By Shaun Casey
CRAOBH Rua created history on Saturday, becoming the first-ever Armagh team to win the Ulster Junior Club Hurling title. They tried and failed in 2013, while St Malachy’s Portadown also lost in the decider back in 2004.
There was no stopping the Camlough men on this occasion though and Stephen O’Keeffe, a Waterford native now hurling with Craobh Rua, summed up how far the team has come in a short space of time.
“It’s about five years (since I started playing). We were having a laugh about this, I got roped in. When I moved up here one of the lads said, ‘we’re short for a couple of players, will you come down and have a puck about.’
“We were down playing in the Monaghan League and some days you’d be pulling players just to get people together, to get 13 (players) to go down and fulfil the fixture. We’ve went from barely having a team to winning Ulster and our sights are set now on the bigger picture again.”
A great picture circulated on Twitter on Saturday, showing the newly formed Craobh Rua team in 1991, wearing borrowed jersey’s in their first-ever game.
“Borrowed jerseys, playing on cut fields more so than pitches. That sums it all up and you were forever fighting to get these players away from Gaelic football, trying to get them involved and show their worth to hurling and what hurling means to South Armagh.
“There are so many people from far and wide, we’ve got so many messages from China and from New Zealand, from everywhere congratulating us. It’s crazy how a small little club in their small little village has such a reach.
“The reception we got when we got back to the village, there’s so many people that fought to keep the club going for years. They were so happy; they were lost for words, some of them.”
The back-to-back Armagh champions made the perfect start to Saturday’s showpiece with Connor McKevitt netting after just two minutes. That set Paul Cunningham’s men up perfectly as they never surrendered that lead.
“Our forwards on the day gave us a big lift, it was different against Glenravel (in the semi-final) when the backs really needed to step up. We’ve got good legs in them boys, Connor McKevitt, Ryan Lewis, Tiarnan (O’Hare), they have good legs, the boys can run, they’re fast and they can hurl.”
O’Keeffe wears the number nine jersey but lines out at full-back and has been part of a defence that didn’t concede a goal throughout the Ulster campaign.
That was until the 61st minute of the decider. Oran Kieran slotted home a free that reduced Craobh Rua’s advantage to five and pointed to a nervous finish.
“I’m 30 this year and often they say as you get older you move up the pitch, I seem to be going back the way. I played full-forward at the start of the year, then back to half-forward, then midfield and now full-back,” explained O’Keeffe.
“I think we gifted them that free, they scored 1-10 and 1-6 of that was from frees. When they got that goal, they’d hit a bit of a purple patch, we regrouped, got ourselves together and had a little word with each other.
“We needed to make a couple of tackles, a couple of hits, a couple of blocks, get another score and that’s what we’ve been doing all year. Our heads go up, their heads go down and that’s what we did.
“We didn’t think of it as such ‘oh no here they come’, we focused on ourselves, we focused on what we do and if we do that then that’s half the battle.”
Craobh Rua now face the unknown as they head to Manchester after the Christmas break to take on Fullen Gaels.
There will be a familiar face in the opposite changing room however, as O’Keeffe commences battle with a former clubmate from his Waterford days, Robin Spencer.
“A clubmate of mine in Waterford (Erin’s Own) actually plays for them, what were the chances? My club was on to me, two of our club men are going to be playing against each other, and that’s about all we know about them.”