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More than a Decade of the Irish Championships
Ronan McInerney - September 2004
I think it is fitting that this account be written just after Mark McInerney beat Robert Fulford in the final of the 2004 Irish Open, in what was surely the highest standard final of this event in more than 100 years of its history. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to witness Mark’s first Irish Championship win in such amazing fashion. I was also absent for the 1998 and 2000 competitions. But since I began playing, I have been involved in the Irish Championship as either a spectator or player every year I have been in the country. For this reason I feel I can give you a fairly accurate account of the last 10 years (and a little more) of the main event. I hope you will enjoy reading my personal account, an insider's view, as I try to resurrect more than a decade of memories of the Irish Championship Singles.
THE EARLY 90’S
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my interest in the Open Singles during the big August Week in Carrickmines was minimal. Aged about 11, my focus was on the Reggie Leonard Novice Trophy, and for the years that followed, the USCA Salver (handicap 10+), the Green Cup (handicap 5+), and always the Founders Cup (handicap singles). I came close to winning all of these events, but never did (Ray Flood contributing to my misery on more than one occasion). Anyway, while I was receiving bisques-a-plenty, the main event was being dominated by foreigners. The Irish Open week in Carrickmines had become a hugely popular event and the visitors were sometimes outnumbering the locals. The sponsorship of Guardian Royal Exchange (as it was known at the time) in the early 90’s, thanks to Gerard Healy, went a long way towards making the event a big affair. I remember numerous photos appearing in the newspapers in those days, as well as the big GRE banners hanging on the fences of each lawn. The overseas domination was strong, and perhaps it was no surprise that in the five years 1990 to 1994, there was only one Irish winner of the event - Fred Rogerson winning in 1992 (I can still vividly recall Fred pulling out a mammoth sized champagne bottle the night of the Annual Croquet Dinner, much to Irish delight!). The other years were won by Jerry Guest (Eng) in 1990, Lewis Palmer (Wal) in 1991, Aaron Westerby (NZ) in 1993, and George Noble (Eng) in 1994. Simon Williams, at the time, was undoubtedly Ireland’s top player, but his reward since winning his first title in 1988 had been an almost long term lease of the Leslie Webb Salver i.e. the silver plate received by the runner-up of the Championship. I remember well the name of this piece of silverware as I too became a fond minder of it soon after.
1993 was the first year I entered the Championship Singles, and who did I draw in the first round - Simon Williams. In this instance coach pretty much swept aside pupil in two games. In the next round, Simon beat another pupil, Ed Cunninngham, but not so easily. This was the last time Simon would beat us both with comfort in the early stages of this event, and it would be 1998 the next time an Irish player other than myself or Ed would win either the Irish or Dublin Championship.
In 1994, George Noble beat me comfortably 2-0 in the final of the Championship. I had just turned 16, and my inexperience was very evident in the final. However, the achievement was in actually reaching the final. In the quarterfinals on my side of the draw, Ed Cunningham and myself had knocked out the two seeds (Ed beat ’91 champion Lewis Palmer 2-1, I beat ’92 champion Fred Rogerson 2-1). By doing this we set up a semi-final match that neither of us will forget on a sun drenched lawn 2. I took the first, Ed made it 1-1. The decider was one of those games that had so many turning points and “last shots” – I eventually won the third +1 in a thriller after failed triples, long range hit-ins, a pegged out game, another hit in, a wiring lift, a missed double at the peg and my ball, and a peg-out! Anyway, I believe Ed would have put on a better show in the final had he beaten me, but he wouldn’t have to wait too much longer for his moment. The foreign reign was about to end, and the very impressive statistic of just one overseas win in the next ten years was surely aided by the fact that myself and Ed had reached a higher level that could now match Simon Williams – and the next few years of domestic competition would portray this…
1995 – Ed Cunningham
John Walters, a former World Champion and visitor to Carrickmines in 1991, was back again. In the semis however, he fell to Ed Cunningham in two close games on lawn 2. In the other semi on lawn 1, I beat Simon Williams in two games (this began a four match winning streak against Simon in this event). And so, last year’s exciting semi-final was this year’s final – there would be a new Irish champion. Although this match went to three games, it was an ugly affair. I took game one, and had a finishing opportunity in game two but stuck in 2-back. Ed took the opportunity and didn’t look back, claiming his first title aged 20. I was runner-up for the second year in a row, and in a very depressed state began to wonder would it ever happen for me in this particular event.
