Westside Column 6 December 2018

WESTSIDE

 

Despite the disimproving weather conditions the U21 hurling grade continues to enthrall. Sarsfields and Toomevara must meet again after a mud-wrestle in Borrisoleigh on Sunday last; Killenaule face a South decider midweek after pulling off a thrilling one-pointer against St. Mary’s on Saturday.

It’s a grade that never stops giving – and there’s plenty more left in this series where hopefully both semi-finals will be put through at the weekend in preparation for a final the following week.

I know it’s a hoary old cliché to depict a draw as a fair result but I really didn’t want either Sarsfields or Toomevara to lose on Sunday. Neither, I suspect, did most onlookers who witnessed this terrific struggle between two inseparable sides.

The deluge of rain that enveloped Borrisoleigh during the second half turned this match into an endurance test. The pitch became a mud-bath, there were pile-ups aplenty and a mishap more than slick hurling was likely to decide the outcome. Thankfully both sides survived to fight another day when hopefully the weather will be kinder.

Toomevara were the stronger side in the first half and with wind assistance should have been better placed than simply a point up at the interval. Toome’s Jack Delaney was the star of the show at this stage hitting five from play. However, his colleagues hit eight astray and it left them vulnerable when Eoin Purcell turned in a lovely goal for Sarsfields nearing the interval. Conor Stakelum was assured with his frees into the wind and the net result left the Mid champions well placed for the resumption.

It had been a strong recovery by the ‘Blues’ who got hit by an instant goal at the start when goalie, Matt O’Brien, got blocked down by Bob Delaney.

In the second half the rain came with a vengeance and you pitied players trying to find a grip with hand or foot. I’ve no doubt the conditions were a factor in Sarsfields’ second goal: a wind-carried Conor Stakelum ‘65’ went all the way around midway through the half. It gave Sarsfields the edge but Toome’ held in there, Jack Delaney very capable on the frees now.

Ultimately it came down to a cliff-edge finish. Bill Darcy gave Sars’ the lead but a Delaney free leveled it. By then Thurles had lost Rory Purcell to a red card. I didn’t have a clear enough view of the collision to make a judgment on the colour of the card. Either way Fergal Horgan is unlikely to receive too many Christmas cards from Sarsfields who are still sore over the Aidan McCormack incident earlier in the year when his red card was rescinded on appeal.

The two periods of extra time saw a lot of slog but little crisp hurling as the pitch cut up badly now. Sarsfields were a point up at the switch of ends but Toome’ got the leveler through another Delaney free. Play resumes next Sunday at the Ragg.

Meanwhile down South Killenaule pulled off a major win by a minor margin in the replayed divisional semi-final at a neat Cloneen venue on Saturday. The game was characterized by a first half of Killenaule supremacy and a second half kick-back by St. Mary’s who came up tantalisingly short at the end.

It was all Killenaule in the first half. Full of dash and energy they had Mary’s on the back foot from early on, Tom Stakelum leading the charge, driving through the middle. By comparison Mary’s looked lifeless.

Already corner forward, Darragh Fitzgerald, was a leading light for the robins from play and frees as the lead stretched out. Eoin Shaw too hit a few fine scores including a sweetly finished goal. Against all that Mary’s had a paltry two points from play alongside Ross Peters’ three from ‘dead ball’ plays. They trailed by six at the interval.

Matt Barlow had a chance to kick-start Mary’s recovery early in the second half but the shot was well saved by Graham O’Connor. It wasn’t until the last quarter that the 2015 county minor champions got a foothold in this game and a tiring Killenaule was suddenly back-pedaling. The lead started to dwindle, goalie Enda Dunphy hitting a few long range frees straight and true. However, the goal they needed never came and the run of points fell one short of saving the day.

It’s a disappointing one for Mary’s who needed to sustain the momentum of recent seasons. In a sense it was a double blow with their management crew of Michael Ryan and Tony Shelly transferring to Killenaule for 2019. Their listless first half simply left too much to be done with several of their key players off-colour. 2019 will be a key season for the club; they need to regain some momentum.

