Westside Column

WESTSIDE.

 

Just four remain standing for the Dan Breen after weekend action saw Drom trounce Clonoulty and Eire Og surprise Portroe. The prize (questionable term?) for Annacarty is a shot at championship favourites, Sarsfields, in one semi; there will be an all-Mid rematch of Loughmore and Drom in the second. One pairing has novelty while the other has familiarity. A Drom/Sarsfields final will be the fancied outcome.

Elsewhere the minors go back for a second tilt at double-seeking Dublin in Sunday’s All Ireland programme. Like any school report the under-eighteens go back to Croker with the admonishment that they ‘must work harder’. Galway and Kilkenny too will seek improvement in their fascinating re-match in the senior.

It may have been a bumper fixture programme at the Stadium last weekend but it was certainly no bonanza for the fans. Fifteen and sixteen point margins indicate ‘no-contest’ affairs when the element of doubt is banished so early.  Drom’s demolition of Clonoulty was probably the surprise story of the series. Their Western colleagues, Eire Og, raised an eye-brow or two as well with that win over Portroe. Otherwise Sarsfields strolled past Kildangan and Loughmore were worth more than their five-point edge on Mullinahone.

If you didn’t know it already then last weekend provided ample evidence that hurling in North Tipperary has hit a deep valley. For those of us who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century it was taken as an article of faith that North sides would be in the mix for county honours annually. From the Roscrea sides of the sixties and seventies to Moneygall, Kilruane and Borrisoleigh the North division seemed to be the engine room of Tipperary hurling. Then of course Toomevara took over the mantle in recent decades building a supremacy that only Sarsfields in the fifties and sixties have matched.

It’s no surprise that our only All Ireland club champions were all bred in the North: Roscrea in the inaugural year of ’71, Kilruane in ’86 and Borrisoleigh in ’87. For decades it was the most competitive division in the county but I’m afraid all’s changed, changed utterly. The book of evidence from 2012 makes disturbing reading. You could be factional about it all but from a county perspective it’s worrying to see such a hurling heartland in decline.

Nobody expected Kildangan to bother Sarsfields unduly but we did hope that they’d have a go and make a game of it. Instead the team that torpedoed Toomevara so comprehensively a week earlier came to Thurles with the white flag already waving on Sunday. This was a pitiful game, a puck-about formality with no competitive edge whatsoever.

The strange thing was that Kildangan started brightly enough with the Gallagher brothers almost unlocking the Sars’ defence as early as the second minute; a run by Joe set up Tadgh whose shot was blocked. A minute later Joe brushed aside David Maher as he went in to plant one past Patrick McCormack.

Sadly it offered us false promise. By the ninth minute Pa Bourke had drilled a free to the net and shortly afterwards Denis Maher had a second goal. A free-flow of points ensued and by half time the margin was nine. In the second half it stretched out at will, Aidan McCormack getting the Sars’ third goal and only a series of saves by Darragh Egan preventing an avalanche of scores. The end margin was sixteen points – it could have been twenty six.

Neither side got anything from this game.  Sarsfields hardly broke sweat and Kildangan were simply outclassed.  But perhaps more worrying for the North division was the eclipse of their champion club by West runners-up Eire Og Annacarty. It was an historic year for Portroe and you’d expect them to come to Thurles in positive mood and anxious to push on from their breakthrough up North. Those were vain hopes unfortunately.

After a quarter of an hour Eire Og led 1-6 to 0-1. Seanie Ryan smartly whipped in the goal after the ball was spooned out to him by Donal O’Dwyer; Padraig O’Dwyer was chief shooter in the run of points. All the positive vibes were coming from Eire Og. Portroe did get a goal back when John Sheedy scored in a goalmouth scramble but the West still led by seven at half time and never looked like being overhauled in the second period.

You have to credit Eire Og who’ve shrugged off the disappointment of the West final and made their mark on this series now with wins over two North clubs. Nobody expects them to challenge for a county title but they’re going out each day and having a lash, which is all you can wish from any team. Ronan O’Brien was back this time and played an influential role in the win. There may be a tail to the side because of limited resources but they have plenty of attitude and they’ve certainly raised the profile of the West.

Giving the West a lift was particularly important in view of Clonoulty’s thrashing by Drom on Saturday night in that eagerly-anticipated match-up. As a repeat of last year’s final much was expected of the contest but in reality it developed into a Drom exhibition. From the start they simply blew Clonoulty away – out-ran, out-muscled and out-hurled them. After a quarter of the trip it was 2-6 to 0-3 and the West champions were floundering badly all over the park. Joe Lupton put his name to the goals and they might have had two or three more; there were saves from Pat Lupton and Seamus Callanan as well as the post denying David Butler. It was all developing into a horror show for Clonoulty.

