Colm Bonnar manages Carlow and Éamonn Kelly guides the fortunes of Laois in next Sunday's All-Ireland hurling qualifier.
Tipperary men Éamonn Kelly and Colm Bonnar will pit their wits against one another on Sunday, June 25th when Laois and Carlow meet in the preliminary round of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship qualifiers. Like jewellers working on their diamonds Kelly and Bonnar have coaxed terrific performances out of the respective panels this year and the clash between the sides at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise promises to be an intriguing contest (throw-in 3.30pm). And, the fact that both men obviously admire one another adds another dimension to the contest.
“I would have the height of respect for Colm,” Éamonn Kelly told the Tipperary Star this week.
“I actually figured that when he went in to Carlow that there would be a response from the players and they would get results. In the Christy Ring Cup final they hurled with pure confidence, skill and a very good plan which gave them a platform. You could see that they were organised and that their hurling was top notch.
“If you talk to anyone who worked under Colm in WIT they all speak very highly of him. And, that, to me, is probably the biggest thing that any manager can look for,” Kiladangan man Éamonn Kelly explained.
Meanwhile Colm Bonnar, who won a Munster club title with Cashel King Cormacs in 1991, was just as complimentary about his counterpart Éamonn Kelly: “I would know all about him - I know all about the work he did down in Kerry, in Offaly and now in Laois; he always brings a good back room team with him. From what I gather Éamonn is doing a good job there and everything is going in the right direction”.
In their hurling prime both Kelly and Bonnar hurled for Tipperary. Colm Bonnar, of course, was a key member of the Tipp team which won All-Ireland senior titles in 1989 and 1991 while Kelly was a key influence on the intermediate outfit which also claimed All-Ireland honours in ’89 and ’91.
Following their playing careers the coaching bug bit both men.
Bonnar worked with Waterford (1999-2003) under both Gerald and Justin McCarthy (famously winning a Munster title in 2002) before operating alongside Ken Hogan with Tipperary (2004-05) while he also guided the Waterford Institute of Technology to four Fitzgibbon Cup titles. In 2008 Bonnar was appointed Wexford senior hurling manager and helped Ballyhale Shamrocks to win an All-Ireland club title in 2015 before opting to take up the reins in Carlow (November 2016).
Right now Kiladangan are a club noted for their ambition, but not too long ago the name of the Kiladangan club was synonymous with a distinct lack of ambition.
When Éamonn Kelly took charge of the intermediate team in 2000 the club had not won a game in three seasons. Four years later, however, Kiladangan were county, Munster and All-Ireland intermediate champions and in 2008, under Kelly, Kiladangan added a North Tipperary senior hurling title (the club’s first in sixty-five years).
In 2016 Kelly guided Kiladangan to the county junior A hurling title and currently manages the club intermediate team.
“Kiladangan is still number one in my DNA and whenever I can give a hand I will,” Éamonn Kelly told the Tipperary Star.
Éamonn helped Galway’s Loughrea to a county final appearance in 2012 and also managed the University of Limerick Fitzgibbon Cup team as well Sixmilebridge (Clare) and Ballybrown (Limerick).
Éamonn Kelly, a proud Kiladangan man, is in his first year as manager of the Laois senior hurling team.
Kelly graduated to the inter-county ranks when appointed Kerry senior hurling manager whom he helped to win two Allianz National Hurling League division 2A titles (2014-15) and a Christy Ring Cup (2015). Later that year Kelly took over in Offaly, but stepped down in 2016 before taking over in Laois. Indeed, the work carried out by predecessor Séamus Plunkett proved a key factor in motivating Kelly to take responsibility for the Laois senior hurling team.
“I probably would not have gone into it only for that. I had my mind made up when I finished up in Offaly that I was going to step away from inter-county management,” Éamonn Kelly explained.
The fact that the Laois County Board was prepared to back Kelly to such a degree was another contributing factor. Kelly is not a man for half measures and has worked to put the best support team possible around his players. Boherlahan-Dualla’s Conor Gleeson and Limerick’s Ollie Moran feature on the coaching ticket while Kelly has also recruited former Armagh footballer Oisín McConville to his backroom team.
And, Éamonn Kelly is loving every minute of it: “I really enjoy working with what I would perceive as an underdog. We were probably that in Kiladangan for years, but we got a good break, we went on and we had a bit of success.
“It’s great to get a response from players - I like that. I love working with somebody who might not be seen as a top dog and trying to help them to compete. I look forward to going up to Laois every night. Every bit of support that I need I get from the County Board and the back room team and the players are responding. So, it is enjoyable,” Kelly told the Tipperary Star.
CARLOW HURLING SCENE
Geography and family connections propelled Colm Bonnar toward the Carlow hurling scene. The Cashel King Cormacs man spent time socialising in the area before a call came in from County Board chairman Seán Campion.
“Seán Campion asked would I be interested. I had done three years with Ballyhale (Shamrocks) and after three years everyone needs a new challenge. So, I went down and I saw the Carlow (county) semi-finals. I was very impressed with the calibre of player that I could see. Although they have only five or six senior hurling teams I thought I could put together a very good fifteen - I thought they had the talent to do that. I got to know the players and it just went from there. The players want to hurl and they are passionate about Carlow,” Colm Bonnar explained to the Tipperary Star.