1996 – Ronan McInerney
Ed Cunningham was seeded no.1, myself and Simon Williams 2 & 3 and in the same half. Malcolm O’Connell (Scot) was 4. The first round threw out an upset, and very nearly two. I played Robert Barklie who was having an almost error free match. I sneaked the decider +4 after hitting my last shot. I remember thinking this was definitely a sign, especially when Ed was knocked out by Michael O’Shaughnessy 2-0 during that same afternoon. So, in the first semi-final, Malcolm O’Connell beat Michael 2-1 in a very close match, and I again met Simon in the other semi on lawn 2, again beating him 2-0. But this time it was a lot closer, +3, +3TP. The famous hill at rover was up to its old tricks and had again taken out its favourite victim in Simon.
The final was tense. Once more there would be a new champion, and it was third time lucky for me, beating Malcolm O’Connell 2-0. Aged 18, I had become the youngest winner in the event's history. It wasn’t so much a feeling of joy, but one of indescribable relief – why does this competition prove so difficult to win with so few matches required to win it? I think this is a contributing factor to making this such a unique event, as form can so often be irrelevant once the nerves set in.
1997 – Ronan McInerney
The large inflow of visitors that was so prominent at the Irish Championships in the early 90's had almost disappeared. Simon Williams and myself were the top seeds and Ed Cunningham was on a break. Both semis were won in two games; I beat Malcolm O’Connell in a repeat of last year’s final, and Simon beat Tony le Moignan from Jersey. The final went down to the wire. I took the first game after Simon called a fault on himself at a crucial stage. Simon won the second with a 6th turn +26TP, and he was about to do exactly the same in a carbon copy decider, but this was lawn 2, and “rover hill” was about to pounce on Simon again, just as I was getting ready to shake hands. I got my chance but didn’t take it immediately, breaking down straight away. Simon hit, made rover and laid up for the finishing turn. I hit and slowly crawled back, completing three turns in very nervous fashion to win +3, an absolute steal. A long time player in Carrickmines told me that this was the most exciting final he had ever seen – I suppose unpredictability makes anything a good spectacle, and this certainly had that. Simon’s only title win in 1988 was now a long time ago, but he wouldn’t have to wait much longer…
1998 – Simon Williams
For the first time since I began playing I would miss the Irish Championships, a very strange feeling – that Bank Holiday August week had always meant only one thing, croquet. Anyway, the great news for the event was that there was a big inflow of visitors once again, with top players coming from both Canada and Jersey, as well as the UK. The Irish representatives for the most part did little to aid the “No Foreign Winners Allowed” policy that had been restored to order in recent years. In fact, by the semi-final stage there were three English left in the event, and only one Irish – Simon Williams – could Simon at last break his barren run of no title since ’88? The semis certainly indicated that this was his year, he beat David Kibble +26TP, +26TP. Phil Cordingley beat Don Gaunt 2-1 in the other semi, and would therefore meet Simon in the final. Simon came through 2-0 much to the delight of Carrickmines (he didn’t drop a game in the event). I can only assume that Simon felt a massive relief at winning the event that had eluded him for ten years – a popular win.
1999 – Matthew Burrow (Jersey)
The USA team had just been well beaten by the Irish in Carrickmines the week before the Championship, and we were delighted to have Jaques Fournier (ranked 5th in the world at the time) and Mik Mehas stay on for the Irish Open. Matt Burrow was over for the second year in a row also, but to be honest we expected an Irish winner – we were all in top form after dropping only one singles match out of eighteen between us in the Carter Trophy the week before. But, as I said earlier, form often counts for nothing.
I was in the American half and was playing well. I beat Mik Mehas 2-0 in the quarterfinal but suddenly lost my hitting against Jaques Fournier in the semi. I can scarily recall missing no less than seven shots in the two game match – Jaques won 2-0. The rest of the Irish contingent made up the other half, and a surprise was thrown out early – Mark McInerney, new on the Irish team, knocked out Ed Cunningham, 2-1 (Ed since winning in ’95 had lost his opening match in each of the 3 years he had played in since). Simon Williams beat Mark McInerney 2-0 in the quarter final, and Matt Burrow beat Alan McInerney 2-0 in the other quarter final. And in the semi, Simon’s luck went the same way as mine, Matt took a close match 2-1 ensuring there would be a new champion, and for the first time since ’94, an overseas one. The final was won comfortably by Matt, who beat Jaques 2-0 (+25, +23TP) to deservedly take the title.
