Westside column 21 September 2012

 

Our elongated hurling championship is playing catch up with a flurry of games these weeks as a Munster deadline looms in October. A quartet of matches last weekend produced one cliff-hanger and three landslides. Annacarty and Borrisoleigh went to the edge before the West prevailed; elsewhere progress was relatively smooth for Kildangan, Loughmore and Drom. Down to the last eight the floodlights now switch on for quarter-finals at the weekend where the Clonoulty\Drom repeat of last year’s decider promises to be a highlight.
And in other news (as they say on the radio) the hunt for Declan Ryan’s successor goes on apace with no evidence of an imminent announcement despite Paddy Power’s closing of the books.
 
There was no doubt which of the round 4 games last weekend produced the best – and most sustained – entertainment. Damien O’Brien was confidently assuring me during the week that Eire Og were really buzzing for this one and he certainly read the mood right. Despite being without his brother Ronan through suspension and the injured Diarmaid Ryan they put on quite a show at Cashel on Saturday leaving Brendan Maher and his Borrisoleigh colleagues shell shocked at the end when substitute, Michael McGrath, kicked the West runners-up into the last eight.
An upset it probably was, though not a huge one given Borrisoleigh’s flaky form over several seasons. The West final certainly deflated expectations of an Eire Og win though they always had the potential to do much better if the mood was right. And right it certainly was as they matched the North side stride for stride before stealing a most dramatic winner at the end.
It was lively stuff from the beginning with nothing between them. Brendan Maher was an early influence from midfield, his free taking keeping Borris’ very much in touch as they played into the wind. Eire Og had a more liberal spread of shooters including a pair of side line ‘cuts’ from Conor O’Brien who was already emerging as a real rival to Brendan Maher’s prominence.
The West got to the break a point up, which hardly seemed enough given the strength of the wind. The verdict from here might have been that Borris’ would step up on resuming and eventually easy ahead for the expected win. Well you can certainly bin that script because Eire Og were in no mood to slacken.
Lack of forward penetration became an evident Borris’ weakness against a sturdy Eire Og defence, which prompted the switch of Brendan Maher into attack in search of saving scores. Conor O’Brien shadowed his county colleague and came off best on several individual clashes as Eire Og’s confidence grew. Even when Maher escaped his marker Darragh Mooney stood firm between the Eire Og sticks and then came out to land a monster free from about forty yards from his own posts into the wind. Brendan Cummins may be the biggest ‘poc’ in the land but he could soon have a rival.
Eire Og held their ground and the game careered down to a gripping climax. There was even a bizarre moment five minutes from the end when most of us on the stand side of the pitch felt that Brian Fox had landed an important point. Protests seemed to have been waved away as play continued with Eire Og returning to the attack to send another wide. Then, seemingly on the prompting of the linesman, the referee ordered a belated point from the previous action. I don’t know about the procedural correctness of such a call-back but I have no doubt the right decision was made – thankfully it wasn’t the match winner which would indeed have been controversial.
The match decider actually came in added time at the end as we were anticipating extra-time. A last sortie into attack by Eire Og saw Eoin Kennedy place Michael McGrath for a kicked goal that decided it all. Earlier Brendan Maher was denied by a combination of goalie and defence and it was that type of game where a goal at either end was going to be decisive.
Who dares wins is an old motto and certainly Eire Og were the daring ones in this tie; what a pity they didn’t play like this in the West final. They can be grateful for a sterling display by goalie Mooney. Of course he gets his hurling from Knockavilla, his uncle Patrick Kearns kept goal for Tipp minors in ’87 and ’88. I can just imagine the bristles rising in certain quarters with that comment. I jest of course; the hurling genes come from both sides, his dad, Liam, no mean campaigner for Annacarty over many years.
Their defence too will take a collective bow; more noted as a footballer, Richard Ryan has certainly settled in to a strong season at full back. Conor O’Brien was outstanding, of course, and county minor, Donal O’Dwyer, got onto a lot of ball, over-running it at times but that will improve as he learns how to use possession better. But individuals apart it was the collective will and zest of this Eire Og side that brought them such a memorable win.
 
The second game at Cashel began well for Swans but tailed off badly in the second half as Drom eased home by a comfortable margin when backed by the wind. The South side got an early break when a Kieran Reade shot came back off the post and was steered home by an alert James Waters. That score, and a lively opening by Swans generally, checked any prior notions that the county champions would have this one easy. A quarter of an hour in and that goal still separated them though by break time Drom had strung together a neat pattern of points – David Butler particularly prominent –  to lead by two.
In the third quarter, however, I’m afraid the game tilted irresistibly towards the Ragg. David Butler set up Jamie Moloney for a goal and then Callanan fired home a free.  In fifteen minutes they outscored Swans by 2-4 to 0-1. Game definitely over.
In fairness to Swans they battled away gamely and won the last quarter but the end result was still comfortable for the reigning champs. After their horror show in the Mid earlier against Loughmore I’m sure Drom will be happy to be back on track as they seek to defend that crown.
 
