WESTSIDE COLUMN 22 FEBRUARY 2013.

 

 

 

The preliminaries over, the hurling season begins in earnest this weekend with the launch of the league. For Tipperary, under new captain Shane McGrath, it’s a tricky trip to Christy Ring’s ground on Saturday evening. Our recent league record against Cork is poor, not having beaten them since ‘09. The floodlights then should illuminate a lively affair with both counties craving a bright start to this five-game league series.

 

The appointment of Shane McGrath as captain and Brendan Maher as his deputy has certainly sparked debate among the public. Neither would have been seen as obvious choices though when you go searching for contenders there are no jump-out candidates. Brendan Cummins might be disappointed at being overlooked once again and others might have viewed Padraig Maher as a potential skipper but I suspect the management brought a different perspective to this decision.

 

At his fluent best at midfield Shane McGrath can certainly be an inspiring player though since 2010 his form could best be described as patchy. Age wise he’s probably seen as a bridge between the younger element that came through minor and U21 success and the older brigade in the thirty-something category. Perhaps his appointment is a pat on the back by the management, a sort of vote of confidence. It certainly implies that he’s seen as a definite first-fifteen player and perhaps the belief is that it could be the spur to reinvigorate his career.

 

Brendan Maher too is a player who needs some re-energising. He took the hurling world by storm in 2010 and was seen as the great white hope who would be a colossal player for Tipperary for many years to come. Yet three years on and it hasn’t happened. That leg injury certainly set him back but he’s since struggled to rediscover the impact of 2010. Perhaps this is yet again a case of the management expressing faith in a player and urging him to step up to a more central role.

 

It seems likely that both captain and vice-captain will play against Cork on Saturday night. Interestingly Brendan Maher has been pitched at centre back in recent line outs so given the absence of Padraig Maher we might expect him to start at number six again this time. He got injured in the warm-up for the Waterford Crystal final which was unfortunate on a few fronts. On the one hand we’d like to have seen him against Tony Kelly, Clare’s most exciting upcoming player; on the other hand his replacement in that game, Thomas Stapleton, had a nightmare and may have done terminal damage to his prospects.

 

One suspects the defence for this league launch will be similar to that which faced Clare in the Crystal final. Conor O’Brien certainly made a positive impact that night and while we were over-run from outfield the likes of Curran, Donagh Maher and Seamus Hennessy weren’t seen as the problem areas. Incidentally a back problem is keeping Conor O’Mahony on the fringes at the moment.

 

The management may mull over Shane McGrath’s partner at midfield. Noel McGrath, James Woodlock and Johnny Ryan come into the frame as possible accomplices. In attack I suspect Shane Bourke and Brian O’Meara will start. ‘Bonner’ Maher and John O’Brien look woefully short of hurling sharpness at present but may well be on board for this tie, as well as Seamus Callanan. These guys have certainly got incentive to make amends for quite anaemic displays against Clare. John O’Dwyer is another contender for a starting slot in attack. As the new management’s first ‘serious’ line out it will be interesting to see what choices are made.

 

You know the old saying about it being an ill-wind that doesn’t aid someone and Sarsfields defeat in the All Ireland club semi-final will certainly strengthen Eamon O’Shea’s hand for this league series. I understand that the Sarsfields’ players will officially rejoin the team next week which inevitably will strengthen options for March 10 when we entertain Kilkenny at the Stadium.

 

Sarsfields’ exit from the All Ireland club race is being widely seen as a lost opportunity and indeed their county players haven’t emerged unscathed from the disappointment. Lar Corbett’s trip to New York the week before the match has come in for severe criticism. The charity venture he was involved in was, of course, very worthy but the timing of the trip, when all his focus should have been on the Kilcormac game, was seen as most unwise. Then you had the Jimmy Doyle comments on the ‘Examiner’ and Lar’s retort on social media adding more fuel to the flames.

 

All of this must surely be setting alarm bells ringing for the Tipp management. Lar’s public profile is a distraction and I can’t see Eamon O’Shea and company sitting idly by. We need a period of silence from Lar, one where his hurling alone does the talking.

 

What of Cork? Well, Jimmy Barry can protest all he likes about the unity of purpose within the panel but it won’t quell the public sense of background tension in the rebel ranks. When players like Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane opt for football then it sends a message. They see Conor Counihan as the one more likely to deliver silverware in 2013 and that has to be worrying for JBM.

