Tipperary’s history maker Ronan Maher

By Ed Donnelly

The Under 21 Hurling grade at Munster and All-Ireland level first came in to existence in 1964 with Tipperary being the first winners of both titles in a team captained by Francis Loughnane of Roscrea. In the intervening 52 years, many excellent hurlers have played in the Under 21 competition and have gone on to become household names in the Munster Senior Hurling Championship.

During that period, a number of hurlers have progressed from the Minor ranks straight in to their respective Senior inter-county panels and had the task of combining Under 21 and Senior Hurling Championship duties in the same season. In most cases, a young up and coming hurler has assumed a supporting role in their Senior set-up, often starting on the wings or in the corner before progressing in later years to a more central position in the team.

During the history of the GAA, the position of centre-back is usually reserved for a team’s best hurler. Someone who can read the play, help out their fellow defensive colleagues and also mark their own player successfully. It is a position where certainly in previous eras, demanded a physicality not often found in Under 21 players.

And while hurling in more recent years has become a faster game where pace and power are the key ingredients, the centre-back position is rarely entrusted to a young up and coming hurler.
To illustrate this point, in the 52 years since the Under 21 grade began, no Under 21 hurler has ever lined out at centre-back on a successful Munster Senior Hurling Final team until 2016. In his fourth year playing Under 21, Ronan Maher (who will turn 21 on October 9th, 2016) lined out in the centre-back position in the 2016 Munster Final and became the first ever Under 21 hurler to do so on a Munster Senior Hurling Final winning team.

With so many good centre-backs playing for Munster counties over the years, such a statistic seems improbable. Some of the best centre-backs over the years such as Ronan Curran (Cork), Sean McMahon (Clare), Conor O’Mahony (Tipperary) and John Crowley (Cork) would have established themselves on their respective Senior teams at an early age but alas, their county was either not successful at the Senior grade in their early years on the team or they started out playing wing-back before moving in to the centre at the age of 22 or 23.

What makes the achievement of Ronan Maher last Sunday even more remarkable is that one has to delve in the history books all the way back to 1955 to find a centre-back on a Munster Senior Hurling Final winning team as young as the current Tipperary defender. In that season, 18 year old Seamus Ryan of Cappamore lined out at centre-back in Limerick’s 2-15 to 2-6 victory over Clare. Before that, one has to go back to the 1938 season when Waterford were crowned Munster champions thanks to a 3-5 to 2-5 victory over Clare with a certain John Keane lining out at centre-back. John was born on February 16th 1917 so had recently turned 21 before helping his county to Munster Senior honours that season. John’s impact on the game of hurling and of the centre-back position is one of folklore, a position enshrined by John’s inclusion at centre-back on both the Team of the Century (selected in 1984) and the Team of the Millennium (chosen in 1999).

Congratulations to Ronan Maher on this achievement and we look forward to following his career in the Blue and Gold in to the future.