Westside Column 30 November 2018

WESTSIDE

 

The U21 hurling grade has had many detractors over the years yet it remains a hugely attractive competition, one that holds a special place in the hearts of followers. The quality of entertainment it produces is its trump card.

And so as the Christmas season now fast approaches it’s what draws followers from their firesides. Three divisions have their ‘A’ winners in place with the South scrambling to join the queue for this last remaining hurling championship of the 2018 season.

I’m an unapologetic admirer of this grade. Over the years it has produced some priceless spectacles both at club and inter-county level. There’s a purity about the grade where lads are competing in their last underage championship before launching into the big, bad world of fully fledged adults. Like post-primary and colleges’ hurling it often produces textbook quality.

For Tipperary, of course, it’s a grade that holds a special place in our hearts. We won the first ever U21 All Ireland back in 1964 and brought things full circle then in 2018 by winning the last one before the age restriction drops to U20.

I’ve seen most of our ten All Irelands in the grade and I’d have no problem nominating the 2018 win as the most memorable of the lot. It’s all down to context. 2018 was thought to be too early for our minors of 2016 so we went into the championship un-fancied, in fourth place behind Cork, Galway and Limerick. By the end we’d beaten all three in what was a truly remarkable achievement.

The inter-county age drops to U20 for 2019 but there’s no decision yet on the club game. I’m surprised to learn that this is left to individual counties to decide. Surely some standardization nationally is needed. Instead the Tipperary convention will have to decide on whether to lower the age in line with inter-county or stay with U21.

The realignment of age brackets to U20 and U17 raises an interesting issue at club level where the juvenile grades come under the spotlight. It would seem problematic to have U17 and U16 grades in such close proximity so the logical move would be to restore the U15 and U13 grades some of us grew up with. For others U12 remains a precious starter grade, so the debate will be ongoing.

The North and Mid divisions put on their U21 finals at the weekend with Toomevara and Thurles Sarsfields taking the honours. Clonoulty have come through in the West but the South has unfinished business where St. Mary’s and Killenaule played out a draw midweek.

I saw the Mid final on Sunday where Sarsfields got through against a really gutsy second half fight-back from Holycross. The ‘Blues’ were ten-up at the interval but by the end they needed that considerable cushion to complete a four-in-a-row in the division.

A pleasant November day brought a big crowd to the Ragg for this final and they were rewarded with an honest and earnest battle between the pair. It looked a done deal at half time, Sars’ in command 2-10 to 0-6. The goals came either end of the half, Jack Lanigan and Evan McCormack the finishers, after Conor Stakelum created both chances. In fact the second of those goals sparked a devastating patch by the Thurles lads before the break; it took a hitherto tight enough game into one-sided territory.

All Ireland medalist, Stakelum, pulled the strings in attack at that stage, setting up both goals and scoring five points himself, three from play.  Rory Purcell was on target too with three points and with his brother, Michael in dominant form at number six Sarsfields seemed to be well on their way.

Holycross had to field without Jack Ryan, Jack Skehan and Mike Nally and the latter pair now came on at half time in an effort to retrieve the situation. They made a bold bid too. Skehan certainly limited the impact of Michael Purcell as Holycross brought renewed vigour to their game. Eventually Skehan scrambled home a reviving goal about midway through the half as the Holycross momentum gathered steam.

A succession of bad wides proved very costly for Holycross, however, though they were definitely having the better of open play now as the rally stayed on track. Eventually a Stephen Flanagan goal pulled the lead back to a mere three points with about as many minutes left to play. A steadying point by Sarsfields’ Bill Darcy was huge in halting the trend and the town side eventually held out for a win that may have been deserved overall but was certainly sweaty at the climax.

Conor Stakelum, as you’d expect, was the main play-maker for Sarsfields in attack. On the Holycross side Dara Woods hit eight frees straight and true but they probably needed more from him in general play. I’m a big admirer of Bryan O’Mara at midfield, easily their best player on the day.

Up North the early word was that Kilruane were leading the way against Toomevara but that soon changed. A strong second half brought the ‘greyhounds’ through which sets up an intriguing semi-final with Sarsfields on Sunday next at Borrisoleigh. It will be a repeat of last year’s final, which the Mid side won narrowly.

Sarsfields are this year chasing a four-in-a-row at U21. Amazingly they haven’t won a minor title since 2010 so none of their last three U21 winners was successful at minor. Late developers, perhaps, or simply a case of senior success rubbing off on the U21s.

Incidentally Sarsfields lead the roll of honour in this U21 grade with nine titles including five of the last six. If they manage the four-in-a-row this year they’ll be matching a similar feat by Kilruane MacDonagh’s from 1973 to 1976 and Nenagh Eire Og from 1979 to 1982.

If you take the minor grade as an indicator then 2018 should belong to St. Mary’s. They won the first of their minor double in 2015 but such natural progression doesn’t always follow. They’re certainly having trouble getting out of the South where Killenaule have taken them to a replay. Clonoulty await the South champions in the county semi on Sunday week.

The South division’s tardiness in completing its games schedule is an ongoing feature now for several years. They’ve become the black sheep of the GAA family in Tipperary. An initiative back in early 2017 to address this issue doesn’t appear to have brought much improvement. On that occasion clubs agreed to sign up to a commitment regarding fixtures but 2018 appears to be as poor as any of its predecessors.

At the moment Morris Park is becoming the adopted home of the South Division as they play-off fixtures midweek under lights in a frantic bid to meet county deadlines. A division might be excused for running into difficulty on a once-off basis where exceptional circumstances come into play, but by now it’s become habitual with the South. Like the Oscar Wilde character, once might be considered unfortunate but thereafter it’s downright carelessness.

At the moment the South is also struggling to complete its senior football championship. For a division where football is big this is pretty poor form. Of course last year’s senior football championship had an unsatisfactory conclusion too when Moyle Rvs. were eventually awarded the title after their final with Commercials wasn’t played. I doubt if that’s a particularly treasured title around Monroe.

This year the South junior hurling decider wasn’t completed in time either so Skeheenarinky went forward as nominal champions before eventually losing the county final to Boherlahan. They’ve since won the South with a comprehensive victory over St. Patricks but this reverse order did them no favours in the county series; the boost of a divisional win always sets a team up for the county campaign.

Of course while the South is the biggest offender there are issues in other divisions too. The West senior football final between Galtee Rvs. and Eire Og Annacarty is an item in dispute at the moment. It was originally fixed for late October but got called off at the eleventh hour and has been mired in controversy since. The Bansha club is particularly peeved at the manner – and reason – for the original cancellation and it remains to be seen whether or not that game will go ahead pre-Christmas.

All’s not perfect in the Mid either so without delving too deep you easily get an impression of fixture disorder throughout this county. Croke Park’s attempts at easing the situation for clubs this year is generally regarded as being a failure. Of course it doesn’t really matter what space Croke Park creates for clubs; if local fixture makers aren’t up to scratch then the system malfunctions.

There is a solution, though the divisions will bristle at the idea. Where divisions are laggard then take fixture making out of their hands. Appoint an outside county committee, free from local politics, which draws up the fixture schedule and all horse-trading is disallowed. You play when fixed or you forfeit the game. Simple. But don’t hold your breath for that happening any time soon.

 

 

 

 

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