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GAA: Rathnure stalwarts who hurl aside ravages of time.

IT'S official - Wexford was Tir na nOg in a previous life. The county's hurlers should provide enough proof to any historian who doubts that.

Eternally youthful Tony Doran, George O'Connor, Billy Byrne are now emulated by the Rathnure pair of ageless wonders John Conran and Jimmy Holohan.

Conran and Holohan are banking on being third time lucky in Croke Park today. The great hearted veterans, who were coaxed out of retirement last summer, have already been at the altar twice on All-Ireland club final day.

But each time they have gone away without making vows with a title that has proved elusive for the small but tightly knit community straddled between the hurling hotbeds of Enniscorthy and New Ross.

Rathnure are the hurling equivalent of football's perennial bridesmaids Eire Og, six times provincial winners, four times beaten finalists. But Conran isn't asking for any sympathy or special dispensation for being around so long.

It may be 21 years since his first club final appearance but that isn't giving him any divine right to an overdue success.

"If we are good enough it won't pass us. If we're not you won't hear us complaining or looking for sympathy," he said. And yet they would be entitled to plenty of it.

Rathnure was founded in 1931, won their first Wexford senior title in '48 and have amassed 16 more since that ground breaking success.

No other hurling club in any of the four provinces has won more than their six provincial titles.

Sarsfields of Galway also have six in the less demanding atmosphere of the Connacht championship.

Yet the big one has consistently eluded the 'Nure, beginning with Blackrock in '72, the Rock again in '74 after a replay and then St.Finbarr's in '78 and Tipperary's Borris-Ileigh in '87.

Conran's memories of his first final are dim.

"There was a fierce wind. We had the use of it in the first half but we didn't take advantage.

"In '87 we felt we had a great chance but Bobby Ryan was magnificent for Borris-Ileigh that day.

He beat us on his own and it was so much more disappointing that the first one," recalled Conran.

Conran began life as a midfielder, partnering the slightly older Holohan against St Finbarr's in '78 but through the passages of time he has been on the backfoot with sitings at centre-back, where he starred for Wexford during the '80s, and now full-back for Rathnure.

The 41-year-old was quite content to take a back seat last year and after deciding to retire he took over managerial duties of the club's intermediate team for whom he also played.

But Conran was so sharp in some of those games and the Rathnure team were so short on experience that he was eventually persuaded to get involved again.

It's something he hasn't regretted.

"For the most part it has been enjoyable. It's never easy after games when it could take me two or three days to recover. God be with the days when I could play two matches in a day and there wouldn't be a bother on me afterwards," he recalled.

"But to win another Wexford and Leinster title after all these years was special, totally out of the blue.

"I thought my chance of an All-Ireland was gone years ago but it will just be the same as all the rest if we don't win," he said.

"It would be a great way to end the career. I'm not saying that I will definitely go but I'd be inclined to if we won" he said.

Conran felt compelled to come back and help out the club which represents an area Conran says treats hurling as a religion.

"We're a small parish, maybe only 1,000 people but nearly every household is a hurling one," he said.

"Everyone really gets together to help out with tremendous community spirit," said Conran, whose wool merchant company sponsors the Rathnure team.

He has already tried his hand successfully in management and is being tipped as a future successor to Rory Kinsella, the current Wexford senior boss.

Conran managed the Wexford under 21s to back to back Leinster titles in 1996 and '97 and those players are now providing the backbone of a new look Wexford side.

"We possibly could have won the '96 All-Ireland under 21 final but that was played only a week after the All-Ireland final itself which was unfair on us," he recalled.

Conran stepped down from managing the under 21s before the start of the '98 season but with Kinsella vowing to walk away once his three year term is complete all eyes will be on Conran to see what moves he makes.

For the moment though his chief focus is on bringing the club title back to Rathnure for the first time.

Conran underlined his dedication to the cause when he lined out in the semi-final despite burying his mother only a few days beforehand and carrying a cold into the Ballygalget game.

The 1987 Allstar, who endured as much misery as so many other Wexford players in the heartbreaking '80s, never thought he would still be waiting on a first All-Ireland medal when, as a 20-year-old, provincial All-Ireland finals came as often as the change in season for him.

He was a squad member on Wexford's Leinster championship winning sides of 1976 and '77 and looked forward to rick pickings in the years ahead. But the harvest he expected never materialised.

Typical of all things Wexford they strike when least expected.

In the land of Tirna nOg John Conran's chances of an elusive All-Ireland medal have increased as he gets older.

"It won't be easy. Like all Clare sides St Joseph's will be so tenacious and in Sean McMahon and Jamesie O'Connor they have two match-winners.

"Hopefully Sean doesn't do a Bobby Ryan in '87 and we can finally lay our last remaining bogey,'' added Conran wistfully.AIB CLUB HURLING CHAMPIONSHIP


1971: Roscrea (Tipperary) 4-5, St.Rynagh's (Offaly) 2-5.

1972: Blackrock (Cork) 5-13, Rathnure (Wexford) 6-9.

1973: Glen Rovers (Cork) 2-18, St.Rynagh's Offaly) 2-8.

1974: Blackrock 2-14, Rathnure 3-11; Replay - Blackrock 3-8, Rathnure 1-9.

1975: St Finbarr's (Cork) 3-8, Fenians (Kilkenny) 1-6.

1976: James Stephens (Kilkenny) 2-10, Blackrock 2-4.

1977: Glen Rovers 2-12, Camross (Laois) 0-8.

1978: St Finbarr's 2-7, Rathnure 0-9.

1979: Blackrock 5-7, Shamrocks (Kilkenny)5-5.

1980: Castlegar (Galway) 1-11, Ballycastle (Antrim) 1-8.

1981: Shamrocks 1-15, St.Finbarr's 1-11.

1982: James Stephen's 3-13, Mount Sion (Waterford) 3-8.

1983: Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim) 1-8, St.Rynagh's 2-5: Replay Loughgiel 2-12, St.Rynagh's 1-12.

1984: Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) 1-10, Gort (Galway) 1-10: Replay - Ballyhale - 1-10, Gort 0-7.

1985: St.Martin's (Kilkenny) 2-9, Castlegar (Galway) 3-6: Replay - St.Martin's 1-13, Castlegar 1-10.

1986: Kilruane McDonaghs (Tipperary) 1-15, Buffers Alley (Wexford) 2-10.

1987: Borris Ileigh (Tipperary) 2-9, Rathnure 0-9.

1988: Middleton (Cork) 3-8, Athenry (Galway) 0-9.

1989: Buffers Alley (Wexford) 2-12, O'Donovan Rossa (Antrim) 0-12.

1990: Shamrocks 1-16, Ballybrown 0-16.

1991: Glenmore (Kilkenny) 1-13, Patrickswell (Limerick) 0-12.

1992: Kiltormer (Galway) 0-15, Birr (Offaly) 1-8.

1993: Sarsfields (Galway) 1-17, Kilmallock (Limerick) 2-7.

1994: Sarsfields (Galway) 1-14, Toomevara (Tipperary) 3-6.

1995: Birr (Offaly) 0-9, Dunloy (Antrim 0-9): Replay - Birr 3-13, Dunloy 2-3.

1996: Sixmilebridge (Clare) 5-9, Dunloy 2-6.

1997: Athenry 0-14, Wolfe Tones (Clare) 1-8.

1998: Birr 1-13, Sarsfields 0-9.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:KEYS, Colm
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 17, 1999
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