For Killenaule it was a big win. Paudie Feehan is still injured but others returned. I thought they had a strong central line in the defence with Liam Meagher and Killian O’Dwyer spearheading the effort. Tom Stakelum was a strong play-maker in attack where Eoin Shaw looked capable and Darragh Fitzgerald was in flying form. They face Ballingarry now midweek and will hope to see Clonoulty at the weekend.

 

Away from the playing pitches it’s that time of year for sports publications with plenty of reading material hitting the shelves in time for the Christmas market. The reader certainly isn’t short on choice so in these final few weeks of the year I thought I’d cast a critical eye over some of the books sitting on my locker.

My choice this week is what I regard as the very best of the pile on offer. It’s Paul Rouse’s marvelous read, simply titled ‘The Hurlers’. For hurling fans particularly this is essential reading but I suspect it will find approval with a much wider audience of sports followers and historians generally.

The author, Paul Rouse, is a lecturer in Irish history and sports history at UCD and was in the news during the year when he took charge of the Offaly footballers. He’s also a columnist with the ‘Irish Examiner’ and often contributes to radio and TV programmes on topics relating to sport and history and where the two overlap.

Communicating then is his stock-in-trade and one of the many virtues of this book is it’s beautiful style. Academics can sometimes adopt a very turgid style but that’s not an accusation anyone could lay at the feet of this author. He tells the story in a simple but engrossing way; it’s one of those books that simply draws you in and holds you captive to the very end.

The book has a relatively narrow focus as it telescopes in on a period of about six years from 1882 to the playing of the first All Ireland hurling final on Easter Sunday 1888. It’s a short but extraordinary period of social and political flux. Michael Cusack inevitably looms large in this story of the revival of hurling, the setting up of the GAA and the establishment of a first All Ireland series.

In essence this is the story of the genesis of the game we all love and follow weekly and how appropriate that this book is published at a time when UNESCO has just added hurling and camogie to its list of protected cultural activities. The game is part of ‘an intangible cultural heritage’, according to UNESCO, and such international recognition will sit well with all followers of the game.

Structurally Paul Rouse fits his story into a neat framework. The book opens with the Thurles and Meelick teams lining up in the centre of Birr on April 1 1888 to march to a nearby playing pitch where the first ever All Ireland final is about to unfold. That’s the end point of a journey that began with a letter to ‘The Irish Times’ in 1882.

The remainder of the book plots that journey in extraordinary detail. Paul Rouse’s forensic research captures every twist and turn on what was at times a torturous road but one that ultimately has left an enduring legacy.

The central character in the story is that remarkable Clare man, Michael Cusack, and one of the achievements of the author is the bringing to life of this colourful personality through his own writings. Here was a man who promoted rugby and excelled at the game: “Everybody knows what Cusack is in a scrummage”. Here was a man who loved cricket too and urged that every town and village in Ireland should have a cricket field.

Yet ultimately Cusack became the great convert. This was a time of huge social and political change and Cusack embodied that evolution. In time games like rugby and cricket would be linked with empire and a Victorian culture that came to be regarded as alien. Hurling rode the wave of emerging nationalism with roots tracing back to ancient times.

In all of this remaking of hurling in the 1880s Tipperary played a central role, which is yet another reason why this book is compulsive reading hereabouts. Thurles was the birthplace of the Association and the venue for many fiery conventions. Thurles won the first All Ireland. Maurice Davin played a critical role in it all, a natural foil to Cusack. Club activity was strong in Tipperary, the home of hurling according to Cusack (Moycarkey might well have been the first All Ireland winners).

All of this and more is brilliantly captured by Paul Rouse. I’ve no doubt this book will be regarded as the definitive account of this remarkable period when hurling as we know it today came to life. It’s one I’ll re-read.

P.S. No excuses! Don’t know what gremlin got into the works last week where I had Thurles Sarsfields usurping Kiladangan’s fine U21 win of 2017 (Eamon Kelly won’t be happy!). An inexcusable blunder.  Must do better, says the report card.

 

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