Westside Column from Clonmel Nationalist

WESTSIDE.

Thurles Sarsfields’ dismal record in the Munster club championship continues. Six ventures into Munster now have failed to deliver a title. On Sunday, in icy conditions at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the ‘Blues’ blundered to a first ever final defeat. De Le Salle are kings of Munster for the second time in three years, and deservedly so on the basis of a more economical and driven performance.

Yes, indeed, a blue day for the ‘Blues’. Five down at half time following a wasteful opening period, they rallied strongly on the turnover but those wides kept coming – a whopping seventeen by game’s end. On a day of miserly scoring returns each wave by an umpire was a body blow. Not since Toomevara hit twenty-three astray at Kilmallock in the nineties has there been a more prodigal display by Tipperary champions. It’s one I feel Sarsfields will deeply regret.

Looking at the pitch in advance of the game I was recalling the opening line of Patrick Kavanagh’s evocative poem ‘A Christmas Childhood’: ‘One side of the potato-pits was white with frost’. Might I paraphrase it thus: ‘One side of the playing-pitch was white with frost’. They played on twin surfaces, the sheltered side frosty, bone-hard and bare, the far side slightly thawed. Hardly ideal, surely, so criticisms of the fare must be tempered by a recognition of the difficulty in wielding a ‘caman’ in such an arctic environment. Not ideal either for the 1,613 hardy souls who travelled south on the last Sabbath in November.

For Sarsfields the landscape may have had the ‘winking glitter’ of Kavanagh’s imagination but the day will hardly dwell among their store of most treasured memories. Put bluntly this was a final they ‘blew’. It was well within their compass to take the Waterford champions, even after such a dismal opening period, but they choked on the effort. For a club that has otherwise achieved so much this ongoing failure to take even a provincial title remains a blemish on the record.

The betting odds in advance had Sarsfields at 2/5 with De Le Salle on 9/4 and even if there was a craziness in those figures given the nature of winter hurling they still reflected the widespread expectation that Thurles would win. And perhaps Sarsfields believed the previews too because they certainly played like a team that expected to win rather than one that really wanted to win.

The opening half was very damaging and ultimately Sarsfields failed to undo the damage. Against a slight breeze their defence was under the cosh from early though there was admirable work at this stage from Kevin O’Gorman and Padraic Maher in the central positions. Stephen Lillis too was hurling well, though his recall to defence after the Kilmallock game will be debated. It might have strengthened up the rearguard but he was badly needed in attack because ultimately this will go down as a forward failure by Sarsfields.

Elsewhere in defence David Maher had a wobbly opening quarter when fouling eventually led to a yellow card, one of five collected by Sarsfields in the opening spell when the referee seemed to be ridiculously fussy. Michael Cahill too had a bothered spell on John Mullane when the corner forward hit a pair of points from play but overall the Sarsfields defensive shield was well up to the job. Patrick McCormack hadn’t a shot to stop.

It was just as well because the attack was already letting them down. Aidan McCormack and Pa Bourke had points in the opening quarter but then the wides began to register. By half time they had nine sent astray not to mention the over-elaboration by Pa Bourke especially which cost them further scores. By game’s end every single miss would prove costly as Sarsfields reflect on how this match might have been saved.

At five-down at the interval the situation was serious, though not critical if Sarsfields could re-align their radar. On resuming Lar Corbett hit an immediate point, a score that hinted of better fare from the Tipperary side. And in fairness Sarsfields upped the ante considerable at this stage. The drift of play was now towards the De Le Salle posts and surely the reward would come to turn dominance into scores. They nearly opened up the defence for a crucial goal but Richie Ruth failed to collect the final pass and the chance was gone. The wides continued to dog their efforts.

Eventually Stephen Lillis relieved Pa Bourke from free taking duties and he landed two precious points from long range. By the three-quarter stage the lead was back to a single point and there was little sign of a counter-punch coming from De Le Salle. John Mullane, starved of possession, was eventually forced outfield in search of crumbs. But still Sarsfields couldn’t put dominance where it mattered – on the scoreboard.

