Westside article from The Clonmel Nationalist

WESTSIDE.

Ideally it should be the defining day of the series where final positions are decided, but instead round seven of the hurling league on Sunday next has been rendered meaningless for most counties. The relegation clash between Dublin and Limerick stands alone as the only game of high stakes. For Tipperary a trip to Tullamore is our final competitive game before the championship but effectively it’s a practice match.

Meanwhile the club scene revved up a gear last weekend with games in all divisions. Moneygall’s defeat of North champions, Nenagh, was one of the more eye-catching results but the Mid too had unexpected outcomes where Moycarkey beat Drom and Holycross put one over on Loughmore. On the injury front it was disappointing to hear of knocks for Paul Kelly and Gearoid Ryan on a weekend when the county panel was pruned back by six.

I suspect there won’t be too many Tipp folk making the trip to Tullamore on Sunday for a game that has no tangible benefit other than the self-esteem of winning. This final round of the league is a great illustration of how not to choreograph the closing stages of a tournament. In PR terms it’s disastrous, with the Association presumably charging followers fifteen euro to watch experimental sides play friendlies. The Cork\Galway game at Salthill will be even more surreal with the teams going through the motions and saving themselves for the ‘real’ match a fortnight later. Hopefully the lessons will be learned and the system tweaked accordingly for next season.

We may be out of the league but it’s been a busy (even fretful) time for the Tipperary management who had to break the bad news to no fewer than six panellists as the numbers were slashed ahead of their training camp in Spain next week. The panel had grown to over-size so some paring back was needed, though half a dozen at a swoop is drastic surgery indeed. I presume being the bearer of such tidings it’s the most unpleasant aspect of the management job. It’s tough on the players too who’ve done the winter slog and now get their P60s as the sun starts to shine.

Officially the six – Pa Bourke, Micheal Webster, Thomas Stapleton, John Devane, Diarmaid Fitzgerald and Willie Ryan – will still be part of an extended training panel but effectively they’re being dropped from the main group. Four of them are forwards, which is interesting given our concern about that zone as we head towards the championship. For Willie Ryan it’s quite a drop from being captain last year though he hasn’t been helped by injuries, which prevented him from showing any form this spring. Illness kept Pa Bourke in the background in recent months, though he is showing useful form at club level at the moment. Micheal Webster has given so many mixed signals that I suspect management’s patience just ran out; he has never quite managed to recreate the impact of his debut season. For John Devane converting defensive instincts into attacking ones has been the problem.

The departure of Thomas Stapleton will be viewed as particularly disappointing. He was one of the great white hopes from the minor successes, winning his All Ireland in ’06, but after three years on the senior panel he hasn’t really stepped up to the higher grade. In the case of Diarmaid Fitzgerald he’s been on the senior panel since 2003 but has been luckless with injuries. He never quite recovered from the Nowlan Park experience last spring and, somewhat like John Devane, being groomed for a forward role did him little favour at one stage either.

It must be bitterly disappointing for the players to lose out as we approach mid April and just one week before the panel is due to fly out to Spain for a week’s training camp. Perhaps they can take encouragement from the experience of Darragh Egan, dropped last autumn and now back in the fold looking slimmer and trimmer. In fairness to the management they’ve shown admirable flexibility when dealing with panel places adding and subtracting players as form dictates.

With luckless timing the panel adjustments were made just before last weekend’s games when Paul Kelly and Gearoid Ryan joined the casualty list, one which has been a hindrance all spring. Kelly broke a bone in his leg in Mullinahone’s win over Ballybacon down South while Gearoid Ryan broke a finger in Templederry’s victory over Roscrea in the North. For the Mullinahone man it’s a cruel fate coming in his first championship game with his club after his return from O’Loughlin Gaels and coming also at a time when his form was beginning to lift. Gearoid Ryan too had shown enough to avoid the panel cull last week but this injury could now put him out for over a month. It’s feared that Kelly could be out until mid summer. I wonder will those injuries mean a reprieve for some of the others who were dropped?

Out of it all one wonders what type of makeshift team will be assembled for Sunday’s game with Offaly. Presumably it will have an experimental flavour, though given the present state of injuries the management’s scope to manoeuvre might be limited.

Meanwhile the club scene kicked off in earnest last weekend with a series of games in all four regions of the county. Given our championship structure these early rounds have only limited importance because most of the main contenders will get through to the knock-outs irrespective. Still it was perhaps a chance for teams to lay down some early markers and there were interesting outcomes.

