JOHN O’Rourke’s tour-de-force performance tilted the balance Cork’s way as a superb All-Ireland series wound to a close recently at Newtownhamilton, Co Armagh.
His victory completed a glorious hat-trick for Cork’s champions on Sunday after two underage stars, Wayne Parkes and Cillian Twohig, garnered honours in U18 and U14. O’Rourke’s battle with Ulster’s Mark Toal was billed a highlight and it certainly fulfilled its promise as the pair delivered an intermediate final that will be remembered for some time. Going for a combined 20,120 (euro/sterling) the contest ignited from the off with Toal rising 60 metres on a poor opener by the Cork man and then following with a searing second that held his advantage.
Toal’s third was another monstrous effort taking him 100 metres clear and there were indications that he was taking control. The Cork champion’s large supporting cast were in full voice when he tracked two shots for the ages, that not only wiped out his opponent’s lead but gave him a full bowl advantage when that majestic sixth cracked off ‘Donnelly’s bridge’ and rolled to full sight.
The battle raged over the next exchanges, especially when O’Rourke’s eighth caught the left too soon, giving Toal an opportunity to close the gap. The Armagh man’s 13th did just that, an astonishing 300-metre cannon that brought him within 20 metres of his rival. O’Rourke didn’t flinch and a brilliantly-executed 15th shot down the ‘church brae’ gave him 80 metres leeway with two to go. Toal kept pressure up with a super 16th shot, but O’Rourke, with a bit to do, showed steely resolve and beat the finish line with a cracking last drive. He is the 2020 All-Ireland intermediate champion, his second national title won in northern territory in three years.
Matching that intermediate final for intensity and excitement was the U18 decider between Wayne Parkes and Darragh Gribben. Cork’s champion from Clon was playing under the pressure of being the hottest of favourites and, having recovered from a poor second to open a big gap with his sixth, it looked to be plain sailing. It proved anything but as Gribben roared back to level and then took the lead at ‘Carragher’s corner’. A magnificent shot-for shot-duel ensued with both giving their all, best exemplified by Parkes regaining the lead with three to go only to come behind Gribben’s magnificent second last. All to play for then facing the line, the defending champion retained his crown with a bullet-like shot that his game rival missed by 40 metres.
Rossmore’s Cillian Twohig was another to rise to the occasion as he overcame a tentative opening sequence to dominate his U14 final with Armagh’s Ciaran Corrigan. The Cork champion’s second and third set him on his way, bringing him to the fore having lost the opening exchange. He was a bowl to the good after six and then, aided by some ill-luck and some misplays on the part of his opponent, strode to a two-bowl advantage by ‘Carragher’s’. Corrigan, to his credit, did reduce the odds on the rise but there was never a doubt that the Tony Murray Cup was heading back to the late Ballyvolane native’s home county.
That feel-good factor was clearly evident ahead of Saturday’s programme at the beautifully-appointed northern venue. A two-year wait for an All-Ireland bowling weekend – the last was held in Drogheda 2019 – was at an end and bowling acquaintances north and south tentatively greeted one another conscious that that bane of society is still very much with us. The brilliant sunshine was an added bonus and the camaraderie and banter, so much part of these events, was in full flow.
Shining bright, too, on the opening day was the awesome talent that is Kelly Mallon. Carmel Carey had been a magnificent champion since 2019, but the emergence of Mallon back at the helm in Ulster spelt trouble for the Carrigtwohill woman’s defence. This manifested itself as early as the second shot of their 2020 final meeting at Newtownhamilton. A sweeping effort up ‘Garvey’s hill’ rose big odds. Carey did well to hold off the bowl of odds when she beat that mark with her third. Mallon soon rose the bowl and, despite a splendid ninth from Carey, held that margin to ‘Donnelly’s bridge’.
What followed next demonstrated the full extent of the Madden woman’s powers. Three shots of the highest quality brought her to the point called ‘Murphy’s brae’ and opened up an unassailable gap. Carey’s bowling would have matched most but not Mallon who won her ninth All-Ireland title by a two-bowl margin.
Not even Kelly Mallon’s underage trophy haul can match that of Cork’s Hannah Sexton who claimed her fourth All-Ireland crown when retaining her U18 title at Newtown on Saturday. Hannah moves to adult ranks – she is already in the 2020 intermediate semi-final – as a bowl-player of immense promise. Caoimhe Rafferty, also U16 champion in Ulster, made a good effort to stem the tide on Saturday and won the opening exchange by three metres. Hannah found her groove, lining impeccable third and fifth shots to forge two bowls in front. Caoimhhe’s ninth was good as was her bowling on the rise which kept the margin under two, but Hannah’s victory was never in doubt. She departs her underage career with an U16 double (2016/17) plus a brace now in the U18 category (2019/20).
It proved third time lucky for Eglish resident Sean Donnelly when he accounted for a game Andrew O’Callaghan in a gripping junior A final, the last of Saturday’s deciders. Defeats in 2018 and 2019 to John O’Rourke and Billy McAuliffe were consigned to history as the popular Tyrone man, inspired perhaps by his football team’s heroics in Croke Park, strode to a deserved first All-Ireland junior A crown. O’Callaghan has time on his side and will undoubtedly be back for another tilt. At the end of both days’ bowling respective chairpersons, Chris Mallon and Michael Brennan, paid tribute to Newtownhamilton Bowling Club and all finalists and their supporters for ensuring the All-Ireland staging marked a successful return following a difficult period.