Long awaited, finally arrives. At last Thurles Sarsfields lay to rest the ghosts of Munster failures. A first provincial title was hard-won but richly deserved. Against fourteen-man De Le Salle the ‘Blues’ had to do as they did in previous games, producing a sprint finish to see them home by a lengthening margin. General euphoria greeted the breakthrough among the travelling fans as the class of 2012 did what none of their predecessors could ever manage.

Elsewhere on the club front Nenagh Eire Og are minor masters after a comprehensive verdict over St. Mary’s in the ‘A’ decider; in the ‘B’ category Arravale Rvs. kept the western flag flying with an historic first against Bracken’s.

One travelled to Cork on Sunday with a feeling of trepidation given the weather prediction. The approach roads to the pitch offered no comfort either with plenty of surface water on view though by then the rain had ceased. Amazingly, however, the pitch was in surprisingly good nick and the atmospherics were quite pleasant for the contest.

This was one that Sarsfields craved and how they revelled in the achievement afterwards. From the legendary Mickey ‘Rattler’ Byrne to the youngest child, nobody was in a hurry to leave Pairc Ui Chaoimh as Padraic Maher went up accept the O’Neill Cup following a game of high drama and higher quality.

Two years ago the sides met and froze in arctic conditions; this time the temperature was much higher and indeed the tempo and tone of the contest was on a different level too.  This was a game of quality, a real winter cracker as two excellent sides went head to head and the game ebbed and flowed accordingly. Sarsfields were never headed in the match but yet couldn’t quite close it out until those encore scores at the finish ended all doubt and the title was on its way back to the cathedral town for the first time.

De Le Salle will have regrets, deep regrets, on a day when they got few breaks. They might (should?) have had two or three first half goals instead of just that cracking solo strike from Paudie Nevin approaching half time. Earlier Jake Dillon twice spurned gilt-edged goal opportunities. The first saw his attempted plant past Patrick McCormack come back off the base of the post. The second was an even better chance but somehow his shot soared over the bar from point-blank range. When these things happen you sense that your luck is out.

Then, as if to underline the point, came the sending off a few minutes before the interval. Ex-Borrisoleigh and Tipp minor player, John Keane, was the hero in Sixmilebridge a fortnight earlier when he bagged the winning goal. This time he went from hero to villain. He played a busy first half for De Le Salle but approaching the interval he drifted outfield where he fouled Denis Maher and then in the follow up collected a straight red card (have you ever seen a crooked one?). Harsh but technically correct was the judgment of most neutrals on a day when the referee seemed over-fussy every time players went into contact.

With that decision coming just a week after the Galway County final it once again underlined the glaring inconsistencies in refereeing standards countrywide. Mind you I’ll take Sunday’s referee anytime ahead of his Galway counterpart. That business over in the west has become a YouTube embarrassment for the Tribesmen.

Anyway Sars’ trotted off to the dressing rooms – cupboards some would say! – just two points in credit at half time. In had been an eventful half starting with Jim Corbett’s smashing goal in the opening minutes after he was fed by Denis Maher. That gave the early initiative to Sarsfields but the Waterford champions are a quality side and this was never going to be easy for Thurles.

Lar Corbett decorated that opening spell too with a few trademark points and Pa Bourke also was doing the business in attack. Against that we’d seen little of John Mullane, apart from one typical point from the sideline, though the Waterford champs were very much in the hunt even if the loss of a player was going to hurt in the second half.

It was an edgy nervous second half from Sarsfields, like an athlete who sees the finishing line but just struggles to get over it. An early indication of the Waterford threat came with a Dean Twomey free immediately on resuming when he drove for goal but dragged the shot wide. Other goal chances would present themselves too but Patrick McCormack is having a strong spell between the sticks for Sars’ and without a major breach the Tipp champs mostly kept ahead.

Twice Eddie Barrett equalised for De Le Salle in the third quarter and the game looked very finely poised. ‘Redser’ was on now and landed a valuable point as Sarsfields went through a worrying spell hitting a string of damaging wides. By now the Waterford half backs were imposing themselves on the game and Lar Corbett had drifted out of it. At the crunch it was players like Denis Maher and Pa Bourke and ‘Redser’ who did enough to land the prize. The half backs too, especially the likes of Padraic Maher and Michael Cahill, stood rock firm and in the final moments Sars’ conjured a little flurry of scores that sealed the verdict.