The Mid is probably the most competitive of the four divisions at present and last weekend’s games in the region produced a mixture of expected and unexpected results. Loughmore had a poor ’09 season and they’ve started poorly again in 2010, losing to Holycross in their first round tie. That was a turn-up, as was Moycarkey’s comprehensive win over Mid champions, Drom\Inch, though elsewhere Upperchurch had no problem against Brackens and Sarsfields were easy winners over Boherlahan.

I saw the second half of the Moycarkey\Drom game and was suitably impressed by the winners albeit against a very off-colour Drom side. Moycarkey are being coached by Kevin Shelly and turned in a very competent display to take the honours with amazing ease. Kieran Morris led the scoring, mostly from frees, but rather than individual heroics it was more the team ethic that stood out in this win. There’s a youthful flavour to the side and they looked unperturbed by anything Drom could muster.

For the reigning Mid champions it was a downbeat start to the campaign, despite having Pad Joe Whelehan orchestrating tactics from the sideline. Clearly the ongoing loss of James Woodlock leaves a major gap in their formation and this time Seamus Callanan was also spectating for all bar the final quarter of the action. He came on in a last desperate bid to save the day and hammered a close-in free to the net. Briefly that score threatened to disrupt Moycarkey’s smooth passage but by then they were too far ahead and were comfortable six-point winners in the end. It was a deserved win that obviously rewards early season preparation; for Drom it’s a sharp reminder that there’s much work to be done.

In the second game Sarsfields were expected to ease through without too much bother and I think they achieved that aim, even if an eight-point gap was less than some anticipated. A first half goal from Pa Bourke was a major lodgement as they got well clear though Darragh Hickey netted twice for Boherlahan to keep his side within sight. They trailed by six at half time.

The third quarter was Boherlahan’s best spell. They got within four and then rattled the crossbar with a Seamie Leahy effort. That was as good as it got though, Sarsfields reasserted control and eased out comfortable winners by eight in the end.

I thought Sarsfields showed a very earnest attitude for a first round; any notion that they might be caught off guard so early in the season was misplaced. They looked really slick and given their obvious talent pool they look like the ones to beat again this year. For Boherlahan eight points was no humiliation, though there was an obvious gap in standard between the teams.

In the West the old-firm derby between Kickhams and Clonoulty ended all square, which, given pre-match expectations, sounds like a good result for the Dundrum club. They played well, I’m told, though Clonoulty are reported to have amassed a heavy tally of wides. Golden and the Galtee\Sean Treacys combo’ also drew so there’s no clear pattern emerging in that area yet.

In the South Mullinahone appear to have had little difficulty against Ballybacon, though Killenaule could only manage a draw with Swans. Up North the most notable outcome was Moneygall’s victory over Nenagh, though Borrisoleigh will be quite pleased too after mastering Toomevara. Elsewhere there were wins for Burgess over Lorrha, Templederry over Roscrea and Kilruane over Portroe. In all cases these are just the opening salvos in what will be a long campaign.

This weekend sees the annual Congress of the Association take place in Newcastle, County Down with a number of topical issues down for decision. Those experimental playing rules will face the ballot as delegates go yea or nay on whether or not to incorporate them into the rule book. By now you know my views on what are unnecessary changes. I often think that when you set up committees to examine rules they feel obliged to make some suggestions as if to justify their deliberations.

There’s a Tipperary proposal on the agenda to introduce a video ref for important championship games. Clearly this is a throw-back to last year’s All Ireland and that penalty decision that was to prove so costly. Exactly what major decisions would be adjudicated on by the video official seems unclear. Would it be to decide on whether or not a foul was committed? Or whether a ball had crossed the line or gone between the posts? Or whether a player was in the ‘square’? How often would the video ref be used in a match? Would teams be allowed a certain number of calls as in tennis? Questions galore with no obvious answers.

Given the large number of scores in a typical hurling game – forty seven in last year’s All Ireland, for example – it seems impractical to have a video ref adjudicating on even a significant percentage of those. Overall I can’t see this one getting through.

There are also proposals relating to the use of video evidence with regard to foul play. At present video clips are sometimes sent to referees after games where they are asked to review their decisions in relation to certain incidents. It’s a controversial practice that has a very flawed history. Far better surely to get the CCC to adjudicate on such incidents rather that asking referees to revisit their ‘live’ decisions during the match.

It takes a lot of moral courage for a referee to revisit his actions during a game and maybe admit that he made a mistake. On past experience few referees are ‘big’ enough to make such admissions. You want evidence? Well Diarmuid Kirwan was interviewed during the winter about his decisions in the All Ireland final where he said he would do the same again if in the same position. I find that more worrying than the decisions made on the day. It reminds me of the late John Moloney. I once suggested to him that a certain local referee had potential to go places. No, was the sharp answer, because he never admits to making mistakes.

