Westside Column 12 October 2018



Hurrah for the underdogs!

The outsiders carried the day in our county hurling semi-finals at the Stadium on Sunday last. Both Clonoulty/Rossmore and Nenagh Eire Og defied the betting odds to book their final visas – the defiance of the odds was minor in the case of the West side but major for the Northerners.

The upshot is a novel pairing for the county decider on Sunday week when West meets North.

Sarsfields’ reign finally stumbled to a halt after tripping along precariously all season. You can get out of jail so often but if you stay in that space you’ll eventually run out of road.

For Clonoulty it’s been an entirely different type of season. Un-fancied and under the radar the draw fell kindly and to their credit they’ve grasped the opportunity. They won’t fear Nenagh in the final either.

The West champions were good value for their six-point win. From the off they were the more positive side working the ball well and creating scoring opportunities, which the Hammersleys and company were converting. It was a Clonoulty display built on honest effort and solid structure.

For their part Toome’ were an absolute mess in that first half. Their touch was faulty, their decision making poor and they simply looked out of sorts all over the pitch. In their favour two incidents knocked them back in the first half as they struggled to gain traction in the game. Very early in the match they had a goal chance denied when Declan O’Dwyer stood up manfully to Mark McCarthy after Jack Delaney put the forward through.

An even bigger blow was the loss of centre back, Jason Ryan, to injury after about eight minutes. He’s been the lynchpin in that defence all year, a player seen as a Tipperary prospect, and in his absence they were forced to withdraw Joe McLoughney from attack which weakened that sector.

For their part Clonoulty kept focus and kept producing the better hurling. They led by five at half time and were eight up early in the second half before Toome’ gained renewed hope with the introduction of David Young to attack. He added a real threat to that forward line eventually goaling, blazing another effort just over the bar and then hitting the side netting in yet another assault.

The ex-defender was causing problems but Clonoulty were doing enough out-field to restrict supply and their defence held up for a fully deserved win.

John Devane has done well to bring the team to this pitch. They lost John O’Neill and Sean Maher earlier in the season but they’ve pushed ahead with available players and have surprised many by their progress.

Their half back line is a solid bedrock in the team. John O’Keeffe is excellent at number six and Sean O’Connor and Enda Heffernan complete a very compact line. Conor Hammersley works very well from midfield regularly chipping in with points – he hit three on Sunday. Dillon Quirke and Timmy Hammersley supply the central line in attack where Tom Butler hit three valuable points in this win.

They may not have the most high-profile personnel but they make the most of what they have through earnest endeavour.

For Toome’ it was a big let-down after their quarter-final win over Drom/Inch. Mark McCarthy provided one of the few highlights with three first half side line conversions – it was a master class in that particular skill. On the downside they failed to raise a flag from play in that opening half. As a team they’re a long way off the side that dominated the scene in the nineties and early noughties; Benny Dunne’s failure to impact epitomised the changed times.

In truth that opening game was poor but followers were treated to a far more exciting spectacle in the second semi. It all began in a whirlwind of Nenagh action. There was an instant point from Mikey Heffernan and then a neat little pop pass from Philip Hickey sent Andrew Coffey through for an immediate goal. Conor Ryan followed up with a point and then Jake Morris landed a free. Three minutes into the action and Eire Og were 1-3 to zilch in front, the five-in-a-row seekers clearly rattled.

Those early scores set the tone. Nenagh were clearly up for the job and Sarsfields were in a battle to save their crown.

After that blitzkrieg opening things settled, a sweeper at either end limiting chances for attackers. The scoring rate dropped. Sars’ had Ronan Maher in attack where he was being policed by Barry Heffernan and in truth it was a forward division that looked utterly impotent in that half. Pa Bourke hit their two first points but a Stephen Lillis effort would be their only other flag from play in the opening thirty-plus minutes. For a team that can at times dazzle opponents with its range of scorers this was untypical.