A margin of five at the end was flattering because this was toss-up fare. If De Le Salle were angry at the sending off I think their bigger grounds for complaint centred on the referee’s failure to award a penalty in the second half when Stephen Maher seemed to ground Jake Dillon near goal. It was a huge call in the context of such a tight game – and wrong.

On balance one felt that Sarsfields were the better side but believe me the mood of the day could have taken this contest either way. Pa Bourke got the man-of-the-match prize. Denis Maher must have been a close second and Michael Cahill was not far off either. Lar Corbett’s first half was impressive and Jim Corbett will long remember that goal. I’m delighted too that ‘Redser’ played a role because he’s been invaluable to Sarsfields over the years.

Sarsfields can offer a pat on the back to goalie, Patrick McCormack, too. His save in the semi-final was the stop of the series and he made some vital interceptions on Sunday too. The full back line was again under stress, though the much-criticised Kevin O’Gorman had one of his more assured displays this time. Perhaps the most problematic area for Sars’ this time was midfield where they were second best to the Waterford pair.

A word on De le Salle: they are justified in feeling that they got few breaks on Sunday whether it was the sending off or the penalty that wasn’t. However, they’ll also know that you can’t spurn three or four goal chances in a match like this and still hope to be ahead at the end. They’ve a strong side, Jake Dillon an upcoming starlet, and a combination of their competitive spirit and dignity in defeat won them many admirers on Sunday. I suspect they’ll be here again in future years.

For the moment the glory belongs to Sarsfields. This is a proverbial monkey off their back and let’s hope that they push on now and give the All Ireland series a lash. That’s something to look forward to in February though I suspect Eamon O’Shea will rue being without some key players for the early rounds of the league. In a year when our inter-county stock took a tumble it’s nice to end on an uplifting note.

There was no such happy ending however for St. Mary’s in their quest for a first county minor hurling title. They went in as underdogs against Nenagh Eire Og and in truth were never in the hunt. It was over at half time with the board reading 2-10 to 0-2. Mary’s won the second half but by then it was a case of damage limitation.

In truth there was a yawning gulf between the sides as Eire Og looked a class above their opponents in that opening period. And they had the star of the show in centre forward, Donnacha Quinn, who ended on a personal score of 2-9, which broke down into 2-3 from play, 0-1 from a side line ‘cut’ and 0-5 from frees – not a bad day’s work.

After their fine win over Cashel Mary’s must have felt confident that they’d at least be competitive in the final but unfortunately in all unravelled. The signs were there in the opening quarter as Nenagh enjoyed majority possession. Gradually they pointed their way into the lead and one feared a Nenagh goal would underpin the trend and effectively end the contest. In fairness to Mary’s defence they held firm as long as possible and got a rub of the green when Shane Hennessy hit the crossbar with the goal at his mercy.

Inevitably the opening goal eventually came, a fine individual effort from Donnacha Quinn, and before half time he did a double-take with strike number two. It would have been easy for Mary’s to give up the ghost at that stage but to their credit they stayed competitive in the second half and were rewarded with a consolation goal, Christy Walsh burying a twenty metre free.

I’m disappointed for Mary’s. It’s always testing when you make progress and then hit a wall like this. With the High School in their first year in the Harty there’s obviously progress being made by a lot of hard-working clubmen so the message has to be to keep the faith.

For Nenagh it was their seventh title, their first since 2008. They looked strong and skilful with Barry Heffernan very economical at number six. Donnacha Quinn obviously took the individual honours but Shane Hennessy looked a promising prospect too; I’m told he’s only fifteen. The challenge for Eire Og now is to nurture these lads through to senior level where their fortunes have waned in recent times.

I clearly bypassed the more exciting game when ignoring the ‘B’ final at Boherlahan. Arravale faced Bracken’s without key players because of injury and suspension from the semi-final but obviously made light of the losses. It was a club first and hopefully will encourage the game in that football-orientated region. Rovers have been well able to match the likes of Clonoulty at underage level but the challenge is to bring that development up through the ranks to senior.

P.S. It was a great weekend all round for Tipperary with Silvermines capturing the Munster intermediate hurling crown. They recovered from a first half deficit against Ballyduff of Kerry and eventually took the honours in what appears to have been a hardy encounter. Jason Forde has been their leading score-getter and his introduction to the Tipperary senior panel raises the profile of the club even further.


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