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Westside article from The Clonmel Nationalist

WESTSIDE.

Not for the first time in Munster Sarsfields were left singing the blues. Another disappointing provincial day for our champion club who came up tantalisingly short against Nestownshandrum in a game of high quality. Jerry O’Connor’s late winner spoiled the Thurles party on a weekend when the town was host to birthday celebrations for the association’s century and a quarter of activity.

Great game; wrong result. Winter arrived in the form of those unwelcome showers and the pitch for once looked battered after recent rain. To the credit of the players, though, it failed to hinder the hurling as the best from Tipperary and Cork produced a contest befitting the age-old rivalry. It was a stirring collision which careered along indecisively before tilting marginally Cork’s way at the climax. Sars’ were left to bemoan a missed opportunity.

Who was it that said there’s no present or future, just the past repeating itself? Here was another echo of ’05 as Sarsfields once more made the early running before being reeled in and ultimately passed, literally at the post this time. A delightful opening from Sarsfields had their fans in good voice early on. An immediate Pa Bourke point was followed rapidly by a goal, the Newtown’ defence puzzled by an Alan Kennedy lob and presenting Pa with a simple conversion. This was rapid-fire stuff from the locals, 1-1 to zero ahead after a few minutes, the perfect start to what was sure to be a testing afternoon.

The nature of that test was soon obvious as the visitors settled, steadied and found the response to Sarsfields’ opening blitz. They rattled off four points in quick succession, Ryan Clifford, Michael Bowles, Jerry O’Connor and Cathal Naughton the marksmen. Already their pace and combination was emerging as Sarsfields’ early lead vanished in a whirlwind of smart moves.

The middle third of the opening half was to be Sarsfields’ purple patch in this contest. Slick, smooth and economical they ran off a sequence of delightful points, Denis Maher hitting three, Pa Bourke another three including a sideline ’cut’, Shane Ryan adding two and Johnny Enright also part of the procession. Newtown’s responses were more sporadic against the wind so that the lead swelled to a sizeable six. With scarcely a wide to bemoan the game was being played at a fine tempo and Sarsfields were having the better of it.

We could hardly expect the trend to continue uninterrupted, though the extent of the turnaround before the break was quite alarming for the locals. And when Sarsfields look back and dissect this game they should focus on that ten minutes prior to half time when they seemed to sit back a little and let Newtown’ re-invent their challenge with five unanswered points. Midfielder, P.J. Copse started the trend and his lead was followed by young Jamie Coughlan, Cathal Naughton, Ryan Clifford and an uplifting sideline from Ben O’Connor.

Deflation then for Sarsfields as they trotted off having availed of the stiff wind and watched the comfort of six-up shrivel to the minimum. With the wind to be faced it looked none too promising. Padraic Maher had been pretty redundant at full in that first half and now he moved to half back and a more central role against the elements; Kevin O’Gorman went full in the reshuffle.

Credit Sarsfields with a fine second half effort. After the swings of the first half the game settled to a more even keel now with never more than a point of a gap. Denis Maher emerged as one of the real heroes of the resistance, his three second-half points of the highest quality. Briefly Cathal Naughton put Newtown’ in the lead for the first time before Maher’s second point of the half levelled it again and then a Pa Bourke free restored the lead. A Ben O’Connor leveller and then another lead point followed from Maher as the score-for-score pattern continued.

In the end a few crucial items decided the outcome. Sarsfields might have conceded a goal when keeper McCormack presented number fourteen, John O’Connor, with a chance but the forward put it wide. A let-off for Sarsfields. At the other end there was a let-off too for Newtown’ as Denis Maher careered through and seemed to be bundled over from behind. No free, and to compound matters Pa Bourke missed the resultant ‘65’. In the tightness of this contest every miss will be haunting.

‘Redsers’ arrival was met with one of the loudest cheers of the day. Those cheers were soon matched by Cork jeers as he lunged at Pat Mulcahy. It’s all very fine to be fired up and passionate but you need control too. Maybe there was some form of poetic justice in ‘Redser’ escaping ‘red’ for that action because he was on the receiving end in ’05 and the culprit on that occasion escaped too. Still you can’t condone what he did, or maybe attempted to do. Likewise I wouldn’t applaud Pat Mulcahy for his theatrical response to it all either.

