With our inter-county hurlers taking a breather for a few weeks the focus switched last weekend to the club scene where three divisions launched their championships. Being the last year before new structures kick in, it’s an important season as clubs try to position themselves before the new dispensation takes effect. These are testing times for clubs.

Meanwhile we watched with interest as Dublin edged out Limerick for that promotion spot and a league semi-final place. Interest now centres on the venue – or venues? – for the semis on Sunday week.

Change is coming for our clubs with 2014 as the start date for the new system, which is aimed primarily at reducing the number of senior sides. This has been a thorny issue now for some time with a previous attempt running into controversy and eventually being abandoned. However, last January delegates voted for the new structure which will see knock-out divisional championships and two teams being relegated each year in a bid to see the overall number reduced from the present thirty-two.

Clubs are definitely hurting in the present economic climate with so many having to emigrate to find employment. It’s good news, perhaps, for clubs in New York or London or Sydney but not very welcome if you’re trying to manage the stretched resources of a small club at home. The amalgamation this year of Lattin\Cullen and Aherlow highlights the issue. Times have certainly changed. Remember the years of intense rivalry between the Maguire and O’Shea cousins? Old foes now become friends.

It’s a pattern that may well be replicated elsewhere as clubs struggle to fill jerseys, though I suspect there are some gaps that are unbridgeable. Imagine Swans and Davins cohabiting? I thought not.

This urge to reduce the number of senior clubs in the county has become a popular policy with some, though I remain unconvinced by the arguments. Do fewer clubs necessarily equate with better championships and higher standards? Regardless of number the weaker teams in a championship will be weeded out early on and the stronger ones end up playing each other regardless. So why the mad rush to downgrade so many teams?

It’s ironic that the exact opposite argument is being made by critics of the present national hurling league structure. Here the critics claim that counties like Limerick, Dublin, Offaly, Wexford and Antrim would benefit by being in the ‘A’ section where they’d be competing with the best. Does the same logic not apply to clubs?

Given the free-for-all that allowed teams opt for senior in recent times without having won the intermediate, there is certainly an argument to be made for some element of paring back in numbers. However, I cringe at the notion of halving the number of senior sides – or even worse if you listen to some. Such a slash and burn policy would devastate many clubs.

Anyway 2013 is a type of preparatory year before the new system kicks off next season. Just one team will be relegated this year but there will also be a certain jockeying for position because the thirty-two teams will be divided into two tiers of sixteen each in 2014. The top sixteen, made up of the four divisional champions and the highest twelve from the county series, will be free from relegation worries.

The South and the West will probably worry most about this two-team relegation system because they are the two regions most at risk. The West has six senior teams, the South with five and neither can afford to lose teams if their championships are to remain viable. By contrast the North has a massive thirteen senior teams so they could well afford to jettison a few. The Mid has eight senior sides.

Last year the West lost Aherlow to relegation and I suspect four of their remaining six teams could potentially be at relegation risk. Clonoulty and Eire Og Annacarty, in that order, are seen as the top two with the others struggling to remain afloat. Three first round games last week produced predictable results with Clonoulty, Eire Og and Kickhams all prevailing.

Clonoulty have quite a stranglehold on this championship having won the last six in a row and with little evidence that they’re going to relinquish their grip anytime soon. Mind you Cappawhite had a golden opportunity on Sunday to put one over on the champions but simply didn’t have the fire power to do it. In the sense that Clonoulty are at their most vulnerable early in the season this was undeniably a missed opportunity for Cappa’.

The game was played at Golden in icy-cold conditions and produced quite a lively contest. Cappawhite faced that Siberian wind in the opening half and it was only in the closing stages that Clonoulty managed to open a five-point gap thanks to a goaled twenty-metre free from John O’Neill.

It remained very tight for the second half but the essential difference was Clonoulty’s greater spread of scorers. Cappawhite depended almost exclusively on Jerry O’Neill for flags – he got all  bar one point of their 0-11 score. By contrast Clonoulty had six different scorers including an impressive Conor Hammersley at midfield who clipped over 0-3 from play. Despite plenty possession in that second half Cappawhite just couldn’t penetrate a solid Clonoulty defence and the end margin remained as it was at the break.

The previous night at Sean Treacy Park Kickhams came away with a valuable win over Golden\Kilfeacle in another tight contest, which was lively throughout even though the standard may have been modest at best. Against the wind Kickhams led by a single point at half time and looked as if they’d win comfortably early in the second half when Padraig Hayes scrambled in a goal and they went six-up.

However, a very young looking Golden side refused to yield that softly and kept up the challenge, which was rewarded with an injury-time goal by Daithi Bargary at the end. It left Kickhams clinging to a vulnerable three-point margin but they held out for a win that in fairness was well deserved.

Again it was probably Kickhams greater scoring potential that got them over the line on this occasion. Most of the Golden scores came from frees by county minor, Josh Keane, who hit some great ones into the wind especially in the second half. Shane Stapleton hit a few points also but Kickhams had a greater spread of scorers with both midfielders and five of the forwards getting on the score sheet. Alan Horgan looked impressive at times and David Butler got what was probably the point of the game in the second half.

In the third West tie Eire Og edged out Cashel K.C. midweek at Dundrum. They did it in my absence with reports mentioning a significant early lead by Annacarty and then a claw-back by Cashel who lost narrowly enough in the end.

An interesting snippet from the game was the introduction of John Quinn for Annacarty. This guy was playing masters almost ten years ago so approaching the half century now it’s an incredible record to be still lining out at senior hurling level. It’s a tribute to both his enthusiasm and fitness levels, especially as he’s come back from illness in recent years. By comparison Tony Browne is only a lad beside this latter day Oisin.

So the first shots have been fired in the Western campaign with no great surprises thrown-up. By comparison I note that Ballingarry pulled off something of a shock against South title-holders, Mullinahone. Then again I hear they’re getting sound advice from the West!

Dublin’s win over Limerick in that division 1B decider completes the line-up for the semi-finals on Sunday week. Given our scheduled meeting with Limerick in the championship on June 9 we’re probably better off not meeting at this stage. Saturday’s game was unspectacular, more of a shoot-out by free-takers than a free-flowing hurling spectacle.

We’ll be fancied to make the final but that shouldn’t hide the fact that we’ve found Dublin awkward opponents in recent times. Remember the All Ireland semi-final of 2011 and indeed in our most recent league encounters we’ve lost and drawn with them. They’ve even beaten Tipperary already this year in a challenge.

The issue of the venue for the league semis should be decided before this appears in print. There was an assumption about that if Limerick got through the games would be played at Semple Stadium but Dublin’s qualification has changed that scenario.  Thurles would certainly be a natural venue for Kilkenny and Galway but bringing Dublin down might be seen as unfair. Galway, I’m told, favour Croke Park where they’ll play a bit later in the year in the Leinster championship. Then again bearing in mind low attendances at league games Croke Park can be a very hollow place with little atmosphere if there’s only a few thousand present. Might Portlaoise come into the equation? We’ll see.

From Tipperary’s perspective it’s important to go for this league. There’s a long wait for the championship in June and what better way to fill the gap than a league final against Kilkenny, with or without Brian Cody, to whom we wish good health.






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