Hurling & Camogie

Brendan Crossan: Hurling’s warriors of winter will never be forgotten

Ruairi Ogs enhanced despite O’Loughlin Gaels loss

Cushendall's Joseph mcLaughlin jumps for joy after his eary goal got his team off to a great start in Sunday's AIB All Ireland Senior Club semi-final against Kilkenny champions O'Loughlin Gaels at Pairc Tailteann, Navan. Pic by John McIlwaine

NO game on this earth moves you quite like hurling. It’s the God’s honest truth.

Gaelic football and soccer do occasionally – but hurling is more adept at transporting us to a loftier, almost spiritual place.

Driving into Navan last Sunday afternoon the town couldn’t have looked or felt any greyer if it had tried.

Pairc Tailteann is big and open and grey. I’ve nothing against the place itself.

The parking is good. The stewards are friendly. There’s even a poke van inside the ground. Because it’s December, right?

And the view from the press box at the back of the main stand is as panoramic as you’ll get.

Still, it’s no San Siro. But it’s what takes place on its sacred turf that counts on days like last Sunday.

The Ruairi Ogs of Antrim versus O’Loughlin Gaels of Kilkenny – a stunning collision of ancient beauty, the kind of which that has an unerring ability to knock your senses for six.

Upon leaving the big, old stadium at around four o’clock last weekend, supporters and media alike felt more alive for being there and for what they’d just watched beneath slate-grey skies.

You’d love to have gone straight to the nearest pub for a Guinness just to tell the patrons inside exactly what they’d missed a couple of pucks away, but you can’t.

You’ve roughly 1,500 words to file for tomorrow’s newspaper.

There was no point in hanging around afterwards as the stadium’s Wi-Fi was non-existent.

On days like last Sunday, an Applegreen service station becomes a sports reporter’s second home for a few hours.

You sit in a corner booth - while unruly kids scream their heads off in a nearby play area - feeling completely daunted by the task of writing about one of the greatest hours of hurling you’ve ever watched.

How is it possible?

How do you sum up those opening 10 minutes from Cushendall?

The sheer ferocity with which they played. The absolute honesty in every action.

And where each individual on the field gave themselves over completely to the needs of the collective - and felt the reflected glory in doing so.

And how on earth did the under siege O’Loughlin Gaels defence find a way out of those moments to go on and win?

It was awesome to bear witness to - just as it was for those supporters who were fortunate to be in O’Moore Park the previous night where St Thomas’s and Ballygunner bared their souls.

All this special kind of beauty burrowed away on TG4 when the rest of the world was missing out.

In a parallel universe, footage of these games would be sent to Erik Ten Hag where he’d be informed that these Corinthians with sticks before him are of the most cultured kind; where every defiant act is selfless and undertaken for the people of their parish, and how they put themselves in harm’s way for no financial gain. Where their reward is simply pride of place.

Neil McManus's Cushendall eventually saw off Portaferry to book their spot in Sunday's Ulster final. Picture by Mark Marlow
Neil McManus Neil McManus has led Cushendall with distinction this season Picture: Mark Marlow

Nobody summed up the essence of hurling better than Neil McManus. Upon his inter-county retirement in June, the Cushendall native said: “I love the feeling of going up for a high ball. Whenever I’m watching a game, people are throwing ash very, very hard and somebody has the bravery and the skill and the timing to go up and pull that ball out of the sky.

“There is something special about that. You don’t get that in other sports – such a small ball and the danger that’s undertaken to be able to perform that skill, keeping your eyes open when sticks are breaking around you. It’s a mad thing, isn’t it? But there’s a beauty to it.

“It’s very hard to describe but when you watch some hurlers trap a ball, the way they off-load a ball, or they see a pass that nobody else sees before it’s played - hurling is played at such pace. It’s unmatched in my opinion.”

At the back of the main stand in Pairc Tailteann, reporters scribbled furiously into their notepads; each time we did so, we felt cheated for having to take our eyes off this compelling spectacle.

What we will never be able to compute amid those opening 10 manic minutes last Sunday was the clarity of thought and purpose among the 30 warriors on the field.

How was it possible for them to play with their hearts so much as well as their heads?

And is there anybody quicker in getting the ball from ground to hand than Eoghan Campbell, already with his head up scanning the field?

And the way in which Paddy Deegan grew into the game?

And David Fogarty’s ability to block out the noise to scalp home the winner?

Martin and Paddy Burke, Ryan McCambridge and McManus - they couldn’t have given any more of themselves.

Hurling is one of the greatest indigenous creations on this island - and all the while there are some in high places practising euthanasia on the game in Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim Louth and Longford.

In the dying throes of last Sunday’s game, Neil McManus scooped Ryan McCambridge’s pass into his hand and wriggled free of O’Loughlin Gaels midfielder Cian Loy, only to send the sloithar inches wide.

And with that, Cushendall’s race was run.

McManus was sore on himself in the immediate aftermath.

“I didn’t do what I’m telling the young boys to do every night at training,” said a rueful McManus, baby daughter in his arms at pitch-side.

But how he spoke and how he led in those crushing moments of defeat was as inspiring as some of his best days with club and county.

There are just some days in sport even when you lose, it has a life-enhancing impact on those who were lucky enough to witness it.

Nobody will forget the warriors of winter. That is legacy itself.

It’s the God’s honest truth: no game moves you like hurling.