Shane Conway focused on Westmeath challenge
By Kevin Egan
In the 2018 Joe McDonagh Cup, Kerry played five games, won three, and lost to the two finalists (Carlow and Westmeath) by three points in each case. In this year’s Allianz Hurling League, the Kingdom lost two games to Westmeath, both by just two points, and the Lake County certainly proved last weekend that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Yet for all their knocking on the door, Kerry will travel to Mullingar this weekend with little or no expectation, and that’s all down to their first game in Antrim where Shane Conway admits, they simply weren’t where they needed to be, mentally.
“It was definitely disappointing, we went up there twice previously and we got good results, we won both times," says the Lixnaw player. “Although the (club) football championship was on, still we thought we’d be right. We did a bit of training and thought we were ready. In fairness on the day Antrim were better and they wanted it that bit more. And when you want it more in a close game, that’s a huge thing."
With just that one game played, Kerry still have their fate in their own hands. They’ll round off the competition with two games in Tralee, so on that basis Conway feels that they’ll be right back on the front foot if they can take something out of TEG Cusack Park.
“I’ve yet to beat Westmeath in a competition, even in a League game. We’re still very very close though. Every time they beat us they beat us by about two or three points so you’d say if our luck was in we might just snatch it.
"We’re under a bit of pressure having lost our first game but look, if we could beat Westmeath, the whole Championship is wide open again. We’d be facing into two great games at Austin Stacks and you’d have to say even allowing for the Antrim loss, that wouldn’t be a bad place to be."
You don’t have to talk to Conway for long to realise that the positivity isn’t for show, it’s just in his nature. He has great belief in Kerry hurling, in the power of what can be achieved – as he certainly did his bit to show that anything is possible this Spring, when he won a Fitzgibbon Cup medal in UCC, playing a starring role.
In fact he was named the Electric Ireland HE GAA Rising Star Hurler of the Year, a remarkable achievement for a player who admits that he was wary of stepping out against established players from the Liam MacCarthy Cup counties when he first pulled on the famous red and black jersey of the Cork University.
“The first year gave me a fairly big confidence boost, Tom Kenny and the boys made me captain of the Freshers team. I hadn’t trained that much because Lixnaw were in the county final and it was played very late, I think it was in October. They made me captain then and I was able to go out and express myself. Then this year everything just kind of slotted into place”.
Conway is aware that in some counties, pressure would be exerted to scale back college commitments in order to have more in the tank for the Allianz League, but says that in Kerry, there is a huge respect for the value of Fitzgibbon Cup hurling, and how it can bring on players who don’t often get exposed to high level competition of that nature.
“It is difficult when you’re trying for the League and then Championship comes around, I can sympathise with county managers," he admits. “Now you’re into knockout and then if you lose your first game you’re in serious bother. In the Fitzgibbon it can be a bit of a problem and a bit of a burden at times, particularly to manager who feel the badly need the League points in whatever game is coming up”.
Conway is in no doubt as to where he felt he could develop most. “The standard of hurling and the players you’re coming up against every weekend are top class," he said of the third level competition.
“To go more competitive shouldn’t be an issue. It’s better than training so managers shouldn’t frown on it as much as they do. Fintan O’Connor was very nice to me. He left me alone until it was over he told me to just train with UCC and focus on them. He understands because he was over WIT so he knows what kind of training goes on and what the matches are like."
Conway refers to other Kerry hurlers that have made an impact on the higher education scene, including Barry Mannion, who captained LIT to this year’s Freshers’ final. However even for those who don’t, he thinks that the quality of coaches in Kerry is sufficiently high that real improvements are coming for the county.
“I can only speak now for my own club which is Lixnaw, this is my fifth year going into senior hurling now. We had Mark Foley and Ciaran Carey and I don’t think you can get much better than the two of those coaches. At underage Tweak (John Griffin) always took us and he’s still heavily involved. He’s an excellent coach, he’s training Erin's Own in Cork now, a senior club up there. So people from Kerry can actually go on to coach because they’re very good."
The Kingdom will always be known as football country, but Conway is particularly pleased to see the coaching experts in Kerry spread their wings, both outside the county and within it, where huge tracts of country side never touch a hurl.
“We’re always trying to expand it and to get more kids playing hurling. I think in the last couple of years it is working. You can see a few more playing hurling especially because of Tralee Parnells are after setting up an underage structure for minor.
“Tralee would lean heavily towards football. You have John Mitchells, Austin Stacks and these massive clubs and a lot of them are after starting up hurling. A lot of them are very, very skilful. They’re way quicker than most of the hurlers around because of the football mechanics there, they’re taught how to run and things like that. South Kerry then have a lot of teams involved, like Rathmore and Kenmare.
“They’ve an underage structure in Rathmore. Now, I know at the end of the day a young lad will probably pick football and that’s okay. But if you only get four or five players out of it that stay playing, that’s four or five that you didn’t have all along when there was no team there."
And how to inspire them? “Obviously our aim at the start of the year was to win the Joe McDonagh," Conway responds. "We got to the League final, we were beaten and it was a sucker punch to us, but we said we’d drive on.
"It’s the Joe McDonagh that means everything to us. All we were focusing on was getting to Croke Park and getting ourselves into a final and one that we would not lose this time. We’re solely focusing now on Westmeath and we’ll take it then from there the week after."