2000 – Ed Cunningham
Ed Cunningham was very much on form in 2000, but after a terrible run in the Irish Championships in recent years, noone could predict the outcome this year, especially as Matt Burrow was back again to defend his title, along with Shane Davis from New Zealand and biggest of all, Stephen Mulliner of England, a top five player at the time who was expected to win. I was in New Zealand for this Championship.
One of the great successes of this Championship was Ronan Rogerson. Still fairly new on the scene, he had a very impressive 2-0 win against Mark McInerney in the first round, and went on to the semi-final before losing very respectively to Stephen Mulliner +4TP, +17. Stephen had knocked out Matt Burrow in the quarterfinal, 2-0, who had in turn knocked out Simon Williams (2-0) in the opening stages (I can’t recall Simon getting knocked out before the semi-final stage in my time until now). In the other half, Ed Cunningham was progressing nicely and was starting to find his top form. He beat Shane Davis in the semi-final 2-0 (+17, +26TP) and set up a final against Stephen Mulliner. For the first time the final would be a best of five, and for Ed, his first title since ’95 – a 3-0 demolition job on one of the world’s best players, a fantastic win. It is amazing to think that Ed’s last win in a match in this event before this year was beating me in the final five years previous. As for Stephen Mulliner, he vowed to return next year.
2001 – Simon Williams
A large number of visitors were present this year. The form players at home were Ed Cunningham and Mark McInerney, both untouchable in domestic competition earlier in the season and both with very high world rankings. Simon Williams, in contrast, was in the worst form I had ever seen him only six weeks previous. And I was glad to be back, but how brief it was. Phil Cordingley, runner-up to Simon Williams in ’98, was managing the event and decided to ruin my Championship in the first round 2-0. He played well and I never got going, disheartening to say the least. Suddenly, my last win in ’97 seemed a long time ago and it doesn’t take much for your confidence to take a knock in the Irish Open.
Stephen Mulliner was back as promised, but not for long. In a big surprise, Jonathon Kirby from Scotland beat him 2-1 to send him home within twenty-four hours of arriving in Ireland for the August week! Matt Burrow was back for his fourth consecutive Championship, and he beat his mother, Sarah Burrow in quite a close opening match 2-0. Elsewhere, Alan McInerney found good form to knock out New Zealand’s Greg Bryant 2-0, while Ed Cunningham beat Patsy Fitzgerald 2-1, and Mark McInerney beat Andrew Johnston 2-0. Chris Patmore knocked out fellow Scotsman Jonathon Kirby in the quarter final 2-1. Phil Cordingley again upset the form book and knocked out Matt Burrow 2-1. And in an always anticipated but rarely seen match between the two, Simon Williams and Ed Cunningham met – again the form book went out the window as Simon very quickly beat Ed 2-0 (+24, +26TP). Mark McInerney and Alan McInerney met in the last quarter final in what was the first time any of the McInerneys had met in the Irish Open. In what ended up being a mistake-ridden match but never an easy one to play in, Mark beat Alan 2-0.
In the semi-finals, Phil Cordingley continued to impress, disposing of Chris Patmore 2-0. And Simon Williams, straight after beating Ed Cunningham in the morning, went out and beat Mark McInerney in even quicker time in the afternoon 2-0 (+26TP, +23TP). The most unlikely final was about to take place – the manager Phil Cordingley against Simon Williams (almost dropped from the Irish team by himself only two months previous but persuaded to stay on!) - a repeat of the ’98 final. Simon won the final 3-1, going 2-0 up before Phil pulled one back. The days of Simon’s fondness for that second placed Salver had long gone – his third title and an astonishing turn around in his play within the season. Two consecutive championships had seen the highest standard of visitors in a while, and it was Ed Cunningham and Simon Williams who had taken the two titles.
2002 – Ronan McInerney
Mark Suter was now an Irish resident and he had won the Dublin Championships in June, but he went out early to Leo McBride of Canada in three high standard games (-26TP, +26TP, +17TP). Mark McInerney took three games to beat Patsy Fitzgerald (+22TP, -26, +26TP), and Simon Williams got through against Andrew Johnston by the skin of his teeth, Andrew playing very well and was just about to wrap up a 2-0 win but some unluckiness and inexperience after rover let Simon back in – Simon took that game +2TP and won the third +14TP. These last two matches showed the improvement in some of our own players with both Patsy Fitzgerald and Andrew Johnston playing very well in taking Mark McInerney and Simon Williams to three games. The last quarterfinal was between Ed Cunningham and myself. Never before had we met so early in this event, our first meeting since ’95 and this time Ed was unseeded. The first game was full of bizarre errors and nerves – I won it +8, and won the next +24TP.
