Damp and dismal day as both Sarsfields and Tipperary fail to live up to expectations

It was a weekend when Tipperary hurling took a double whammy. If Portlaoise was disappointing then Semple Stadium was downright dismal. While Sarsfields were out-battled by Kilcormac, Tipperary were over-run by the Banner men.

It was a weekend when Tipperary hurling took a double whammy. If Portlaoise was disappointing then Semple Stadium was downright dismal. While Sarsfields were out-battled by Kilcormac, Tipperary were over-run by the Banner men.

Only Our Lady’s Templemore kept the home fires burning with a spirited replay win over Ardscoil Ris in the Harty; they now face Dungarvan Colleges in the decider at Tipp town on Sunday week.

So much for the betting odds on the Sarsfields game! As if irked by being on offer at 5\1 the Offaly champs decided to shred the script and pen their own. By contrast Sarsfields seemed to believe the hype and played like a team expecting to win rather than one prepared to get down and dirty in the cause. In a year of real opportunity this represents a missed chance by Sarsfields.

It’s as well to remind ourselves every now and again that hurling is as much about the physical battle as a test of skill. The best teams can combine both. The skill factor is never in doubt with Sarsfields; theirs is a team laced with high-calibre stickmen.

However, their battling abilities are at times brought into question. It happened a few years ago in a Munster final against De Le Salle and it’s a question that cropped up again last Saturday.

The contrast between the two sets of followers at Portlaoise was instructive. The Offaly contingent heavily outnumbered their rivals. Besides they were colourful and vocal and passionate. In a sense they embodied all that is precious about the GAA’s parochial basis. This was a rural community driven by a shared desire and their team reflected that togetherness.

By contrast Sarsfields display a more urbane personality. They like to decorate their game with open play and flashy scores. Dermot Crowe referred to it as parlour-house hurling and I think I know what he means.

So when it came to the battle lines Kilcormac-Killoughey brought a tenacity that stymied Sarsfields more expressive game. The Offaly men were more persistent, more dogged, more bullish in close quarters.

If there was a loose ball to be claimed they hunted and hounded in packs. Too often Sarsfields were bullied out of possession and without the ball you can have all the skill in the world but to no avail.

When Sarsfields look back on this tie it will be with feelings of deep regret. Approaching the end of a very tight opening half they appeared to grab the initiative. They were just a point adrift when Aidan McCormack flashed over a superb equaliser from near the sideline.

Then Pa Bourke announced his presence: he fielded overhead and from behind his marker before planting a low shot across the goalie and into the corner. It seemed like a game-changer in a tight contest but unfortunately the lead didn’t survive the few minutes remaining before half time.

Kilcormac’s retaliation was instant. Brian Leonard drove a huge free between the sticks and then Dan Currams dribbled in a goal which left them one-up at break time.

But it was in the second half that Kilcormac really put their mark on this game. In the ten minutes after resuming they outscored Sarsfields by five points to one. It was now crisis time for the Tipperary champions.

Sarsfields did manage a revival, sparked mainly by the arrival of Ronan Maher to midfield. His influence was the catalyst which provoked a surge of points that saw the lead being pruned back to just a single flag. With ten minutes still to play, and given Sarsfields’ tendency to finish strongly, there was still hope that they might just escape to victory.

Alas it was the Offaly men who found the extra gears in that final phase outscoring the Munster champions by six-one to round off a memorable success. A few saved frees from Pa Bourke was all Sarsfields had in response and nobody was in any doubt as to which side deserved to progress to the final.

Sarsfields will have many regrets. A lack of control by Jim Corbett squandered a goal chance early on. They hit fourteen wides over the span of the game, twice the Kilcormac total. Midway through the second half they were utterly luckless too when Lar Corbett floated in a lob from outfield and Ritchie Ruth met it sweetly in the air only to see it hit the goalie. It would have been the goal of the championship.

But against all that their inability to graft out wins against tenacious opponents remains a flaw at the core of Sarsfields’ game. Besides, their big names never clicked on this occasion.

Padraig Maher was strangely subdued and without his inspiration at number six the remaining defenders were under stress too. Midfield also had its problems and neither Lar Corbett nor Pa Bourke could provide the winning inspiration in attack.

Nor will their management escape censure in the post match analyses. Persevering with forty year old Jim Corbett for three quarters of the game was one of several issues that will be parsed this week in Thurles. ‘Redser’ was too late in and got little opportunity to impact.

Clubs get very few chances at making an All Ireland final; I suspect Sarsfields will deeply regret this one in the years ahead.

