Westside Column 6 October 2017

WESTSIDE

 

You need to be of a certain age to have witnessed Thurles Sarsfields and Borris-Ileigh in a previous county senior hurling final, so Sunday’s collision brings a welcome freshness to the big occasion.

Borris’ are the newbies, the ‘springers’ who’ve emerged from the pack and now stand one game away from bridging a thirty-one year gap to their last win in 1986. Standing on that metaphorical bridge, however, is a Sarsfields team chasing down a four-in-a-row, which would be the club’s first since the 1960s.

If you were one of those prescient types back in the spring of this year you’d have put a few bob on Borris-Ileigh. Back in March you’d have got odds of 40/1 on the North side making the breakthrough. They were ninth on the list at that stage, behind teams like Drom/Inch and Loughmore – and even Killenaule and Kilruane and Clonoulty. Today they’re listed at odds of 3/1.

In a sense then this championship has been all about Borris-Ileigh and their emergence as title contenders. Everyone expected Sarsfields to be there again but I heard nobody mentioning Borris’ as potential rivals.

It has been a spectacular rise to prominence then by Borris-Ileigh, one that has come out of the blue. Their record in the last five years, for example, was singularly unimpressive. Last year they lost a quarter-final to Sarsfields. In fact they didn’t just lose that game; they were hammered by fifteen points. When the same teams met in an earlier group round Sarsfields again dominated, winning by nine on that occasion.

The picture was no brighter in previous seasons. In 2015 they didn’t even make the championship knock-outs. On that occasion a sixteen-point mauling by Kilruane meant they lost out on score difference to Drom/Inch.

2014 saw Borris’ knocked out in a preliminary quarter-final by – would you believe? – Burgess. The previous year they did slightly better bowing out at semi-final stage to Loughmore while in 2012 Eire Og Annacarty sent them packing in round 4 of the championship series.

So, a trawl through recent seasons offers no indication that this Borris’ upswing was in the offing. Indeed their underage record didn’t promise anything either. Amazingly for a club of its reputation they’ve never won a North minor ‘A’ title and their last U21 success was twenty years ago in 1997.

So Borris-Ileigh’s arrival to next Sunday’s county final has been remarkable. It has been something of a slow-burn build-up from unpromising beginnings. Back on April 29 their campaign floundered at the first obstacle, losing their opening round of the county championship to Kiladangan; the margin was seven points. They lost to the same club in the county league. A draw with Loughmore and a big win over Upperchurch pulled them through their championship group but it was really up North where their season took flight.

They beat Toomevara in the North quarter-final but the semi was probably the spark that set them alight. Into the final minutes of that game against Templederry they were trailing badly before late goals by Brendan Maher and Conor Kenny got them over the line. By beating Nenagh Eire Og in the final they claimed their first North divisional title in ten years.

Never underestimate momentum in sport. That North win seemed to energise Borris-Ileigh. They now had impetus; a winning habit emerged. Carrick Swans were never going to halt their gallop in a preliminary quarter-final but their subsequent successes over Loughmore and Drom/Inch really announced their arrival as a new force.

It’s amazing how a few key players can be the catalysts to set an entire team moving. Brendan Maher’s role has been pivotal, the leader of the pack who singlehandedly pulled them out of a slump in the second half against Drom/Inch. Dan McCormack too has been wading in with characteristic work rate. Jerry Kelly is cut from the same cloth and the Kennys are big lads, good in the air and well able to take a score.

The defensive structure depends on Brendan Maher as sweeper but Paddy Stapleton is a wily old hand behind him and many have been impressed too by the efforts of Dan McCormack’s brother, Sean. I suspect that the individual brilliance of such as Brendan Maher is raising the game of others around him.

But now, of course, they face a new proposition in champions, Sarsfields. The ‘Blues’ have been there before and know how to win. This year they chase four on the trot and their seventh title in nine years. They have supplanted Toomevara as the dominant force in Tipperary hurling and are listed at odds of 2/7 to retain their crown.

Some indifferent form from Sarsfields this season will encourage Borris-Ileigh. The champions limped past Upperchurch in the Mid final and were taken to extra-time by Kilruane in the county quarter-final. Indeed an early flourish against Annacarty was followed by a deal of mediocrity in the semi-final, so people are left wondering about the true merit of Sarsfields this season.

