Westside column – February 11th 2012

A wet, wet day at Nenagh and a strange game of hurling where an experimental Tipperary team started and finished well but in between lost its way. Nonetheless it was enough to see off the willing students of UL and earn Tipp the considerable prize of a home venue against Cork in the semi-final of this Waterford Crystal next Sunday.

Elsewhere that famous – or infamous – relegation battle was finally settled at Clonmel where Cashel K.C. salvaged their senior status with a six-point decision over Ballybacon, reversing the outcome of the original controversial tie. It will be last chance saloon next weekend for the South side when they face Borrisokane. And just as this column was wrapping up there came the bombshell news that Lar Corbett has withdrawn from the Tipperary panel.
Tipp’s winning start to the new season continued at Nenagh on Saturday last before a miserably small attendance. Saturday afternoon games are a put-off for many followers and when the weather chose to play spoil-sport I’m sure it was the clinching factor for some would-be attendees. The stay-at-homers missed nothing; on a day of rain and mud this was a case of endurance rather than enjoyment.

It was an odd sort of game. The home side got a run on the students in the first quarter and were ten points clear before Conor McGrath had the first point for the Limerick side after all of twenty-two minutes. Early points from Pa Bourke, Adrian Ryan, John O’Brien (the best score of the lot) and John O’Neill were followed by a two-goal blast in four minutes. ‘Buggy’ O’Meara was fouled and dissent saw the free being advanced to a more threatening position. It proved costly for the students as Pa Bourke’s shot went in off the stick of Holycross’ Tossy Lowry in the UL goal. Four minutes later Gearoid Ryan set up ‘Buggy’ for a batted second. With the elements in their backs Tipp had 2-4 on the board with UL still to register.

And yet, inexplicably, Tipp seemed to switch off after that to allow the students back into the contest. The UL lads worked hard, the defence tightening after the early haemorrhage, and in Clare’s Conor McGrath they had a potent weapon in attack. McGrath, from good Toomevara stock, hit some great points into the elements to halve the lead before the interval.

Incredibly Tipperary went scoreless for almost half an hour, a period that stretched from the seventeenth minute of the first half to the eleventh in the second. By then Conor McGrath had the lead down to a mere three and the Tipp bench must have been worried. Eventually rescue came in the shape of Eoin Kelly who went in and showed the wannabes a few tricks, tossing over three points to steady the ship and see it safely into port.
It certainly wasn’t a convincing statement by Tipperary’s aspiring panellists. After the early burst of scoring the team became shapeless, the attack drifting away from goal despite playing with the benefit of wind and rain. Eoin Kelly’s input made all the difference but overall it was a very variable display.

Our most productive man on the day was ‘Buggy’ O’Meara. I know the cynics will say that conditions suited him, but in fairness he’s putting in slavish effort every day and if he can develop a notch or two he might well have a role in the championship team. He scored one of the goals and was fouled for 1-2 more of our total, which together makes up a sizable chunk of our score.

Otherwise those who tend to dismiss Eoin Kelly as over-the-top would need to revise their opinions. He may have a lot of mileage on the clock but those hands are still elastic and I don’t see any newcomer rushing in to take his place.
After that there wasn’t a lot more of interest to report on the game. Michael Cahill had his hands full in defence trying to curtail Conor McGrath but Paul Curran is looking very strong at full back. Otherwise I didn’t see any stand-out performances though one must recognise that conditions were dreadful.

So it’s on to the semi-final of this tournament now when Cork travel to Clonmel next Sunday. I don’t know why the game goes to Clonmel and I’m certainly not convinced of the wisdom of the move. The surface didn’t look healthy on Sunday and the spectator accommodation could do with an upgrade. Besides it’s a long way from North Tipperary to Clonmel. Surely a more central venue could have been chosen.
Cork qualified for this semi-final with an easy win over Kerry at the weekend. It was JBM’s first competitive outing since returning to management. He fielded a new-look Cork side for the Kerry game but I’d expect a strengthening of the formation for next Sunday. There were a few familiars on board last week such as Tom Kenny, Cathal Naughton, Cian McCarthy, Pa Cronin and Pat Horgan but the rest of the old brigade were held in reserve.
For Tipperary this is an ideal assignment as the build up to the league intensifies. Declan Ryan has been able to ease his side into action with a series of five games, friendly and Waterford Crystal, so Sunday should represent a stepping up of the tempo as we head closer to the league start on February 26.