 

They don’t get the rebel tag down south for nothing and over the last decade especially we’ve become accustomed to upheavals in their ranks. In fact our last league win over them was back in the spring of ’09 when Cork hurling was convulsed by rebellion. The hurlers were on strike so Gerald McCarthy brought an alternative team to Semple Stadium where the new lights were being switched on for the first time. It was supposed to be a gala event but the Cork affair derailed it. We had our expected win, 2-15 to 0-9, but the Cork impasse dominated all coverage.

 

Our league record against Cork since then has been unimpressive. In 2010 we lost by a single point at Pairc Ui Chaoimh and a year later drew at the same venue. Last spring there was yet another draw in the final league round at Semple Stadium before we fell rather tamely at semi-final stage to the same opposition. A dismal final quarter undid our efforts that day – it ended 1-25 to 2-15. So two defeats and two draws over the past three years has been our lot in league games with Cork.

 

And yet Paddy Power sees Tipperary as favourites to bring home a win on Saturday night. We’re listed at 4\6 whereas you can get odds of 11\8 on Cork. Perhaps the defections of such as Cadogan and Cahalane as well as the enforced removal of players like Gardiner and Donal Og Cusack all feeds into a perception that there’s background squabbling going on. Given that scenario the best tonic for JBM would be a victory in the league opener so I assume we can expect a hot reception at what was once called Flower Lodge.

 

Tipp enter this game on the back of a very flat display in the Crystal final, one that drew heavy criticism from the followers. Maybe there will be a backlash from that and Paddy Power will be proven right. I hope so because our recent record against Cork doesn’t spawn optimism.

 

Just as the hurling season springs into life, the game of life for some reaches final whistle. It is with deep sadness that we record the passing of Johnny Murphy, one of sports journalism’s most colourful characters and a friend of so many of us.

 

If any man was born to journalism it was surely Johnny. Apart from his great facility with words he had a mind that was tailor-made for the job: sharp, inquisitive and brimful of information. I’d always ring him before previewing a game with his adopted Waterford and he never disappointed. You’d get a surge of information coming over the phone line, a bombardment of facts about every one of the Waterford players, their background pedigree, their underage achievements, their strengths, their weaknesses etc, etc, and etc. It would be information overload but that wouldn’t stop Johnny.

 

As so many tributes during the week pointed out, he was one of those few journalists who did news as well as sport. Probably his most famous scoop was the aids story and this epitomises the journalistic instinct he had. He’s at mass and the priest, ex-Offaly star Fr. Michael Kennedy, gives a sermon about a local woman whom he claimed was infecting men of the parish with the aids virus as an act of revenge. Instinctively Johnny the journalist grabs a pen from his wife Eileen and on an old pay slip starts recording the priest’s words. The story commanded international headlines.

 

We knew him as ‘Merryman’, a nickname that went back to his childhood and a cowboy suit that he became obsessed with. He was a Cashel native and Tipperary fanatic who made his home in Dungarvan and served at one time as chairman of the Waterford County Board. He even dabbled in politics serving as a Fianna Fail councillor for a spell.

 

I last met him before Christmas at the launch of the memoir of his lifelong pal, Sean O’Dwyer. He edited the book and was in great form that night in the Palace Hotel in Cashel. With Johnny life was never boring. He had a roguish sense of humour and the many yarns at this stage have become the stuff of legend. Press boxes and our lives in general will be duller because of his passing. Our sympathies to Eileen and his family and peaceful rest to his soul.

 

Of course it was also a week when the world lost another GAA stalwart in Sean Og O’Ceallachain. To a younger generation the name might be meaningless but for others it brought back memories of decades of tuning into the late Sunday night results programme. It became something of an institution in broadcasting for its sheer longevity; Sean presented the show from the forties up to a few years ago.

 

I suppose the internet age eventually overtook the programme but it’s difficult to underestimate its importance to previous generations. If you were away from home then tuning into Sean Og was essential to keep up to date with GAA results from all over the country. The collating of all that information and pronouncing all those club names was quite a feat. He certainly did the GAA some service.

 

Finally the Harty Cup next Sunday at Tipperary town has a premier county interest as Our Lady’s Templemore take on favourites Dungarvan Colleges for the coveted prize. Our Lady’s took the provincial ‘B’ football title last Saturday by overpowering the Abbey in the second half so they’ll be in fine spirits going into this final in search of a rare double. They’ll be outsiders but in their present mood will fear no one. It should be well worth a visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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