There is a certain irony in the fact that a leftover final from 2010 turns out to be one of the highlights of the departed season. The U21s of Sarsfields and Kilruane collided at Dolla on Sunday last and produced a cracking encounter. The MacDonaghs went in as outsiders but emerged as champs, a late flurry of points earning the club its third title in five years. It's a record that should see them making shapes at senior level in coming years.
What a game! The U21 grade is often derided as a pesky old category that causes headaches for fixture committees. It does overlap awkwardly with several other grades but, you know, the one unanswerable justification for its retention is that it regularly produces games of this quality. How fitting then that in a year when we hold national honours in the grade the domestic competition should throw up such a memorable final.
Sarsfields went in as strong favourites but those who knew Kilruane suspected the 'Blues' would find their match in this one. Those who remember the golden era of Kilruane hurling in the seventies and eighties recall a team of hardy lads who may not have been the most scientific players in the game but were fearsome competitors who maximised their resources. They say apples don't fall too far from the tree and this newest generation of hurlers from Cloughjordan has come from the same gene pool. Once again you have surnames like Williams and Cahill and Hogan and Hennessy dotted throughout a side of typical tenacity.
The story of this game is one of sustained intensity between two well-matched, honest sides. It was physical but fair. Referee, Fergal Horgan, takes major credit too for a most efficient job striking a balance between allowing the game to flow and yet blowing when whistle was needed. It all added up to an intriguing contest that went to the proverbial wire before the MacDonaghs claimed the spoils with that late surge of points.
The early omens were good with Kilruane getting into it immediately and hitting the first few scores off a Seamus Hennessy free and James Williams from play. Denis Maher, marking Seamus Hennessy on the 'forty', got two back for Sarsfields before Brian O'Meara was grounded en route to goal and free taker Thomas Williams converted the free. It was sturdy stuff even at this stage with players getting little space or time and Sarsfields by now knew they were in a real battle.
The first major break fell to Kilruane midway through the opening half when a high one was dropped into the goal area and in the scramble Thomas Williams got the flick to the net to put the North champs three-up. Earlier goalie, David Reddan, (a great goal keeping name) had denied Tommy Doyle of Sarsfields. Play was swinging from end to end, though in truth Kilruane were shading the exchanges even at this stage.
Back came Sarsfields with points from Michael Russell, Aidan McCormack and Denis Maher to tie the game approaching half time. A further exchange of points and then Kilruane hit two before the break from a Seamus Hennessy '65' and Brian O'Meara from play. The North champs went in two-up at the interval. It was riveting stuff with more to come.
Sarsfields' purple patch came in the first ten minutes of the second half. Michael Cahill pointed from play and Aidan McCormack from a free levelled the match. Then came a Sarsfields' 'penalty' and Aidan McCormack sent it sizzling just over the lath. It didn't seem to matter much when Denis Maher broke his way through for a Sarsfields' goal a minute later. They'd gone from two-down to four-up, the wind definitely in their sails now.
But this Kilruane side was made of stern stuff indeed and they weren't about to fade. From frees and play they battled back to within a point and then came a crucial goal, Brian O'Meara fetching and feeding Eoin Williams for a fine finish. An instant point followed from Thomas Williams and then another from Niall O'Meara, brother of Brian, to put them back three-up. It was that type of game full of mighty endeavour and fluctuating trend.
At three-down into the final ten minutes it looked ominous for Sarsfields but once more they rallied, Aidan McCormack the star of the moment. First he pointed from play, then from a free and the leveller was a quality score off his weaker right side. Could these sides be separated? Into injury time we went with the sideline timekeeper indicating four minutes of added action. The tension was high now with a sense of 'next score wins' hanging in the air.
The encore was entirely Kilruane's. About four minutes into injury time a sideline 'cut' was batted away for a Kilruane '65'. Up stepped Seamus Hennessy to dissect the posts; he'd been faultless on frees whereas Aidan McCormack missed a few crucial ones. From the puck-out a Sarsfields' defender tried to bring the ball out but fouled the 'sliotar' for Hennessy to once more hit the target. Play continued but again it was Kilruane who returned to the attack and Brian O'Meara closed it all out with the final point. It was a rousing end to a great contest – the best club game in the county over the past twelve months I'd suggest.
Sarsfields will be disappointed not to have capped a remarkable year with another trophy though neutrals will be glad to see another force emerge on the county scene to break the Thurles near-monopoly. Sarsfields had the outstanding individuals but Kilruane had the better team. Padraig Maher was again immense for Sarsfields at centre back and Michael Cahill made a huge contribution at midfield covering acres of ground. They certainly can't be faulted for the failure. Nor can Denis Maher, scorer of 1-3 off Seamus Hennessy, and probably the main threat in attack. Aidan McCormack too takes credit but otherwise Sars' were a bit too lightweight in attack. Michael O'Brien came on during the first half though clearly not fully recovered from that thumb injury.