Eventually it all came down to a knife-edge finish. Eoin Madigan came in for the Waterford champs and landed an extraordinary point from the left sideline. Ultimately it would prove to be a match-winner. Kevin Moran and company continued to defy Sarsfields and forward weakness was now proving critical. Aidan McCormack had started so that impact role was not available this time. O how they could have done with ‘Redser’!

A Pa Bourke free left one between them again as the minutes ticked away. Aidan McCormack drove wide from the right sideline and the final chance fell to Denis Maher who hit hurriedly and under pressure to land yet another wide. De Le Salle had survived, Sarsfields were left to rue a golden opportunity of righting the record.

Sarsfields have come a long way but there is still a soft centre there that’s not equipped to deal with days like these. When they needed someone to win hard ball in the forward line especially they had no one to fill the role. There were times in the first half when De La Salle seemed to have two or three extra men in the middle third of the pitch. When that happens be assured that some of the opposition have gone into hiding.

The problem for Sarsfields is that individually they may have all the talents but the overall team is weaker than the individual parts. They don’t have that hard core to win ‘ugly’ in the way that Loughmore, at their best, or Toomevara would. It’s why they’re set to dominate Tipperary hurling but will always struggle to bring that impact outside the county because the extended championship is played in winter when matches become dogfights.

They can hardly fault their defence on Sunday. Padraic Maher was again excellent, a rival surely for Kevin Moran as man-of-the-match. Kevin O’Gorman too was impressive as was Stephen Lillis and also Michael Cahill, apart from that period midway through the first half when Mullane got a run on him. Midfield did okay especially in the second half where Michael Gleeson was best. Alan Kennedy took a proverbial ‘haymaker’ in the second half and was eventually substituted.

The real problem, however, was in attack where no one stepped up to the mark, albeit on a day of scant scoring when conditions didn’t favour forwards. Pa Bourke was the hero of the county championship and again the toast of the county after the All Ireland quarter-final win over Galway, but on Sunday last he frustrated followers, missing scores, playing with the ball when crisp delivery was needed and being blocked down several times. It’s the oldest advice in the book, never strike from a standing position, always be moving, evading the block. There’s almost a laziness about Pa’s play at times which is so frustrating because of his immense skill level. It’s the flaw that’s keeping him off the Tipperary fifteen.

Anyway I’m desperately disappointed because this was a rare opportunity for Sarsfields to claim their place among the list of Munster champion clubs and they once more blinked at the chance. Hopefully they won’t be regretting it in years to come.

There is one positive from Sarsfields’ exit: Padraic Maher, Michael Cahill and Lar Corbett will now have a winter break when they can chill out, relax and recharge the batteries before the 2011 season with Tipperary commences. A silver lining, maybe.

And that completes our hurling season hereabouts … well, not quite. There’s the little matter of a county U21 championship still waiting in the wings for a nod from the Mid division which has been very tardy in its progress. Of course Sarsfields are still lining up for that one and will be everyone’s fancy when the central division eventually gets its business processed. In the West Arravale Rovers won their title months ago. It’s an old topic and an old bugbear of this column and perhaps material for another week when I’m over the annoyance of Sarsfields and the final that got away.

Elsewhere at this time of year the Conventions start up though nowadays very few pay much heed to such events. However, the five-year rule is having some impact this year with several officers having to vacate their positions throughout the divisions. It’s a debatable and debated move by the association. I suppose one year is too long a term if the wrong man gets into a position and five years is too short if you have the right guy. It’s difficult to legislate for the perfect scenario though on balance I favour the restriction of term. Life-long officerships do lead to stuffy, conservative board rooms. New blood and fresh ideas are always welcome. More anon.

P.S. I’ve been asked to mention the launch of a film about the legendary Eddie Moroney, he of ‘effin’ Eddie’ fame. That 1992 U21 football commentary still entertains. The launch will take place at the Revolution bar in Waterford on Thursday December 2 at 8.30. Admission is five euro and proceeds go to fund the WHAT programme of music in the Dementia Specific Unit, St. Aidan’s Ward, St. Otteran’s Hospital, Waterford.

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