Westside column – February 25th 2012

With the season preliminaries over it’s the real deal this weekend as the 2012 league campaign kicks off. For the third year in succession Tipperary and Kilkenny supply the glamour opening, this time at Nowlan Park. With both sides showing earnest intent in the lead-in it promises to be a fitting launch to the new season.
Elsewhere – and most regrettably – the Harty final at Cashel clashes with the Kilkenny fixture. Nenagh CBS, following their memorable replay success over Ard Scoil Ris last week, carry Tipperary hopes against the Waterford Colleges from Dungarvan. In other news it promises – or threatens! – to be a crunch week on the relegation issue as well as the payment for managers debate.

So, here we go once again, back hip-to-hip with Kilkenny for a season opener, one that on past experience has the potential to set the tone for the year. The hurling story of the past three years has been a Tipp/Kilkenny saga so it’s inevitable that Croke Park would set this one up to glamorise the league launch. Given past history between the sides there’s much at stake, markers to be laid down and so forth, so one can reasonably assume a degree of passion from both sides on Sunday.
There’s no doubt Tipperary go in this time in far better fettle than a year ago, though on recent evidence Kilkenny are taking matters very seriously too. We go in without Lar of course – he wasn’t there last year either – and also minus the injured pair of Patrick Maher and Seamus Callanan. Otherwise we will presumably go with maximum thrust for a fixture of such key importance.
The selection options start at number one and whether to opt for the tried and trusted experience of Cummins or the newer option in Darren Gleeson. Cummins got little enough play-time during January but may be needed by his club on Saturday if that relegation goes ahead. The right corner of defence presents some possibilities. Paddy Stapleton is back in the reckoning after being college-tied with UL earlier and Conor O’Brien has been the choice in recent games. Interesting to see who slots in beside Curran and Cahill. On recent evidence the half line might see O’Mahony in between the Mahers, Shane and Padraig.
A likely combination at midfield is Shane McGrath and Brendan Maher unless one or other is required on the half forward line. David Young, James Woodlock and possibly Johnny Ryan come into consideration here also.
With three of last September’s forward division unavailable the attack I’m sure will occupy the minds of the management more than the defence. You’d expect John O’Brien, Eoin Kelly and Gearoid Ryan to be on board. On recent form Brian O’Meara will surely be a starter also. Noel McGrath should be back from college duty with UCD to add options to the half line. Interesting to see if Adrian Ryan’s recent form is tested against the Kilkenny defence and then you have the likes of Pa Bourke, John O’Neill and possibly Sean Curran in the mix. That attack is likely to be the most problematic area of the team given the absentees.
There’s no doubt that if you want to test a side’s credentials the examinations don’t come any stiffer than Kilkenny at Nowlan Park. All Ireland champions sometimes start into a new year quite blasé about the early rounds of the league as they hold their fire for later in the season. Not Kilkenny though. All the evidence thus far is that Cody is setting out his stall early. He sent a very strong side out to dispense with Galway in the Walsh Cup recently and of course eleven of his troops backboned the Leinster team in the inter-provincial last weekend.
Much has been made of the Kilkenny retirements but Eddie Brennan is the only first-choice loss. The others had all slipped to the fringes of the team so I suspect their departures won’t unduly disturb Cody’s sleep pattern. Kilkenny’s entire All Ireland defence fielded last week against Munster so I’d expect the same this Sunday in front of goalie, David Herity. It’s a formidable bulwark against a Tipp attack short on options.

The All Ireland midfield partnership of Fennelly and Rice played last week also so presumably it could be more of the same on Sunday.
With Henry Shefflin out for some time and Eddie Brennan in retirement the Kilkenny attack will face some alteration from that which operated last September. Richie Hogan, Richie Power and Eoin Larkin all started against Munster and Colin Fennelly came on during the game. Presumably we’ll see all four in action this time. T.J. Reid offers options to the manager too with perhaps some minor experimentation on view.
There’s no doubt Cody will want to win this game, just as a reminder that the old order remains firmly in place. Likewise Declan Ryan and colleagues, I’m sure, would like to upset that same order and plant a marker for the remainder of the year. It should result in a lively, even revealing, collision

