It’s impossible to do both, not when you’re trying to study as well.”

tom-morrissey-takes-a-shot Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Morrissey. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

There was a support structure there to help them. Night-time study classes were provided for those busy with sport in the afternoons. Athletes Ciara Neville and Sarah Lavin, swimmer Grainne Murphy are other former students. An insight into S&C work was also provided.

They were not the first English had witnessed facing sporting dilemmas. On St Patrick’s Day 2008, Castletroy won their first Munster senior schools cup against a PBC Cork team featuring Simon Zebo and captained by Peter O’Mahony.

“We’d a guy called Cormac Joyce-Power, full-back on that team. This guy was able to kick a ball from our five-metre line to the opposition’s five-metre line. He was a Gaelic footballer, he wouldn’t sign for Munster, his future was with Limerick football.

“I think skills are transferrable in sport.  They’re coming through on both sides, hurling and rugby, from the school. Currently Neil Cronin is in the Munster squad. Paul O’Connell’s nephew Evan has finished the Leaving Cert, he’s now in the academy, as is Greg Olive’s son Jack as a scrum-half. Stephen Kiely played in the Sevens last weekend in Poland.”

neil-cronin Ryan Byrne / INPHO Neil Cronin. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Hurling consumed their focus, Nash spearheaded the team in 2015 that lost a Harty Cup semi-final by a point to Thurles CBS.

He’s one of five past pupils in the frame for Limerick on Sunday, joined by the Morrissey brothers, Hegarty and newcomer Ciaran Barry from Ahane. The passion for GAA that was evident in their school days has fuelled their rapid rise along with a ceaseless dedication to improvement.

“They’re great examples of kids who’ve developed and kept going and got to where they are now,” says English.

“Gearoid Hegarty grew into himself, he was a very tall, skinny young fella. He’s a massive man now. In Leaving Cert year you’d never have said they’d be where they are now. They’ve the physiques of rugby players who are paid to do it and these guys are working as well.

“I’ve nothing but respect for them.”

*****
Links are maintained to former sporting lives. In March, Jack Byrne was a guest on the Saturday show on Off The Ball when current soccer chat was interrupted by a discussion on Lynch.

Byrne spoke about how the two met up when they were both in Dubai last December and keep in touch as they pursue their different sporting agendas.

“It’s a huge thing that I always wanted to develop at the club, the bond that they connect with each other” says Caffrey.

“There’s one group, they’re in their 30s and they still have their group together. I’ve always said when you win together, it forms a bond, memories that will always last. It was great when I heard Jack saying about them meeting in Dubai, it’s great that they still have that connection.

“I take as much enjoyment and pleasure out of Jack Byrne going on and playing for Ireland as I do Cian going and winning these All-Irelands.

“Not even, it doesn’t matter about winning, it’s going on and representing and playing at such a level, it’s great to see.”

Playing. Representing. Winning.

They show no signs of slowing down.

– First published 07.00, 16 July

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