Once again one suspects the management will field a mix of players for this fixture with perhaps the core drawn from the All Ireland team and then the rest coming from the supplementary material. Some college players are still out of bounds for this competition. Incidentally Padraic Maher won his case midweek at Croke Park and played with UL in the drawn Fitzgibbon game against LIT. Last week I erroneously speculated about which side he’d play for on Saturday at Nenagh; he couldn’t play for UL in the Waterford Crystal because he already played for Tipp in the same competition. A certain hawk-eyed E. Donnelly was on my case with the correction before the ink was dry.

Anyway one assumes Brendan Cummins will be club-tied next weekend so presumably Darren Gleeson will again mind goal. In the absence of Cummins James Logue was stand-by last week so the Ballingarry man can regard himself as the official number three in the pecking order at this stage. I’d expect a strong defence for Sunday akin to last week, maybe with the addition of Padraic Maher. Brendan Maher is getting a lot of game time midfield but you could speculate forever about his likely partner. David Young has been on trial in the area in recent games and Shane McGrath has fluctuated between midfield and centre forward.

It’s the Tipperary attack that probably needs most strengthening for Sunday’s game. Maybe that will mean a start for such as Eoin Kelly and Patrick Maher this time. The loss now of Lar Corbett puts added focus on this end of the pitch. We’ll see. Either way it’s the most significant game of the year thus far for the team. We’ll meet Cork in the league and, hopefully, the provincial semi-final of the championship so an early season marker would be useful.
Meanwhile Clonmel on Sunday saw that much-debated relegation tie between Cashel K.C. and Ballybacon finally decided with the King Cormacs securing their senior status on a 0-14 to 0-8 score line. Having won the boardroom battle earlier, Cashel have now taken the hurling honours too, though I suspect neutral sympathy will be with Ballybacon, who now face Borrisokane in a last gasp effort to save their status for 2012.
After all the heat generated by the controversy the hurling was pretty poor. Cashel had the better of it for sure but justifying their presence in the top rank now won’t be easy.

The winners led six-four at the break. A fine save by Kevin O’Sullivan and the capable free taking of Jonathan Grogan were central to Cashel’s edge at that stage. In the second half they consolidated their position with Dylan Fitzell emerging as the attacking star and Lee Burke the defensive one. A few missed frees by Ballybacon were costly and as the game progressed they never appeared to have the cutting edge in attack to hurt the West side. There were few enough handshakes at the end but Cashel had achieved their ambition and for Ballybacon at least there’s another day.

There was no doubt Cashel had the individual stand-out players. Lee Burke led a very tight defensive unit which over the hour conceded a mere five points from play. Burke was superb at centre back but they can be grateful too for a very assured display from goalie, Kevin O’Sullivan. A goal would have been a major item in this contest but it never really threatened.
In attack then it was Dylan Fitzell who drew most notice with a sterling display that included four points from play, some of really fine quality. This dual player certainly looks the business so his progress will be watched with interest. The free taking of Jonathan Grogan was critical to the outcome too; he landed five and added one from play to end top scorer. While these were the most noticeable names the rest played their part too in a team victory.
For Ballybacon it was a disappointing day given the twist this unfortunate affair took over the winter. I thought Peter Hally played a fine hour in defence. Johnny English had some notable moments too at midfield including the point of the game from near the sideline in the second half. Billy Hewitt was another who worked gamely in the cause but overall they simply hadn’t enough in attack to carry them through. Many expected to see Brendan Cummins come outfield as a last throw of the dice but for some reason it never happened. This game should bring them on for the relegation final now against Borrisokane, a match I hope they win.

Finally that shock announcement that Lar Corbett has withdrawn from the Tipperary panel is devastating news for followers. It’s been described as a withdrawal because of pressure of work, which somehow makes it seem less final than retirement. There’s obviously a hope, a forlorn one perhaps, that there will be a rethink coming nearer to the championship.
Inevitably the timing of this announcement will set tongues wagging. Players generally retire during the closed season and Lar was back in action for 2012 coming on for Munster in that recent charity game at Nenagh. The rumour mill is obviously about to go into overdrive and there will be all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain the move. It’s a process I’m not going to add to at this stage.

Whatever the underlying reasons it’s desperately bad news for Tipperary followers. The Tipperary attack minus those electric bursts of Lar is a much weaker entity and those of us who’ve been watching the back-up material know all about the shortage of replacements. Anyway it’s a story that’s going to dominate news for the coming weeks, so more anon.

Finally Nenagh CBS came so close to making the Harty final last Sunday. Leading going into added time they were just caught at the end and the replay now goes on next week. They’ve surprised people in a competition that’s never been so open. Good luck to them in the replay.

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