A most unfortunate clash on Sunday sees the Harty Cup final going ahead at Cashel in direct opposition to Nowlan Park. Given Nenagh CBS’s exciting win over Ard Scoil during the week this dividing of Tipperary loyalties seems utterly senseless. The Harty is a huge competition hereabouts and a simple switch to Saturday seemed an obvious solution – obvious to most followers, that is, but not the organisers who’ve stuck stubbornly to the original arrangement.
I readily acknowledge the valiant efforts of Tom Collum to avoid this clash but sadly others were not so amenable. There’s something pathetic about a situation where different branches of the GAA operate independent republics with no trace of joined-up thinking. On the one hand you have Croke Park plugging this ‘dead horse’ inter-provincial series – only fifteen hundred approx turned up at Nowlan Park last Sunday. Against that you have a Harty Cup competition where a Tuesday semi-final replay could clog up Tipperary town such was the public interest. Yet the schools’ organisers seem as oblivious to public opinion as Croke Park is on the issue of the inter-provincials.

Anyway the big story of this Harty Cup has been the emergence of Nenagh CBS as the dark horses of the competition. Having ditched Thurles CBS and holders Ard Scoil out of the reckoning they’re now one game away from history.
The story of their semi-final replay win over Ard Scoil was dominated by the individual exploits of Jason Forde, scorer of 1-10 out of 1-11. It was an extraordinary contribution by the Silvermines hurler, one that will live in the annals of this famed competition, though perhaps embracing a slight worry also since so much depended on one player.
Nenagh’s search for a first-ever Harty win now hinges on a final against a team drawn from the combined forces of Dungarvan CBS and St. Augustan’s. Interestingly the bulk of the Waterford side played for CBS last Saturday when losing the ‘B’ Munster final to Doon CBS by a single point. A cracking goal by Cappawhite’s Russell Quirke and an inspirational display by Annacarty’s Tom Fox (nephew of Pat) were isolated in reports as key ingredients in the Doon win. It was a memorable success for a school that’s due to disappear into an amalgamation in a few years.
Anyway good luck to Nenagh in their quest to join Rockwell College, Templemore CBS, Thurles CBS and Abbey CBS as Tipperary Harty Cup winners.

The ongoing relegation issue is set for a major showdown this week. The clash of Ballybacon and Borrisokane is set for Templemorethis Saturday but the North team is seeking a deferment again to enable them prepare properly for the game. With the CCC adamant that the game goes on and Borrisokane insistent that they need more time a clash seems inevitable.
This is the latest episode in this tiresome saga. In fairness to Borrisokane they spent months in limbo as the various board room rounds were played out between Ballybacon, Cashel and the CCC. They must have hoped that the County Board would somehow see sense and abandon relegation for one year but instead they now find themselves facing a real dilemma: to play or not to play, to risk everything on a game that they’ve had little preparation for or else try their chances in the board room.
Critically Borrisokane have not said they won’t play the game; their plea is for space to properly prepare. My understanding at writing time is that they won’t play next Saturday if the fixture is persisted with, which would result in a head-on clash with the CCC. If Ballybacon are awarded the game will they accept it? Again there’s a suggestion that they won’t. We await developments.

Finally this debate about payment for managers looks like reaching some sort of conclusion this week with the various county bodies making their feelings known to Croke Park. It seems a more stringent enforcement of present rules is the favoured option emerging from most counties who appear to baulk at the prospect of officially sanctioning such payments.
I suspect Padraic Duffy may be sorry he even raised the issue at this stage because what’s emerging is an utter fudge.
Having listened to spokespersons from various counties in recent times I find the stench of hypocrisy on this issue nauseating. Everyone knows the reality of payments to managers within the GAA and yet you have these guys coming out barefacedly claiming to be opposed to such deals.
Even in Tipperary we’re told there’s no appetite for payments to managers. Really? So team managers throughout Tipperary are not being paid? For God’s sake let’s at least be honest in this debate.
In typically Irish fashion it appears to be a case of doing one thing and saying the opposite. On present evidence the GAA will now opt for a stricter enforcement of present rules which will allow every board and club continue with their under-the-counter payments while publically professing to be against them. As I said, hypocrisy.

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