The semi-finals – myself and Simon Williams met again. We hadn’t met since the ’97 final, and once again it went my way in an unexciting 2-0 win. The other semi was high standard, Mark McInerney beat Leo McBride in three games, the first two both +26TP, and the decider was won by Mark who hit and finished superbly in a high pressure turn to win it +5TP, ensuring his first Irish Open final and an all McInerney affair.
It is very strange having to play your younger brother in the final of the biggest Irish event, especially when not too long ago we had won the handicap doubles together, with Mark playing off 18! Anyway, I took the first +15. In the second, Mark had a failed triple at rover and what should have been 1-1 instead was 2-0, +1 eventually to me in a very tight game. A 3-0 victory was completed with a +24TP score in the third. It had felt like a long time since my last win, but this was definitely the most satisfying of the three titles I have managed to win. I didn’t drop a game in winning it, and even though the matches may not have been glamorous, I reckon that if you beat Ed Cunningham, Simon Williams and Mark McInerney, no matter what other factors are involved, you deserve to win the Irish Championship. For Mark, I could only say that from experience, you very often have to lose painfully before you win (as so many of us have done, and are still doing). His time was not far off, and would certainly be worth waiting for.
2003 – Simon Williams
What was disappointing about this year was the very small number of entrants into the Championship. Ed Cunningham and Mark Suter had work commitments and Mark McInerney returned from holiday a fraction too late. Chris Patmore was over again and he met Simon Williams in the opening round, Simon taking a close match 2-1. Bruce Rannie of Scotland knocked out Fred Rogerson, Alan McInerney knocked out Carl von Schmeider. Two former Irish champions and big 80’s names not providing any repeat performances from yesteryear. I beat Patsy Fitzgerald in the last quarterfinal. In the semis, Simon beat Alan 2-0 and I beat Bruce 2-0. Any chance of a consecutive all McInerney final was quashed by Simon.
The final: I had won the last four meetings between myself and Simon Williams spanning eight years, and this run looked all set to continue in hot conditions as I took the first two games, not in any stylish form. But game three was the tuning point – an excellent fifth turn +26QP out of nothing from Simon had him back in the match. Game four went on a long time, we both had chances, plenty of shots, some hit but mostly missed. Simon eventually won it to make it 2-2. He was running away with the decider when he decided to let me back in the game, but the ’97 final was not to be repeated. Simon hit when he had to, laid up for the finish, and almost in the dark my final hit-in attempt missed by a whisker. The match went to Simon Williams. Another mammoth final between us and a tremendous comeback from Simon to take his fourth Irish title, and his third since ’98 – what was all the fuss about? That was to be my last match until the time of writing.
2004 – Mark McInerney - The Ultimate Win
The great news for this year was that as well as a great bunch of visitors from all over, Carrickmines was to witness for the first time in the Irish Championships the talent of Robert Fulford, unquestionably the best player in recent croquet history. There is simply no argument against this – having spent the majority of over a decade ranked number one in the world, add to that the amazing record of five World Championship titles (noone else has yet managed two). He came to Carrickmines to win one of the very few titles he had yet to win. I was once again far away, this time in Australia.
Gerard Healy was back after a long absence and his return was notable – he knocked out Patsy Fitzgerald 2-1 before losing 2-0 to Simon Williams in the quarter final, a match that most would associate with the late ‘80s. In his first match, Simon had beaten another former Irish Champion, Carl von Schmeider 2-0. In fact, there were no fewer than six former Irish Champions in the line-up this year. Robert Fulford set off on his run with two sextuples against the 1990 Champion Jerry Guest, and then played Chris Patmore. This was Chris’ third visit to the Irish Open, and he had beaten Alan McInerney 2-1 in the opening round. Another sextuple for Robert in this quarterfinal match, but it was a close 2-1 win that could have gone Chris’ way. So the semi final in the top half of the draw was world number one versus current Irish Champion.
