IN JUNE 1993 a heavyweight Kilkenny outfit rolled into Carlow town.
When they got there around 12,000 fans packed into Dr Cullen Park to greet them.
The reigning All-Ireland champions were a big draw, their team packed with stars that compelled curious locals to attend. Kilkenny took Carlow for 5-19 that day with the likes of Eamonn Morrissey, John Power and DJ Carey illustrating why their attack packed such a fearsome punch.
It was a successful hop across the county border in the defence of their Liam MacCarthy Cup title. That provincial semi-final win was a prelude to a glorious ending to 1993 as Kilkenny would complete back-to-back All-Ireland victories.
It’s taken 26 years for Carlow and Kilkenny to cross paths again on the Leinster championship circuit.
Kilkenny have remained a constant presence amongst the elite, Carlow scrapping away in the lower tiers before hauling themselves up to the top table by virtue of their Joe McDonagh Cup final win last summer.
Michael Walsh was Kilkenny goalkeeper back in 1993 and is on co-commentary duty these days for KCLR FM, the local station that covers the sporting affairs of both counties.
He can recall a heaving stadium and electric atmosphere, a scenario that he expects to be replicated when they renew acquaintances tomorrow.
“It was something like now, it was very well built up in both counties. Carlow had been going pretty well that time in the B division of the league. It was a very novel occasion.
“We got on top of them pretty early which we’d planned to do. Really from there we were comfortable enough. But it was a great occasion.”
The rise of Carlow is something Walsh has been able to closely monitor. He’s been coaching the Westmeath hurlers for the last few years and was part of the vanquished setup in Croke Park last June. After their triumph and subsequent promotion to Leinster, he knew the date of this fixture would be circled heavily in Carlow calendars.
Michael Walsh worked with Michael Ryan in Westmeath.
Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO
“This was a match they were all pencilling in that it was going to be a great occasion. It’s a big weekend for Carlow hurling. They deserve everything they get for the efforts that’s going in and the strides they have made.
“I’m sure Colm Bonnar and the players will be solely focused on the game but there is a good bit of stuff going to be around it as well. I remember we were playing them last year with Westmeath. It was generally one or two points either way between us but last year in the league final and Joe McDonagh Cup final they proved that they have gone that step further.”
The significance of tomorrow’s game is rooted in the stature of the opposition but also the proximity. Four senior clubs – Naomh Eoin, Mount Leinster Rangers, St Mullins and Ballinkillen – supplied the 19 players that saw game time in Carlow’s opener away to Galway last Sunday. Three of them hug the border with Kilkenny and Naomh Eoin’s grounds in Myshall are a short spin away as well.
In 2001 Kilkenny opened their club hurling door and invited Carlow in.
“They came into the all-county junior league,” recalls Walsh.
“In fairness to Carlow people they recognised that was a huge boost to them and it brought on their teams a ton and why wouldn’t they? They’re getting hugely competitive games.
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“Even one or two come into the underage setups. I was involved with my own club Dicksboro last year and we actually played Mount Leinster Rangers in a league game. It was a hell for leather game. It’s great to see both counties embrace the idea and it’s all for the improvement of the game.”
The Kilkenny influence extends beyond shifts in the club structures. There has been neighbourly assistance to modern success stories in Carlow hurling.
Glenmore native Tom Mullally was at the helm for Mount Leinster Rangers wonderful journey through the winter of 2013 and into the spring of 2014 as they reigned in Leinster and featured in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.
Tom Mullally celebrates Mount Leinster’s victory in December 2013.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Mick Dempsey and DJ Carey are closely aligned with the Fitzgibbon Cup teams in IT Carlow.
It’s all helped Carlow progress but for Walsh the praise must be largely given to the locals. All the components are there – a bunch of talented hurlers filtering through to senior level, a focused county board and a strong figurehead in Colm Bonnar.
“AI’m sure an awful lot of work went into those fellas underage, you don’t just pick up a hurley overnight and decide to be a good player. They’ve a small number of clubs but they’ve been very competitive in the last number of years. Especially at U21 and that, they gave Kilkenny a right scare down in Carlow (in 2015).
“I was doing commentary that evening and they played very well that night. They’re a team that’s been on the rise for a while.
“I know their chairman down there, Sean Campion, very well, he’s really into hurling. The big trick is to get a county board and management team that sing off the same hymn sheet and really develop and progress. If you have all that, it’s amazing what you can actually do.
“I’m sure Colm would say it can’t be done by one person either. You have to have a very good backroom team. I’ve seen from the last few years that he has. But he steers the ship as a manager and he’s done an absolutely great job. You hear Henry (Shefflin) and others talk very highly of him, down in WIT the same thing and his record speaks for itself.”
Carlow players celebrate after their Joe McDonagh Cup final victory over Westmeath last July.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Almost two decades ago Walsh filled the role of Carlow bainisteoir himself.
“At times it can be difficult. Certainly when I was in charge of Carlow in the early 2000s, it was tough. You just have to work at it and get the thing going. I spent four years there and by the third year we had it really working well. If I’m being honest, I maybe stayed on a year too long the fourth year.”
Come throw-in tomorrow, he’s expecting the Carlow town venue to be thronged with supporters. The novelty of the fixture is a lure but it also pairs two sides that arrive in a buoyant mood – Carlow after pushing Galway to the wire, Kilkenny after dismantling Dublin.
“I’d be amazed if it’s not full or else very close to it. It’s been built up now for quite a while and they’re running a festival of hurling around it over the weekend down there.
“It’s a novel fixture and because of last Sunday, I think that will add to it. Hopefully we’ll have a great atmosphere and a great match as well.”
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