ELEVEN teams will start the hunt for the Flyer Nyhan junior A hurling cup in this strange year of 2020 and the question on most lips is can Ballinascarthy win back to back titles for the first time since 1997/1998?
Having suffered the bitter experience of back-to-back final losses in 2017 and 2018, to Clonakilty and Kilbree, the Bal men proved third time is lucky, getting their hands on the Flyer Nyhan when beating reigning champions Kilbree in the final last season.
The belated start to this season’s pandemic championship, with very few hurling league games being played before the lockdown, means there is no reliable form to judge teams’ present well-being. The Bal men, many of them being dual players, proved they are in fine fettle with an impressive victory over Barryroe in the junior football last weekend.
Captain of the team this season is Luke Murray, who has seven years of action under his belt since arriving on the junior scene as a 17-year-old.
‘I have shared in the ups and downs of the Bal hurling team for the past seven years,’ said Murray, who works as an agricultural advisor in Barryroe Co-op.
‘Losing two successive finals wasn’t easy and it was hard to come back from that. It was a relief to get that monkey off our backs last season when we turned up in just the right mood for the final against Kilbree. Brendan O’Driscoll had laid the foundation over the previous few years as coach and Dermot O’Riordan of Mallow came on board last season. He pushed us over the line with some tough love.’
Ballinascarthy had also reached the junior A football final in 2019 so when 2020 dawned they had to decide whether to concentrate on one code or have a stab off both again.
‘We did discuss it at a few meetings early in the year,’ Murray said.
‘The feeling was that with the new championship grades coming in at county board level and West Cork level that a lot of good intermediate teams would probably be re-graded to junior over the next few years and that the junior A county would become very difficult to win in both grades.
'If we could win both counties, football and hurling, sooner rather than later, it would make things a lot easier for us down the road. It’s an ambitious idea but we’ve decided to have a cut off both again. Take each game, football and hurling, as they came and see how far we could go again.’
The lockdown put a spoke in every club’s plans for the season and how did Murray cope with that period?
‘I was at home, working from home, and helping on the farm, so I kept busy. I trained away on my own but when it began to look as if we wouldn’t have any games, it got difficult to motivate oneself. Then the good news came that the games would be going ahead and we were able to train in small groups, which definitely helped,’ the Bal captain said.
As a dual club facing into a very busy schedule for the next two months how are the players coping with the new reality?
‘The players are delighted to be back playing, especially as it all looked doubtful a few weeks ago,’ Murray said.
‘We have never had so many players training with such consistency and I imagine it’s the same in every club. Fellas couldn’t go away for the summer and that has definitely helped clubs, as well as having their county players available full time. In truth, all players want to do is play games rather than training and this schedule provides for that.
‘We’ve played a few challenge hurling games since returning but the concentration was mostly on football as we were playing that first. Most of the team are dual players so they are fit enough and it’s only a matter of getting our hurling touch back again.’
As the champions, Ballinascarthy will have a big target on their back this season. Who does Murray see as the biggest threat to their hurling crown?
‘You have all the usual suspects,’ he noted.
‘Clonakilty have a point to prove as most people rate them the best hurling team in the division, while Kilbree will be dying for a cut off us following last year’s final. You never know what team might emerge in any season. Jerry Ryan has St James going well and they have been close in the last few seasons. Dohenys could be a surprise packet with some good young players and they will be fit from senior football.
‘Every team will be gunning for us now and we will just have to be ready for the challenge. It certainly won’t be easy to win back-to-back titles.’