With the game hanging in the balance the decisive moment will haunt Sarsfields and Michael Cahill in particular. Great defensive work saw the ball fed out from the full line where the number five seemed to have time and space to set up a Sarsfields attack. Unfortunately he delayed long enough for the block to arrive and in the breakdown Jerry O’Connor hit the match-winner.

There were some late chances for Sarsfields but Pa Bourke was wide from two very long-range efforts. A minimum of three added minutes were announced and the referee called it off on the button allowing Sarsfields no last-gasp chance of a saviour.

It was heartbreak then at the end for Sarsfields as their poor record in Munster club hurling continues. There’s no doubt this was a real chance to progress and Sunday’s winners will be fancied now to take Munster at least. In a sense you’re better off losing by a few points because the one score leaves everyone identifying where the deficit could be bridged in such a tight game. The regrets will run deep.

On the positive side Sarsfields were part of a great spectacle, showing that our club hurling is certainly a match for Cork’s. The drabness of our county final was a product of the specific tactics that day between two closely acquainted sides and in truth never reflected our club standard generally.

For Sarsfields it will still rate as a very successful year as they regained the top prize in the county. The real revelation in this Sarsfields’ team is unquestionably Denis Maher. He’s a Leaving Certificate student, a key cog in the Thurles CBS Harty side again this winter. Yet he has played way beyond his years with Sarsfields, adapting to an unfamiliar forward role and capping his year with six incredible points from play on Sunday. The new U21 management will hardly ignore the evidence.

For Pa Bourke this has been something of a resurgence season. He had slipped down the ranking in Liam Sheedy’s panel but his club form has surely reignited his career. He has certainly adjusted his game with more of a physical edge to his play now. Hopefully the trend will continue.

Of course it’s also the year when Padraic Maher hit the headlines with an All-star statuette now among his prized possessions. For Lar Corbett too it was a high profile season though his impact last Sunday was probably more limited than Sars’ needed; perhaps trying to cover too much ground left him chasing the game too often and rarely in a position to threaten goal. Ironically Sarsfields’ exit from the club championship will afford him the rest time now that he probably needs given his susceptibility to injury.

Meanwhile Liam Sheedy and colleagues are already organising in the background with talk of some adjustments to the panel. It was always expected that four or five players would be pared from the ’09 panel, though as yet no precise details have been confirmed. And where some depart others will be invited onboard. Our club championship certainly gave the management some food for thought and I suspect that evidence will be reflected in the adjustments. More anon.

While the mood in Tipperary is still quite optimistic after the promise of the ’09 season the atmosphere is obviously not so sweet in other counties. Clare, Limerick and Galway all appear to have major internal difficulties at the moment, which is a scenario that should please no hurling follower. The pool of top hurling contenders is small enough without having more of them self-destruct.

Limerick seems to be plagued by internal difficulties for many years now. In retrospect the three-in-a-row U21 titles has proven to be more of a curse than a blessing. That success obviously generated great expectations in a county very passionate about its hurling and when those expectations weren’t met unease followed. They’ve gone through several managers in the past decade or so, one of whom remains a major critic of the establishment in the county since his removal.

The arrival of Justin McCarthy seemed to promise better things but, sadly, that all collapsed spectacularly in last August’s All Ireland semi-final. Then last week word emerged of key players being dropped from the panel and others choosing to depart voluntarily. It all reads very messy and clearly will take a lot of sorting ahead of the New Year. Whether Justin remains to do the sorting has to be an issue too.

In Clare the scene is also fractious with the players reportedly seeking the removal of Mike ‘Mac’ and the County Board backing the manager. From the outside at least it looks like another Cork-style power struggle. The team had a particularly poor ’09 when, ironically, their best day was against Tipperary. The U21 win should have lifted spirits and injected new optimism but instead internal rancour seem to be threatening it all.

Galway too appears to be in some turmoil at the moment. Remember a few years ago you had that fractious club game in which Joe Canning was injured and the controversial fall-out from the whole affair, which seemed to sour internal relations. Now they’re embroiled in another controversy. This time it’s a hurling semi-final where Loughrea defeated Mullagh by a point and the referee needed a Garda escort afterwards. Now the affair seems to be going all the way to the DRA with Mullagh seeking a replay and the county final, which was originally billed for next Sunday, being deferred, according to latest reports.

In this winter season it’s all very unwelcome publicity on several fronts. A Tipperary referee being apparently head-butted and having to abandon the game is getting national headlines too. It’s not the type of material that should accompany a birthday celebration by the association. Troubled times indeed in some corners of the G.A.A. family.

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