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'To any of his friends or team-mates, it's no great surprise' - Kerry hurler making Fitzgibbon Cup mark

Shane Conway’s exploits with UCC have been hugely impressive in recent weeks.

Shane Conway with Rory O'Connor Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT WILL NOT be the first time a crew from North Kerry have made the trek to support a college side from Cork.

John ‘Tweek’ Griffin can recall the local excitement 20 years ago, boarding a bus as part of the Finuge fan club throwing their weight behind Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Paul Galvin. By the close of 1999 the pair were Cork and Munster senior champions with UCC, exploits that would prove a springboard to bigger and better things.

UCC's players celebrate 12/12/1999 UCC players celebrate their 1999 Munster senior club final victory.

On Saturday afternoon there will be another UCC link with their part of the world but the novelty is rooted in the fact that it is the hurling wing of their community that is represented.

The Fitzgibbon Cup final will pit a galaxy of inter-county stars in opposition to each other. Consider that Aaron Gillane, a current Limerick All-Ireland winner and fresh from toppling the home side in Nowlan Park last Sunday, will assume free-taking responsibilities for Mary Immaculate College. Their opponents UCC will entrust that role to Shane Conway, a 20-year-old flying the flag for Lixnaw and Kerry.

Griffin is his club-mate, a hurler who stepped away from the Kerry scene in May 2017 after years of service and was the captain in 2015 for their Christy Ring Cup success.

“Sometimes people from the top hurling counties, they mightn’t have a great insight into what’s going on in some of the other counties. But what’s great to see is the impact that Shane is having.

“There’s names there from various county panels that he’s keeping off the team. He deserves to be there. Maybe he was an unknown entity but it’s getting to the point now where he’s probably going to be a marked man. It’s great he’s involved in that environment as well. He’s learning from others all the time and it’ll only develop him as a hurler also.”

In elite company, Conway stands comfortably. For Kerry last summer he amassed 0-35 in their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign, shot 0-7 in an All-Ireland U21 B final win and then lit up the Kerry county final with a 0-13 haul, including five fine efforts from play.

John Mullan and Shane Conway Shane Conway in action for Kerry in last year's All-Ireland U21 B hurling final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

That blend of free-taking reliability and attacking threat saw him make his mark outside county boundaries. UCC went on a run in the Cork senior hurling championship last year, Conway shooting 0-10 in a quarter-final replay win over Sarsfields and 1-5 in their semi-final loss to the eventual champions Imokilly.

In the Fitzgibbon Cup teamsheet he nailed down a starting spot. He began by ransacking the defence of champions UL for 0-9 and after five games had posted 0-32 (0-22 from placed balls). In last week’s semi-final Conway was playing in a team that featured a pair of All-Stars in Cork’s Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon while he was going up against a DCU team anchored by defenders like Dublin’s Chris Crummey and Eoghan O’Donnell. Established names yet a lower-tier county status did not detract from Conway’s impact as he chalked up 0-6.

For Griffin this series of displays are not unexpected.

“To any of his friends or team-mates it’s no great surprise. We see that every night in training or in the championship last year or in challenge games. He just has that natural ability. He just has it.

“I went to all the Cork championship games last year that UCC were involved in. I remember the first night against Sars, I thought he was exceptional and maybe he was on the radar a bit more then.”

Despite his diminutive frame, Conway has stood tall.

“He’s 20 now and he might look light compared to some of the other county players but he can move, he can hurl, his touch, his striking all make him stand out,” says Griffin.

“He has that ability to bring others into the game to pick off scores from distance or up close. He’s deceivingly fast as well and his ability to get away from a man is excellent.

“He’s got a great temperament. If you watch him, he brings a lot of other players into the game. That point the last night with 15, 20 minutes to go when the game was tight and a score was needed, off the hurley on the sideline 40 yards out. Watching him the last few years, I’m nearly expecting him to do it.

“Nothing seems to faze him. He doesn’t seem to get too worked up. He might be a marked man but he just gets on with it. If he loses the ball, he’ll work back straight away. A great attitude towards it. He plays with a smile on his face, something that I really admire as well.”

His emergence was always advertised to Griffin who grew up playing with his older brother Michael at home in Lixnaw. When they won the Kerry title in 2005, their young mascot was already immersed in the setup.

Lixnaw The Lixnaw team before the 2005 Kerry county final, Conway is mascot with Griffin (third from right seated) Source: John Griffin

“If you know Shane and know his family, he comes from a real hurling household. It’s a way of life for him since he was four or five years of age. His brother Michael would be my age, I’m 35, and he’s been one of the best hurlers that have ever came out of Lixnaw. His dad Johnny is one of the mainstays in the hurling club as well.

“Great hurling people. When we were breaking onto the senior club team in the mid 00s, you’d see Shane and he never left the field. John McAuliffe was principal in the school in Lixnaw and Shane along with many others got a great education there in and out of the classroom.”

Griffin went to Cork IT in his third-level days and was exposed to Fitzgibbon Cup hurling under the guidance of current Cork boss John Meyler. He captained a team one year, got to play alongside pillars of the game like John Gardiner and Michael Fennelly, and absorbed plenty information.

“It’s getting harder for players now with the demands to try to manage it. I just think any fella who’s serious about his hurling and wants to develop and is in a college, it’s kind of a natural progression.

“I’d see fellas from Kerry that would go to college in the past, maybe they might play a bit of hurling or maybe they might not bother. Shane wants to be involved, he wants to play Fitzgibbon. It’s only his second year of college as well. He just has that love and respect for the game of hurling. It’s a good fit for him and a challenge that he’s enjoying.”

Shane Conway with Damien Reck Shane Conway in action against DCU's Damien Reck last week. Source: INPHO

To see his club and county in the hurling spotlight in Waterford IT on Saturday afternoon is something Griffin will cherish.

“I hope people realise how much of a significant and important competition it is for any hurler. It’s great to have a local fella involved, not just for Lixnaw but for Kerry, playing at that level and thriving there.

“I’m sure people from the club will go up, with all that his Dad has done through the years for the club and his brother Michael and his family. It’d just be great for Shane on a personal level but of course it’d be great for the club. I don’t think not too many Fitzgibbon medals have come to Lixnaw down through the years or to Kerry. It’d be a great boost for everyone.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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