Carlow hurlers still punching above their weight
By John Harrington
Joe McDonagh Cup finalists, Carlow, are arguably the best pound for pound hurling team in the country.
Until the recent ascension of Naomh Bríde and Bagenalstown Gaels to the senior ranks, for years Carlow drew their senior inter-county team from just four clubs – Mount Leinster Rangers, St Mullins, Naomh Eoin, and Ballinkillen.
But despite drawing their players from such a small pool they’ve consistently punched well above their weight and have done so once again in the Joe McDonagh Cup this year.
According to team captain, Paul Doyle, what they might lack in numbers they make up for in passion for the game.
“Hurling in Carlow is predominantly in the south of the county and it's nestled between Kilkenny and Wexford,” Doyle told GAA.ie.
“A lot of us would have went to school with lads from Kilkenny and Wexford too in Borris or in Good Counsel or even Bagenalstown, there would have been lads from Kilkenny coming in there too.
“In the League stages of the adult competitions in Carlow we play in the Kilkenny Leauge so that's a big help in terms of getting to a good level. There's definitely a big Kilkenny and Wexford influence on Carlow.
“We love our hurling too. There's strong pockets of the game in different areas. We're very proud of our hurling and representing Carlow.”
Confidence too has been gleaned by how well Carlow’s hurling clubs have competed outside their own county.
In 2014 Mount Leinster Rangers reached the All-Ireland Final, in 2019 Doyle’s own club, St. Mullins, reached the Leinster final, and last year they reached the Leinster semi-final.
Carlow teams tend to play the game with a really gritty determination and that’s been very much to the fore again this year during their run to Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup Final against Offaly.
Unbeaten in their five matches, the crucial result was a hard-fought draw against Laois. They refused to quit despite being second-best for much of the game and eventually managed to snatch a draw when Marty Kavanagh hammered home a penalty with the last puck of the game.
“Definitely, we’ve shown good character,” says Doyle. “We've been able to grind out a few big results this year. In other years I don't think that would have happened, but this year there seems to be a different kind of spirit in the team where we're just not willing to throw in the towel.
“There were a few times in that match against Laois where we were six or seven points down but we ended up getting it back level at the end of the game which was ultimately a crucial result because that point allowed us to push on and get into this final.”
What makes this Carlow team such a dangerous proposition for opposition teams is that they have some absolutely lethal finishers in attack.
Marty Kavanagh and Chris Nolan are two of the best forwards in the country on current form, and others like Paddy Boland, Jon Nolan, and James Doyle are also capable of scoring heavily on any given day.
With the luxury of that sort of firepower in their team, Carlow know that they’ll always be competitive if they can keep things tight at the back and at least break even in midfield.
“Yeah, we've some good forwards there alright who when they get a good supply of ball can do well,” says Doyle. “As well as that, though, it comes from the forwards as well working themselves into the game.
“Usually they end up playing well if they're actually working really hard so that's another massive part of it. We need to bring that work-rate on Saturday, especially around the middle third, because that's a massive part of the battle for the game. Whoever comes out on top in that battle really is going to have a good chance of winning the game.
“That's the area every team targets. We just want to get some consistency in that middle third on Saturday evening.”
When you draw your players from a relatively small pool of clubs like Carlow do, winning the hearts and minds of the youth in the county is vital.
The sight of a Carlow team winning a national title in Croke Park on Saturday wouldn’t just buttress the game in those clubs where the game is already strong, it could encourage other clubs to follow in the footsteps of Bagenalstown Gaels and Naomh Bride and further broaden the base of the game in the county.
“It would be huge,” says Doyle. “Underage at the moment we haven't had so much success, so I really feel like if we get some publicity on this game at the weekend with the game on RTE and hopefully a big Carlow crowd up for it, then that would be fantastic for Carlow hurling.
"It's badly needed because we haven't really had this sort of publicity since 2018 when we last won the Joe McDonagh. Having gotten to the final that year we went back down in 2019 so we're down there three years without success so hopefully this year we can bridge that gap and get a bit of success back and build on that .
"I would have played in that 2018 final too but I think there's only nine other guys left from that panel so we're definitely a team in transition. We've brought thorugh a few guys from the U-20s which has brought a bit of life into the thing again and rejuventated it.
"It would be great now to get a bit success this weekend now. We can't wait to get out on that field."