Nenagh were eight-up at half time and there was no immediate recovery from Sarsfields on resuming. In fact it was more of the same on the restart before Paddy Murphy rattled in Nenagh’s second goal on the three-quarter mark. The lead ballooned out to ten points, Sars’ now in deep trouble and facing a real pasting. Paudie Maher was doing his best to rally the troops but so many others were being outplayed. The champions of the past four years looked to be heading for an ignominious rout.

To their credit they didn’t go quietly. Faced with elimination they suddenly cut loose and hit 1-4 on the spin, Denis Maher with the goal. It might have been worse for Nenagh but for a superb save by Shane Hennessy to deny Conor Stakelum.

Nenagh now looked rattled their lead down to a mere three points but they found the composure to resist the onslaught. Mikey Heffernan was critical to it all. He hit a steadying point and then added another from a free when Jake Morris had faltered. Aidan McCormack got one back for Sarsfields but Eire Og points at this critical juncture from James Mackey, Philip Hickey and Jake Morris eased tensions. The lead went back out to six and Ronan Maher’s late bullet from a free was mere consolation.

As Shakespeare’s famous character, Brutus, said, ‘There’s a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune’. This was Nenagh’s tide, their chance to lower the blue banner and in fairness they showed the necessary nerve to see the job out.

Mikey Heffernan was the stand out individual bothering no less an opponent than Mickey Cahill who unfortunately had to retire injured in the second half. Heffernan’s point-taking was masterful. By contrast Jake Morris had a subdued afternoon unable to regain the heights of his display against Loughmore.

It’s a Nenagh side not lacking in craft. They’ve often been bridesmaids at the feast but look well placed now to add to the club’s only title win from 1995.

For Sarsfields one senses that events just caught up with them this year. Billy McCarthy’s loss was huge at a time when the replacement material is not up to former standards. Their overall form dipped as well and where previously they’d swat teams aside with the sheer fluency of their hurling, this time it’s all been a bit more laboured. As a result they’ve still to replay the Mid final and they got drawn into that three-way play-off in their county group. At their best that would never happen.

Beside they’ve never quite got the team’s balance right and you sense that ongoing struggle with some of their selections this year. They’ve been gifted with incredibly talented players but finding the right mix between defence and offense has never been resolved. That impacted most outside the county where their lack of success will remain an ongoing regret.

Still they’ve decorated our hurling championship with classy, skill-based hurling and have contributed handsomely to the county side. I wouldn’t be writing their obituary yet, even if the winning sequence has finally been ended.

Meanwhile with the senior crown gone Sarsfields will now look to their intermediates for consolation when they play Cashel K.C. in the county final at Holycross on Sunday next.  Sars’ will be favourites here, I suspect, but the King Cormacs have built significant momentum in recent weeks so it should be a collision well worth seeing.

This is a title neither club has ever won but Sarsfields are no strangers to intermediate finals. It’s an indication of their great breadth and depth of resources that the Thurles club’s second team has been so competitive at this level, losing three intermediate finals in a row from ’14 to ’16. They also lost one back in 1989 so it’s a blot on the club’s record that I’m sure they they’d love to correct.

For Cashel this has been something of an autumn revival after failing to progress in the West during the summer. They’ve come with a late surge, taking out North Tipp pair, Ballinahinch and Borrisokane in the process. Theirs is a relatively young side taking on a Sarsfields team with several players of senior experience in the pack.

They met in an earlier round when there wasn’t much at stake and Cashel came out tops there. It will probably have little relevance to Sunday’s clash. Cashel are in buoyant mood at the moment but Sarsfields’ look the stronger on paper. We’ll see.

Incidentally I had a few contacts during the week reminding me that both these finalists qualify for promotion and Seamus O’Riain action next year. It was a throwaway comment at the end of the column that gave the impression I thought only the winners went up. Not so, I was fully aware of the promotion situation. Sarsfields have a choice in relation to promotion and my point (obviously not well made) was that if they’re beaten in the final it makes the decision to stay intermediate easier, whereas if they win it becomes a bigger call. In that sense Cashel might solve their problem.

Elsewhere there’s another packed fixture schedule for this coming weekend, so plenty entertainment for the followers.


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