FINAL PREPARATIONS Tooreen’s David Kenny (left) and Donal O’Brien from Ballyhaunis are pictured with John Connor of Connacht Gold (sponsors). Pic: Mayo GAA
“DO ye ever get sick of playing each other?”
That was the first question this reporter posed to representatives from the Tooreen and Ballyhaunis hurling teams at the recent county final press evening.
Surely it was a fair one to pose, particularly when you consider they’ve met in 15 of the last 20 senior deciders.
“I suppose you do [get sick of it] in one way, but every time you play them it’s something different,” replied Tooreen manager Ray Larkin.
Almost every other conceivable question and angle regarding this perennial fixture has been exhausted, but the passion for hurling in East Mayo certainly hasn’t.
The only certainty about this latest renewal is the uncertainty of who the winner will be.
A single point separated them in last year’s low-scoring decider, and this Sunday’s meeting is likely to be a similar affair.
Between their time in school, on nights out, and on various Mayo panels, it’s safe to say that few teams have spent more time in each other’s company than these two.
Ray Larkin summed up this 25-year-old rivalry neatly.
“There’s no pub in Tooreen, so you’re going to end up in Ballyhaunis for a few drinks and end up sitting beside the lad you’ve been marking the day before,” he tells The Mayo News.
Beyond the hurling heartlands of East Mayo, Tooreen men have made their mark for both club and county.
Indeed, many of the current senior panel have pockets jangling with Mayo and Connacht club medals, as well as a few Nicky Rackard ones from their exploits in the green and red.
Earlier this year, defending champions Tooreen underlined the gap between the two eastern giants and everybody else by dishing out a 31-point hammering to Castlebar Mitchels — a team who only contested the final as recently as 2018.
With only one meaningful championship game to look forward to all year, do Tooreen ever look beyond their near-inevitable meeting with their townie rivals?
“Every year your aim at the start of the year is to go to Croke Park with your club,” explained Ray Larkin.
“I suppose a lot of the lads would have played in Croke Park with Mayo, but when you come to your club, and you play in your county final, you don’t look past it. The game against Ballyhaunis on Sunday will be as hard as the next game.”
Whatever about the primary aim of winning a county title, the ‘bragging rights’ are always something to be savoured on the side alongside the main course of victory.
“They are never going to get sick of it, because they are going to see each other in Ballyhaunis every weekend. The bragging rights are always going to be a big thing,” Ballyhaunis goalie Donal O’Brien tells The Mayo News.
Twelve Ballyhaunis dual players are still caught up with the footballers, something which Tooreen hurler Cathal Freeman suggested as being a factor in Haunis’ one-point defeat in last year’s county final.
However, O’Brien plays down the suggestion that this crossover puts a relatively injury-free ‘Haunis at a disadvantage.
“The fact that twelve of them are playing hurling and football means you’ve a tighter-knit group. It’s not massively different on any other year,” he said.
“I think Tooreen are on the same boat, they had Aghamore playing as well. It’s not new territory for either team.”
Making a return to the fold this season after ten years away is 39-year-old Chris McCrudden, a man Donal O’Brien says has breathed new life into the Ballyhaunis camp.
“You get someone like him back in it adds a new impetus to the group. It just adds a bit of fun to the training,” he said. “He’s a larger-than-life character. Lads are looking forward to going training because of him.”
The battle-lines are drawn, let the game begin!
Mayo SHC Final
Ballyhaunis v Tooreen
Sunday, October 9
Tooreen at 2pm
Referee: E Shaughnessy