And so to the North on Sunday, a division where all’s changed, changed utterly.  With no Toomevara or Nenagh heading for Thurles this year a new order seems to be emerging in that hurling-dominated division. The demise of Toome’ is the big story and it surely spells the end of an era.
Kildangan’s victory over the ‘Greyhounds’ wasn’t a shock in itself but its emphatic manner certainly underlined the altered landscape. For two decades now Toomevara have dominated Tipperary club hurling but on Sunday last they really looked like a spent force. Going out without a whimper isn’t the Toome’ tradition but this was as tame an exit as one could imagine.
They really ‘blew’ this game when playing with the strong wind in the first half. A dozen wind-carried wides left them two adrift at the break and when Tommy Connors flashed in a goal for Kildangan on resuming the result was well signposted. Significantly that goal came from a fumble by David Young and that was the pattern with Toome’ all through.
When Connors added a second goal midway through the half Toome’ were set up for an amazing ten point beating. Benny Dunne was about their only player to stand up in the crisis and they really did look a washed-out shadow of former greatness.
For their part Kildangan were sharp and zestful throughout. It was great to see county minor, Tadgh Gallagher, putting on a fine display and his brother, Joe, hugely influential too. They’re a lively formation. Darragh Egan now plays in goal in a career that has gone full circle from when he began as a Tipp minor custodian. He went up field to take a penalty in the first half but was denied by Benny Dunne. Ruairi Gleeson is an excellent free taker as well as general contributor. Hugh Flannery was strong at wing back where John O’Brien failed to gain any significant edge.
 
In the second game at Nenagh it was all very easy for Loughmore in the end as Roscrea’s challenge fizzled out in the second half. The winners were seven-up at the interval having played with the strong wind but when Tommy Fitzgerald goaled a Roscrea penalty on resuming there were hopes that we’d have a lively contest. Not a bit of it. Into the wind Loughmore started chipping over the points, Liam McGrath and Cian Hennessy prominent, and then the latter found the net to really bury this contest. Time and again Roscrea possession was turned over as they attempted a passing game, Loughmore simply too slick for them. There was a consolation goal for Ros’ at the end but really the gulf between this pair was major.
 
The quarter-finals this coming weekend promise some great entertainment with fascinating pairings. There’s no doubt the Clonoulty\Drom tie is the most eye-catching of the four, a replay of last year’s county final with all the attendant baggage that implies.  Drom’s title is on the line against a team that many see as capable of unseating them.
Unfortunately for Clonoulty they’re hard hit by defections. Injuries have kept out goalie, Declan O’Dwyer, as well as Thomas Butler and Padraig Heffernan. Add in the loss of Paudie White, sent off in the West final, and it all amounts to a heavy drain on resources, though David Collins’s loss to Drom is a counter-balance.
Not being tested in the West is a drawback for Clonoulty as well as the long lay-off since the divisional final, a situation they’ve sought to alleviate with outside challenge games. Drom have seen more action since their Mid exit but they have struggled to shake off the hangover from that walloping by Loughmore.  Overall it’s an intriguing prospect with Drom as champions probably deserving marginal favouritism.
On the same Saturday night bill as Clonoulty and Drom will be Mullinahone and Loughmore, another game with huge potential. The Mid side have experienced both extremes in their division, being hugely impressive in downing Drom but then being filleted by Pa Bourke’s six-pack of goals in the final. Their true merit lies somewhere between those two extremes.  For their part Mullinahone looked useful on their way to retaining the South and seem well placed to take on this challenge.  The Mid side will probably start favourites.
Unlucky Kildangan have drawn the short straw as they square up to championship favourites, Sarsfields, on the Sunday evening programme. While the other three ‘quarters’ look well balanced it will be the shock of the year if the North side pull off this one.
A quarter-final meeting of Portroe and Eire Og certainly has novelty and freshness about it. They met in a relegation final back in ’07 with the North side surviving by a single point. The abandonment of relegation subsequently allowed Eire Og back senior and now they renew acquaintance as top-eight teams in the county series. It’s a fascinating one. Winning the North title for the first time has given Portroe impetus but Eire Og showed last week what they’re capable of and this time will have Ronan O’Brien back on board.  The North champs probably deserve slight favouritism.
 
Finally, when Paddy Power suspended betting on Declan Ryan’s successor the word spread that an announcement was imminent. Not so, it seems, this is a mammoth task, with a lot of work still to be done before we have white smoke. The constraint of staying within the county boundary is obviously limiting. That traditional bar, a sort of sacred cow with some, is one animal I’d willingly send to the slaughter house if the best man was available elsewhere.  Sacrilege to some, I know, but desperate situations etc. etc.
 

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