Both seeds also met in the semi-final in the bottom half of the draw. No. 3 seed Dennis Bulloch (NZ) had beaten Jack Wicks (Eng) in a very close first round (+4TP in the decider) and he then lined up against Andrew Hobbs of South Africa in an international quarter final (Andrew had knocked out Ed Cunningham 2-0 in the opening round). Dennis came through this match in even closer fashion than his previous one, beating Andrew +1, -26, +3. This set up a semi final against no. 2 seed Mark McInerney (who was recently back to number one in Ireland). Mark had beaten Michael O’Shaughnessy and then Evan Newall, both in straight games. Dennis took the first game of the semi-final +11. Mark replied with +24TP, and then a fifth turn +26TP to take the match in style and obvious high confidence. He was back in the final for the second time in three years and had missed the 2003 event.
The semi-final between Robert and Simon went right down to the wire. Two more sextuples for Robert but the scores of –24TP, +26SXP, +1SXP indicate just how close Robert was to exiting the tournament – obviously an admirable effort from Simon in an excellent match when the final was very much in his sights. But in the deciding game, for Robert to pull off a sextuple with everything to lose should it go wrong was simply world class. The final was to be seeds one and two, Robert Fulford v Mark McInerney. Neither had exactly strolled into the final but that didn’t matter now. This was an exciting match-up, best in the world versus “potentially” best in the world. It may sound surprising but this match would bring about a new Irish Champion.
The final was a five game thriller, and one that may never be surpassed in standard. Mark took game one +26TP, Robert took game two +26TP. Game three - Robert did a TPO type leave after just falling short on his sextuple, and merely gave Mark the licence to do what he has done so well in big matches, the “unlikely”, or as I think more suitable, the “absurd”. Within a few shots everything was in control. A fabulous turn gave Mark a +3TP win to put him 2-1 ahead. Game four and it was sextuple time for Robert, his sixth in the event bringing the match to 2-2, and what a decider in store. Reliable sources informed me that this match had very few hit-ins, but this did not take away from the match which had so many peels on view. The last game saw Robert going around first but then unexpectedly fail hoop five. Two turns later and Mark McInerney was Irish Champion, +22TP in the final game, an astonishing win.
In many of the finals known to me, nerves had almost always played some part at some point of the match. We can expect that Robert would not experience nerves in this match, but surely Mark should have been a nervous wreck as he drew closer to his biggest ever win? Obviously focus was the name of the game – not one mistake in play from Mark in the entire match. A fabulous and totally deserved win for Mark, an incredible way to win one’s first Irish title, aged 21.
I am certain that the Irish Championship has never before seen a final with such a high standard that featured the sextuple and four TPs. But it was Mark’s finishing turn in game three that was the highlight – it gave him a 2-1 lead and surely an overwhelming confidence knowing that all he needed was one more chance in the last two games. Mark might disagree with me but I doubt he would have come back from 2-1 down to beat Robert had he failed in that finishing turn in game three (like any other top player would have probably done in the circumstances). But this pivotal moment created the marvellous win. Mark made sure the “No foreign winners allowed” rule was upheld, at least for another year. Robert wrote a short report on the English Croquet Association web-site explaining that third game in detail, including Mark’s finishing turn. He also wrote that “Mark McInerney played one of the best matches I have ever had played against me to win the Championship” – this is praise indeed from the very top.
There is something about the Irish Championships Singles that makes it so special. There are no blocks in the event, and rarely is there a big entry, so you generally have to win just four matches to take the title. But this in no way makes the task any easier. Anything can happen in best of three matches, and once you reach the best of five final it is of course a different ball game with so much at stake. Another aspect of the Championship that makes it unique is the way it is run in conjunction with many other events for every standard of player, ensuring there is a mix of all types of players involved at the one venue. I think Finals Day portrays this perfectly when you could be watching the Open Singles final on lawn 2, and on the lawns either side of the final you can watch the higher handicap players playing the finals of their respective classes.
The Irish Championship remains a prestigious event, steeped in history, and of which I have only scraped the surface in this account. It is great to see players like Fred Rogerson, Carl von Schmeider and Gerard Healy still playing today – these players have all won two Irish titles, all bar one coming in the 1980’s. Simon Williams (4 titles), Ronan McInerney (3 titles) and Ed Cunningham (2 titles) have taken the majority of the titles since ’95, and now add to this list of recent Irish winners Mark McInerney. I’m sure if you ask any former winner of this event, they will tell you just how much it means to have won the Irish Championship. It certainly means a great deal to me to be part of the winners list that spans over a century. As I said earlier, no matter how small the entry or how low the standard may appear to be in a particular year it is never easy to win it