The second half brought no relief for the West champions. On their best chance of a goal Damien Young pulled off a brace of reflex saves before John O’Neill put the rebound hopelessly wide. At the other end Callanan was again denied by goalie Jimmy Maher.

This has to rank as a troubling reversal for Clonoulty. All those West titles mean little if you can’t progress to higher things and after appearing in the past two county finals this is definitely regression for the West side. They simply couldn’t cope with the sheer pace and power of Drom and were found wanting in several sectors of the team. On the positive side I thought John O’Keeffe and Padraig Heffernan, when he came on, did most to stem the tide. They can be grateful too for county minor goalie, Jimmy Maher, who made a number of impressive stops. Conor Hammersley had a busy game at midfield and there were individual items from his brother Timmy. But all of that is set against problems in defence and a lot of below par displays elsewhere.

For Drom the story is entirely different. They were certainly revved up for this challenge and produced a dazzling display, one that lays down a marker for all remaining challengers to their crown. Strong in defence, Woodlock powerful at midfield and the likes of Callanan and David Butler are particularly menacing in attack. Their exit to Loughmore in the Mid was a low point but they’ve certainly rebounded now with great timing as the championship enters the home strait.

Drom now have an ideal opportunity to avenge that earlier defeat to Loughmore when the pair meet in the semi-final. Loughmore themselves fell heavily in the Mid final so like Drom they’re on a repair mission.  The mending process moved ahead smartly with a win over Mullinahone in the remaining quarter-final at the weekend, one that was more substantial than the final margin of five points would suggest.

Mullinahone actually led by two at the interval following Eoin Kelly’s double strike from close in frees. The first was initially awarded out to the right but brought centre goal when Evan Sweeney carelessly walked in front of the taker. The second I felt should have been a free out, the defender simply standing his ground as Paul Kelly charged.  It’s a point that referees need to note: with modern free takers like Pa Bourke and Eoin Kelly around a close in free carries a heavy penalty so the award should be clear cut.

In this case it didn’t matter to the outcome. Loughmore got well on top in the second period and with Noel McGrath pulling the strings they were great value for the win. It’s good to see John Meagher back in harness in the Loughmore defence after an extended lay-off through illness; he certainly adds to that unit releasing Willie Eviston for the half line in the absence of Tom King. There’s a lot of silky skill in this Loughmore side with all those McGraths on board; whether they have the hard-edged toughness to go with it is another matter.

I was disappointed with Mullinahone. They had no management team listed on the programme and whatever background distraction there was it certainly didn’t help their cause.  One statistic is most revealing: 2-8 to their 2-11 total came from Eoin Kelly frees.

The semis will be a major attraction on Sunday week. Eire Og have pulled the short straw with Sarsfields. Predictions of an all-Mid decider look safer than ever though the Drom/Loughmore game has interesting possibilities.

Before then we’ll have watched out minors seek to go one better than their drawn All Ireland with Dublin. The Dubs will be buoyed by their minor football success as well as the realisation that they had us on the back foot for most of the drawn tie. Like Tipperary they have a quota of players seeking hurling/football doubles with, in their case, the added bonus of winning the two in the same season.

Being in both finals on successive years is quite a distinction for the metropolitans and clearly reflects the quality of development work being undertaken in the capital. Winning this hurling would be the icing, one we’ll hope to prevent.

There’s no doubt we went into the drawn game fancying ourselves as red-hot favourites and very nearly paid the price for such presumption. We’ll need an entirely different mindset this time. It’s a physically strong and capable Dublin side so a massive effort will be required to get us over the line. The hurling science is there but we’ll need battling spirit as well. Good luck to them.

Am I allowed wish Galway the best of luck too in the senior affair? Allowed or not I’ll do it anyway as will most neutrals given Kilkenny’s monopoly of recent times. It’s a fascinating re-match with the Shefflin v. Canning sideshow adding spice.  After matching Kilkenny twice one wonders if Galway can do it again or if the ‘cats’ have finally found the code to unlock their latest rivals. I thought there was evidence of the latter in the second half of the drawn game but Sunday is a new chapter and Galway will hope to bring something different again this time. On the basis that so many Kilkenny players didn’t perform the last day I have still a slight leaning towards Cody’s crew as the likely winners.

Finally there was an interesting county intermediate quarter-final outcome at the weekend with Sean Treacys toppling would-be seniors Ballybacon. County minor, Sean Ryan, son of J.J. who provides a link to the club’s glory years of the seventies and early eighties, has given them a fresh impetus. They’ve drawn Ballina in the semi. Silvermines will face either St. Mary’s or Rockwell Rvs. in the other semi. Interesting to see which of them returns to senior ranks.

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