Tullamore players with the Dowling Cup.
THE similarities between Tullamore forwards Luke Plunkett and Diarmuid Egan are quite striking. The duo made their Senior Football Championship debuts at the same time two years ago and at that stage, it was clear that they had plenty of work to do to fully step up to this level – and they were certainly at the right level as Tullamore beat Rhode in the Senior Football Championship final replay on Sunday last.
Both have worked extremely hard to improve their football and fitness levels in the past two years but they have more in common. Football took a back seat for both during some of their crucial formative teenage years and both have done really well to reach the level they are currently at, with the scope for plenty of more improvement in the coming years – rugby was Diarmuid Egan's main game for much of his young years while Luke Plunkett spent six years in England after moving there in 2013 with his family, only returning home full time in the past couple of years.
The GAA and sport seeps through their veins. Luke's father Mark won an All-Ieland U-21 football medal with Offaly in 1988, played compromise rules for Ireland in Australia and played senior football for his county. Diarmuid's father, Kieran, a native of Banagher, was on the Offaly team that won the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship in 1986 while his uncle Mick Devine, from Shannonbridge, was a very good Offaly defender in the early 1990s as well as playing rugby at a good level with Buccaneers.
Both also have star younger brothers and occasionally live in their shadows – Luke is the oldest of the five children of Mark and Jennifer Plunkett (Alice, Harry, Lily and Ruby are his siblings), Diarmuid the eldest of the three children (he is the brother of Cormac and Blathnaid) of Kieran and Michelle Egan.
Cormac Egan is one of Offaly football's brightest talents. His sensational runs, his blistering pace, his quality scores and distribution, his distinctive mullet brought him to national prominence as Offaly won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship this year. He would have been on the Tullamore team on Sunday only for a bad hamstring injury that was sustained during a too heavy schedule of games for his club earlier in the season – thankfully the injury is not as bad as first feared and an operation is not required.
Harry Plunkett also has vast potential. A very good finisher, he possesses great, deceptive skill and the ability to send opponents the wrong way. Like Cormac Egan, he received a quick phone call from U-20 manager Declan Kelly after Offaly lost the 2020 Leinster minor football final to Meath earlier in the summer and he came on as a sub in the Leinster semi-final win over Westmeath. Unfortunately he lost his place on the panel after going on a family holiday when the Leinster final against Dublin was on but Tullamore's senior football success has very much rescued the year for him – and he showed once again that he has the potential to be an Offaly senior with a super display in the drawn Senior Football Championship final against Rhode.
On Sunday last, however, both Luke Plunkett and Diarmuid Egan stepped into the limelight for Tullamore. They were given pivotal positions with Plunkett full forward and Egan, centre half forward and both made very influential contributions for Tullamore. Plunkett had his best game in the Tullamore jersey, turning in a particularly good first half when he scored two points while he continued to work his socks off in the second half.
It was not Egan's best ever game in the Tullamore jersey as he had a couple of outstanding ones earlier in this campaign but it was up there. His work rate was exceptional, he continually broke past tackles and he almost always found a man with the ball as well as scoring a crucial point as Tullamore turned the screw late on – both are very proud of their younger brothers but there is also a healthy sibling rivalry in their households, and they smiled when asked about taking some of the glory from them in the minutes after the final whistle last Sunday.
Luke Plunkett spoke about the challenges Tullamore faced in picking things up after letting a golden chance slip in the drawn game. “Ah it was hard in our first training session back. Everyone was trying to get their heads back up. It was cold and wet and we just had to pick ourselves back up and go again.”
He was delighted with his own display on Sunday. “It went well in the first half. We were slow to get going but once we started kicking it over the bar, we got going then. A few big scores out of nowhere from Aaron Leavy, Nigel Bracken in the second half kept us going and ticking.”
Plunkett went to England in 2013 with his family and returned home two years ago, after going to college in Portsmouth. They lived in historic Wells in scenic Somerset and he played rugby and soccer there. As a result, he missed out on a huge amount of underage football for Tullamore and he was asked about the difficulty in picking the game back up when he came home.
“I just had to get back up training. I knew I wasn't going to get straight back into the team. Just keep training and getting back better.”
He was delighted to have Harry beside him in the Tullamore attack on Sunday. “It is good to win a medal but when your brother is there with you, it is unbelievable.”
A relieved Diarmuid Egan was thrilled that they got over the line at the second attempt. “We just didn't click on the first day to be honest. We regrouped afterwards and we took the week off and we came back. We knew that if we had played to our ability we would have won it. We have been going all year, we have been unbeaten all year and we had that belief since the start of the year. We kept it going.”
Tullamore got very nervous and defensive when the game was there to be won in the drawn final but were much better on Sunday when they found themselves in the same position. “We learnt and we worked on that in training. Basically that is what drew us the game the last day and nearly lost it. We knew that if we retreated, Rhode are such a good side that it would be an onslaught for the last fifteen minutes. We knew we had to stay high and when we did, we got the crucial scores in the end.”
What was it like out there, it looked very tough?
“It was very tough. Rhode are a brilliant side, and the crowd. I have never played in anything like it before. The terrace and stand were absolutely packed and the noise was incredible. It kept us going from the start to the end.”
Diarmuid Egan was a pivotal figure the first day as he took a heavy hit that resulted in Alan McNamee being red carded – the Rhode midfielder won a reprieve to play in the replay. He revealed that he went to hospital that evening, suffering from mild concussion. “I was sore the day after but I took the week off after. They said I got concussion and I had to take seven days off but I was back out for the hurling at the weekend. I got another belt to the head there this evening just at the end but it's not too bad and my head is grand. “
It has been a busy season for Egan as he is a key part of the Tullamore team that are playing Clodiagh Gaels in the Senior “B” Hurliung Championship final next Saturday – Tullamore are playing Naas in the Leinster Club Senior Football Championship the following day.
“It has been tough but both managers, Kevin (Martin) and Niall (Stack) have been very accommodating for all the dual players. If we feel like we need a rest, we talk to them and they give us a rest. That is what you need. You need communication between both codes, that is what we have got this year and that is why we are in two finals and hopefully we will win next Saturday as well.”
He spoke about it being a great year for the Egan family with Cormac taking an All-Ireland U-20 medal. “It was a pity that he couldn't play today and he will hear from me this evening but he is a good lad and he will come back strong. He has a few months left of rehab and he will be back flying on the pitch.”
As a young teen, Diarmuid was a very good rugby player and it looked for a while like the oval ball would be his game – he was on the Leinster U18 and a half academy for a while - but he revealed that football and hurling will now be his only focus. “Football and hurling will be my games now to be honest. Up until about three years ago, I was playing rugby competitively and once lockdown started, I kind of more focused on the GAA and put all my eggs in that basket and it paid off today.”
He feels his rugby involvement has helped his GAA career. “It was three days a week. It was stressful but it kind of gets you in mould for a professional approach. It is very professional and it gives you the right aptitude for, it doesn't matter what sport. It is the professionalism.”
Egan is one of the players who could be called into John Maughan's Offaly senior football panel and he confirmed that he has this ambition. “Hopefully. If I get the call, I would love to go in and if I don't I will just have to work harder next year.”
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