HURLING: Cousins set to clash the ash in Croker

Cousins Shane O’Donnell and Conor Whelan will be putting family considerations to one side on Saturday — with an All-Ireland final place at stake it couldn’t be any other way writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, who examines x-factor that the two forwards bring to their respective sides.

Shane O’Donnell and Conor Whelan after their All-Ireland wins in 2013 and 2017 respectively.

YOU could say that they’re both on the edge of the Burren — Shane O’Donnell near the outcrop of the place that is the Rocky Road up near Ballybeg; Conor Whelan next door to the real thing in Kinvara.

It’s why, Éire Óg Inis and Kinvara GAA club rightly claim them, having nurtured them, coached them and then watched on with considerable pride as they’ve scaled the mountaintop, won their All-Irelands and become two of the best corner-forwards in hurling.

Still, Sam Doyle’s in Killanena will always lay a claim to a piece of them, because of their families’ connection with corner of hurling country that’s as much South Galway as it is East Clare.

“We’re abut a mile from the Galway border,” says the landlord, Galwayman John O’Donnell, “and the hurling people always come into the place and always have.

“Sam Doyle, my granduncle before me, would have followed the hurling,” he continues. “The Galway lads would have predominantly come into the bar even though it was in Clare and then the Clare lads would make sure to come down and meet them. It caused many a row.

“The Sunday Game would be always watched. You’d imagine there’ll be a fair bit of interest, but hopefully not the same craic we had before, because we had plenty of pucking over matches here one time. We’re going back to when Clare were in All-Irelands in ’95 and ’97 — it was fairly hairy here the odd night,” he adds.

Two customers who always kept well away from that kind of stuff were Jack Woods and Tom O’Donnell — hurling fans like everyone else, friends, in-laws and the grandfathers of Conor Whelan and Shane O’Donnell respectively.

Tom O’Donnell married to Bridie Woods, a sister of Jack, whose daughter Caroline married Kieran Whelan. That made Shane’s father Martin and Conor’s mother Caroline first cousins, making Shane and Conor second cousins.

“Jack was always a huge customer here in the bar,” says John O’Donnell, “a real regular before he went to live in Gort, while Tom was another big client and he’s not long buried. Two lovely men.

“It’s why, because of all the hurling talk that’s in the pub, the connection to Conor and Shane, that there’d be a big interest in how the two lads are doing,” he adds.

That will go for the patrons from Inchaboy and beyond in Galway who’ll gather in Doyle’s cheering for Whelan and everyone in maroon, while those from places like Faha, Dromindoora and Turkenagh will be saffron and blue as they hail O’Donnell as one of their own.

To each their own, like it will be for both men on Saturday come 5pm.

“If I had a dream last night that I was going to score 3-3,” said O’Donnell, “I’d have woken up saying ‘that’s ridiculous, I’d be happy with one’. It really is the stuff of dreams since you were five or six, picking up a hurley,” he added.

THAT the cousins squaring up to each other are among their sides’ potential match-winners adds another dimension to Sunday’s unique family gathering in Croke Park — only the second time they’ll have clashed in competitive fare.

The first was the All-Ireland quarter-final two years ago when both effectively cancelled out one another, strangely enough they did that by both being held scoreless by their respective markers, something totally against the grain and at odds with what they’ve generally produced in the championship arena.

That’s because both have the x-factor, with some of the displays elevating them way above the ordinary and into the small category of marquee corner-forwards with the ability to deliver big performances on the very big days.

“His skill level was always a level above everybody else from about under 10 really,” remarked Kinvara clubman Garret Byrne on Wheelman’s exploits in his debut season.  “He was always that bit better in his skill level the whole way through.

“The lads in his townland used to walk up an old bothairín and you’d often see them coming across the fields. Sometimes you’d wonder how they got there because they weren’t getting dropped there. 

“He would always have been hanging around the fields back then if there was something on, like if the seniors were training. Conor would be there with the other lads pucking the ball around, while he was great at football and soccer too,” he added.

“It was the same with Shane in Éire Óg,” says Dónal Ó hAiniféin, who coached him in football. “He’d be hurling with Development Squads and with Clare, he’d just come back in and he just had it — he was just gifted and great to work with and a great team player”.

Remarkably both men burst upon the national stage — going from minor to senior before they’d pucked ball at under 21 level, while the honours that they’ve won since being catapulted from boyhood to manhood while still teenagers have been strikingly similar.

Both have All-Irelands at under 21, senior and a National League; Whelan has two Leinster seniors, O’Donnell has two Munster under 21s and a minor.

But apart from that it’s the instant impact they had on senior hurling — O’Donnell quite apart from the standout 3-3 in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay had already made a name for himself when getting the decisive goal against Waterford in the Munster championship opener, while he bagged another against Wexford before being unleashed on Cork in the All-Ireland final replay after fully recovering from injury.

“O’Donnell, a ‘Townie’ in the GAA lexicon of rural Irish heroes, lived a day that would have been fanciful to dream,” wrote Vincent Hogan in The Irish Independent after that All-Ireland.

“If I had a dream last night that I was going to score 3-3,” said O’Donnell, “I’d have woken up saying ‘that’s ridiculous, I’d be happy with one’. It really is the stuff of dreams since you were five or six, picking up a hurley,” he added.

“If you were watching him in training,” mused Podge Collins, “he’s the man. He turns his man and thinks about one thing. I’m more shocked he got three points than three goals. It would have been more of his style to get six goals.”

The rest was cult status for O’Donnell — being spirited out of O’Garney Park in Sixmilebridge after the Goal charity match under Garda protection because of the madding crowds, The Late Late Show and much more, albeit he was also firmly rooted as he continued his studies to PhD level before he embarks on to Harvard as a Fulbright Scholar his autumn.

It’s true that Whelan has had a similar impact with Galway — no Garda protection that we know of that is — in becoming an overnight sensation in the same way as O’Donnell did in his debut year, even if he had to wait three years for his All-Ireland.

He hit 1-2 from play as an 18-year-old in his senior championship debut against Cork in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final. “There is a lot more to come from him,” said Dominick Gallagher, his old school principal in St Joseph’s NS in Kinvara, after that game.

“Some of the goals he has got over the years have been outrageous. He would put the ball through the eye of a needle. He has pace, skill, courage, but then the works very hard at getting better. He’s the first at training and usually the last to leave,” he added.

An ethos that has certainly paid off for Whelan, whose upward trajectory continued in the years that followed, with the Young Hurler of Year award and All Star last year bookending a memorable year.

“The personal awards are the cherry on top,” he said. “The main ambition was to win the All-Ireland. The All-Star wouldn’t be possible without the help of my teammates. It could have been any one of the six Galway forwards that picked up an All Star,” he added.

A year on with another All-Ireland final appearance up for grabs the cousins go head-to-head, with both of them going into battle on the back on impressive displays. Whelan hit 0-4 in the Leinster final replay win over Kilkenny, while O’Donnell hit the same in the quarter-final win over Wexford. 

Now it’s a case of when Saturday comes. If the Artane Band is on duty the corner-forward cousins will be marching side by side, but in different lines in the pre-match parade around Croke Park; O’Donnell’s first day there since his 3-3 and man of the match award in ’13; Whelan’s return after his winning All-Ireland display bagged him those coveted end of year awards.

Between the cousins it is — “there’s no point worrying about it,” O’Donnell told The Clare People last week; Conor Whelan would say the same.

Between those watching the match in Sam Doyle’s it is too, as they take their sides, settle down, and cheer for the two players they claim their own.

Like old times, but without the pucking or the hairy moments, that is.



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