The Carlow players responded brilliantly to Bonnar. Although the Barrowsiders lost the division 2A league final to Antrim (0-15 to 2-12) and then the opening round of the Christy Ring Cup (again to Antrim after extra-time 2-22 to 3-20) Carlow beat Mayo (5-18 to 2-7), Kildare (1-23 to 0-15) and Wicklow (0-24 to 2-8) to book their place in the final against, yes you guessed it, Antrim.
This time, however, Carlow would not be denied and at Croke Park Colm Bonnar’s men surged to a spectacular 5-23 to 4-15 victory. James Doyle grabbed the headlines when scoring four goals, but it was the overall response of the Carlow players which warmed the heart of the Cashel man.
“Losing that league final was a huge disappointment for us, but we were learning the whole time and that’s the best thing about this team - they are willing to learn and to try different things. We re-grouped and we re-focused on the Christy Ring (Cup) - that was championship for us and championship is always championship. We played four games and we scored eight goals and something like eighty-eight points,” Colm Bonnar told the Tipperary Star.
“Antrim beat us by a point after extra-time in the first round of the Christy Ring (Cup) - that was the third time that we had met them and although we did not beat them we were learning all the time about the use of the ball and how to be clinical in front of the goal; that’s the thing about playing better opposition - if you are willing to learn and to adapt you will improve. And, we did. We learned something from all of the three games (against Antrim) and we happened to get it right in the final,” Bonnar added.
“We were very clinical. We only had one wide in the first half and we had something like 3-12 on the board. So, the players are learning and they are in the right environment to learn. Now they need to be tested by the better teams - it is going to be a big step to play a team like Laois. Laois are a step above us in the league and they are obviously used to playing teams like Galway, Limerick and Wexford. So, they are battle-hardened and I am hoping now that our lads can get themselves mentally right for the challenge.
“If you win this you are in with the likes of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Limerick and for a Carlow hurler it would just be unbelievable to be in with the likes of those. That would be a motivating factor - there is no doubt about it. I am looking forward to it because it is a terrific challenge,” Colm Bonnar added.
“Our lads were hugely disappointed when they lost the division 2A final - they did want to go up and they did want to test themselves against the bigger teams; they do want to get themselves up the board in terms of the rankings. They want to get into a top ten position. It takes a lot of work, but that is what drives them. They are very good hurlers - they have no problem hurling, but they just have to keep it going, be tested by better players and learn from that. They want to get there and they want to see how far they can bring their hurling,” Colm Bonnar said.
Colm Bonnar, a proud Cashel King Cormacs man, is in his first year as manager of the Carlow senior hurling team.
After a tricky campaign Laois finished bottom of the division 1B table, but beat Kerry in a relegation play-off before facing into the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship qualifier group. Laois duly topped the round robin series thanks to victories over Westmeath (1-23 to 2-17), Meath (3-25 to 2-13) and Kerry (2-21 to 3-15); that sequence of results propelled Laois into a Leinster quarter-final against Wexford which Kelly’s men lost (1-17 to 3-25).
“It has been a bit of a rollercoaster of a year - there have been ups and downs,” Éamonn Kelly admitted.
“There is a massive difference between the top nine or ten teams and the rest. We were competitive in the round robin and we won that. We are probably at the higher echelons on that side of it and Carlow are there as well, but then you are looking at teams like Tipperary and there is an awful difference. They should be putting in a B championship or something like that and play the final on the same day as the All-Ireland final to give teams a bit of a platform because the winners of the game between ourselves and Carlow could conceivably draw Kilkenny and that’s no good to anybody,” the Kiladangan man argued.
“Laois are majorly in transition - we have fifteen under-21s and only three guys over the age of twenty-four. They are very young and they haven’t got enough of a foundation in terms of strength and conditioning behind them to be able to compete physically. Hurling-wise we are not too bad, but from the physicality side of things the likes of Tipperary or Kilkenny would put holes in us. We played Wexford and okay we scored 1-17, but we conceded 3-25,” Kelly added.
Irrespective of their place in the hurling world the contest between Laois and Carlow on Sunday promises to be an absolute cracker.
“It’s great for both of us - it is going to be a fifty-fifty game and I expect it to be very competitive. I played against Carlow a few times with Kerry and I see this year that they are way more organised. They seem to be hurling with a lot of confidence and I would say that Colm (Bonnar) has brought that into them. So, it will be a very competitive and open game,” Éamonn Kelly told the Tipperary Star.
“I would say that it will be a fifty-fifty game and it could even be swaying in the favour of Carlow. We have an awful lot of injuries - no one seems to get a handy injury in Laois. If players get injured in Laois it seems to put them out for the year. So, we are just a bit thin on the ground at the minute,” Kelly added.
Meanwhile Carlow manager Colm Bonnar is also promising a man-to-man battle and an entertaining spectacle.
“We never put any kind of a sweeper system in place - we felt that we had the hurlers to go toe-to-toe. When you are playing other teams and you are moving up a notch you do, maybe, have to take a look at it, but I would say that both teams will be going straight at it on Sunday. I think it will be fifteen-on-fifteen with both teams having a cut at one another,” Colm Bonnar said.
“Laois will have good belief from what they have done in terms of preparation and so will we. Both teams have been putting up big scores and we do both go for it so it should be a good game. It will be a good test for us, but we can’t allow them to walk all over us. For Laois there is a huge amount at stake because this is what they have trained for - to get into the qualifiers and to get themselves into this position.”