The likely deployment of sweepers will be fascinating. Will Paudie and Brendan be ping-ponging ball up and down the field? Sarsfields’ range of shooters will need careful policing by the Borris-Ileigh defence. Give them space and they’ll pop points all day. Borris’ started slowly against Drom in the semi-final; a similar showing on Sunday could see them chasing the game because Sars’ have a habit of blitzing teams early on.

From a neutral perspective we’ll hope that Borris-Ileigh are up for the fight and will go after Sarsfields from early on. Show too much respect for the champs and they’ll hurt you because their technical skill is of a very high order.

A worry for Borris-Ileigh is that tendency in both semi and quarter-final to hit a second half slump as they approached the home strait.  A repeat here could be fatal because Sars’ are far better equipped to punish you than either Drom or Loughmore.

Sarsfields lost four finals on the trot between 2000 and 2003. That was before they learned how to manage finals and not be spooked by the occasion. This Borris-Ileigh team is in its first final so we have still to see how they react. They’ve looked impressive but this is a different challenge entirely.

On known form Sarsfields deserve to be firm favourites, though hardly to the extent of the listed odds. The clubs met twice in previous finals, in 1952 and 1955, Sarsfields the winners on both occasions. Can the present generation buck that pattern? The odds are against it, though I’m certainly relishing the prospect of this Borris-Ileigh formation having a go. We need a stirring final.

The opener will be interesting too. Toomevara haven’t gone away, you know, and here they are already back in the top flight for 2018 and chasing Seamus O’Riain honours against Roscrea. The latter have been out of the frame for too long now. You have to go back to the era of Tadhg O’Connor and Francis Loughnane for their last big hurrahs; in 1980 they won the last of their six county titles.  It should be a very keen all-North final.

Meanwhile hurling structures, both locally and nationally, are dominating debate as a major overhaul is coming down the tracks.  The Special Congress on Saturday gave the green light to a new inter-county system featuring five-team round robin groups in both Munster and Leinster. The introduction of the Super 8s in football was certainly a driver behind this hurling initiative with many fearing the big ball would hog the limelight unduly if something wasn’t done.

Interestingly most of the traditional hurling counties were against the move. Our own delegates proposed an alternative, involving a provincial losers group, but it got hammered in the voting.

I have mixed feelings about the new system. On the plus side it will give extra games with all the attendant coverage, but there are negatives too. If you’re at the bottom of the pile at the end of the round robin series then your season ends in early June, which is hardly ideal for any county. There’s also the significant issue of the impact on club games.

On the latter point a strategic review group in Tipperary has brought forward proposals to realign our championships. Probably the most significant aspect of the proposals is the separating of divisional and county championships. That tie-up has certainly been troublesome though divisional interests are sure to resist any diminution of their championship’s status.

There’s merit in the new proposals, which would have a sixteen-team senior championship, then another sixteen-team premier intermediate grade for the Seamus O’Riain Cup. Beneath that you’d have another sixteen-team intermediate grade and then the juniors. The first three grades would be played on an all-county basis.

Initially this was supposed to be a proposal for 2020 but the changed inter-county system may lead to a fast-tracking of the suggestions for 2018. Interestingly I assume the realignment would mean that teams relegated from Seamus O’Riain this year would be reinstated along with a few others in order to make up the required sixteen sides in that premier intermediate grade.

Under the new format intermediate sides could compete in divisional senior championships, which would certainly be a plus for the West division which otherwise might have no viable championship next year. You’ll certainly hear more on this in the weeks ahead.

Finally in a year when Tipperary hurling success was in short supply one group I should have mentioned some weeks back, but overlooked, was the county U14 side which brought home the Tony Forristal trophy. It was the county’s first win in this prestigious tournament since 2011. They beat Galway in the final. Emmet Butler (Kilsheelan-Kilcash) captained the side. Congrats to all involved including Andy Ryan and his management team. Onward and upward lads!

P.S. Last week I referred to Liam Cahill managing next year’s U20 hurling side. I’m sure he was surprised to hear it. A Freudian slip, if you will, because I’ve no doubt hurling will follow football in this regard – but not in 2018.

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