As if we weren’t depressed enough returning from Portlaoise then there was the Crystal final to endure in the dank conditions of Semple Stadium that evening. Leaving Certificate students will be familiar with the literary term pathetic fallacy; that dirty drizzle throughout the match certainly mimicked our human feelings about this particular affair.

It was a drab, dreary, chastening experience as Clare led Tipperary a merry dance, out-running and out-manoeuvring the home side to an even greater extent than the end margin might indicate. Okay, people will point out that this is merely a little-regarded Crystal final, a tournament of no import in the overall scheme of things. However, when Tipperary put out a decent formation in a competition final and get whacked so heavily then it’s not easy to dismiss the outcome.

Given Clare’s underage prominence in recent years Davy Fitzgerald clearly has a useful pool of upcoming talent to work with. They’re young, superbly fit (even scarily so for the time of year), and they’re developing a running game that seems particularly suited to the players available. They certainly stretched Tipperary to breaking point with many of our lads left chasing shadows.

We could be grateful for a first half goal that kept us in touch early on. It was a fine combination movement finished off by ‘Bonner’ Maher but we still trailed by three at the interval. It got progressively worse on the turn-over. Midway through the second half Clare landed their goal and we were indeed fortunate to keep the margin to a mere eight points by the end after being reduced to fourteen when Conor O’Brien collected a second yellow card.

I suspect there were some stern words in the dressing room afterwards – if not there should have been. In total we accumulated seven bookings, including Conor O’Brien’s second, so I imagine the word discipline featured there somewhere too. Of course the refereeing was as poor as our hurling but that’s for columnists to get exercised about; players need to keep the focus.

Finding items of comfort from this defeat isn’t easy. I suppose at the defensive end Conor O’Brien played a strong game until being dismissed and Paul Curran was at his combative best before being injured. Donagh Maher mixed the good and the not-so-clever. Thomas Stapleton deputised for the absent Brendan Maher at centre back and for the second week in succession was substituted during the game. Seamus Hennessy showed some fine potential in the first half especially; not so Joey McLoughney.

Midfield was iffy enough too where the McGraths struggled to say in tow with these speedy Clare men. Nor can one offer much praise to the forwards. Eoin Kelly was positioned on the ‘forty’, a strange decision for which I’ve no explanation. ‘Bonner’ Maher, Brian O’Meara, Seamus Callanan and substitute John O’Brien are all players we’ll be looking to in the summer but this game wouldn’t give you much confidence. Shane Bourke was probably our most industrious in that zone and Jason Forde showed snatches of potential too but the fact that we scored a mere two points from play in the second half sums up our attacking poverty.

Overall then it was a game to be quickly forgotten amid hopes that it was a once-off aberration. I’d certainly be worried if we carried this form to Cork for that league opener on Saturday week. For Clare the horizon looks brighter.

Well done to Our Lady’s Templemore on making the final of the Harty with that two-point replay win over Ardscoil on Saturday. I should have gone to Nenagh instead of Portlaoise. John McGrath it seems was the hero this time with Colin O’Riordan held scoreless and having to move to full forward because of an injury. I hear he played U21 football in the Mid the following day and had to be withdrawn because of the same ailment.

And there will be little time to recover because the team changes code next Saturday when they face the Abbey CBS in an all-Tipperary Munster senior football ‘B’ final at Cashel. It’s a hectic schedule for these teenagers but it seems that deadlines don’t allow for any postponements.

The Harty team have certainly shown fine spirit in working their way to this decider, though once again they’ll be outsiders against Dungarvan Colleges. They are yet another illustration of how attitude and temperament are so important in hurling as in all field games.

Finally during my month of silence in January the County Board voted through a new relegation system which commences in 2014. With two teams going down and the intermediate champions coming up there will be a net reduction of one for a number of years. It sounds modest beside what has happened in Limerick where they’ll relegate four of their sixteen senior sides this year alone. Why all this haste to demote teams? Improving standards, they claim, though I remain unconvinced. It’s an issue I’ll be returning to.

P.S. A friend of mine dropped in to see the second half of Castleknock versus Kenmare at Cashel in the All Ireland junior football semi-final replay a fortnight ago. He positioned himself beside a few casually dressed Kerry men where the banter was lively, but well informed and fair. At the full time whistle one of them whipped out the mobile and in his broad Healy-Rea ‘brogue’ delivered the following gem: “Sean, any chance you’d cover the 6.30 confessions; this is going to extra time so I won’t make it”. The conversation concluded with the promise “I’ll do Friday then”. In Kerry even God comes second to football.

P.P.S. Congrats to Cahir on winning the vocational schools Munster senior hurling ‘B’ title.