On the Kilruane side Seamus Hennessy hurled a lot of ball from centre back; he tends to play loose rather than man-mark so his opponent, Denis Maher, too enjoyed a lot of scope. Hennessy's free taking was a major plus for the North champions on a day when every flag was crucial.
Brian O'Meara got little change from the tight-marking David Maher early on and thereafter his inputs were small in number though big in influence. In particular he created the crucial second goal. His brother Niall looked impressive as did Justin Cahill. Thomas Williams ended top scorer on 1-4 but overall it was the tight, competitive cohesion of this Kilruane side that proved too stubborn for Sarsfields.
Kilruane were worthy winners. In the past six years they've won three county U21s and one minor as well as losing this year's county junior final to Holycross; a solid basis surely for senior progress. Watch them.
Speaking of seniors leads on nicely to the top grade and recent developments as clubs countywide position themselves for the upcoming season. The hunt for managers and coaches can be frantic at this time of year though one senses that economic realities are beginning to bite this time as clubs struggle to finance their teams. It's not just the coaches who cost the big bucks anymore, it's the entire entourage that accompanies modern team preparation such as physios and masseurs and doctors and performance coaches. Where county teams have gone, clubs have followed - and to quite senseless extremes in some cases.
Anyway, some significant changes in personnel have happened recently. County champions, Sarsfields, have an entirely new backroom set-up for the coming season, the promotion of Michael Gleeson to county duty no doubt prompting his colleagues to step aside after three years in charge. However, the Thurles club has stayed local with ex-player Seamus Quinn the new manager, accompanied by Gary Mernagh as coach and Tommy Maher and Brendan Carroll as selectors. Seamus Quinn has served his time with successful underage teams in the club while Gary Mernagh was manager of the U21 side which lost last Sunday. The new cabinet represents a younger generation of ex-players.
Toomevara would surely be regarded as Sarsfields' greatest rivals and the 'greyhounds' too have a new command in charge for 2011 after Tommy Dunne stepped aside once he took on county duties with Declan Ryan. Interestingly their new manager is Liam O'Shea, a brother of Eamonn and one who is almost as highly rated. Kilruane are the club of the week and I've been reminded of the amazing number of clubmen from Cloughjordan who've spread the hurling gospel to pastures new. Last year Paddy Williams was manager of the Meath hurlers, Dinny Cahill was with Antrim and Eamonn O'Shea with Tipperary. Jim Williams was with Borrisoleigh and of course Len Gaynor is widely travelled as a coach. Now Liam O'Shea is with Toome'. Is there another club that has supplied so many coaches?
But back to Toomevara and their new cabinet for 2011. Liam O'Shea is manager but they've pulled off another coup in securing Limerick's Ger Cunningham as coach to accompany O'Shea. Ironically Cunningham was the one to mastermind Sarsfields defeat of Toome' in 2005 and he could well end up facing his old friends from Thurles later in the year. Toomevara were unlucky last year and who's to bet against them again this time. I presume Terry Dunne will opt out this season but otherwise they still have a medal-rich side, though one that is surely on the downward curve at this stage.
Clonoulty, last year's defeated county finalists, have parted company with Conor Gleeson who has been replaced by the much-travelled Liam Cahill. The West champions are dominating their division and seem to have the potential to go further, though last year's county final was a disappointment. After a bright start to 2010 they went flat and never really regained the fizz, despite a convenient draw which eased their passage to the final.
There's plenty of other movement too in the musical chairs that is club management but I'm running short of space so it will have to wait until next week. By then the County Board will have deliberated on Tuesday night and hopefully decided on a championship format for 2011. The word in advance is that relegation may be returning. The Board is clearly alarmed that with Borrisokane being promoted this year the number of senior sides could hit thirty three. It will be interesting to see what emerges.
The county senior side planned to play Clarinbridge at The Ragg on Saturday last but the game fell foul to a rock-hard surface. Both teams were present but had to do with a brisk training session. It was quite a distance for the Galway champs to travel for a training stint. At writing time I don't have information on any upcoming game next weekend though I suspect there will be something organised. With Waterford IT pulling out of the Crystal Tournament because of fixtures any chance that Tipperary will be reinstated?
Finally the best wishes of the column go to two retiring journalists from our sister paper in Thurles. Michael Dundon and John Guiton have been two highly respected figures in the GAA scene hereabouts for many years and their contributions deserve to be recognised by the Association. When I began covering West affairs back in 1980 Michael was my link with the 'Star' and has remained a friend and trusted contact ever since. His son Noel continues the tradition. The same goes for John Guiton, ever-willing at the end of the phone with updates. I'm sure they won't be lost to the profession but will continue in some freelance capacity. Journalists never really retire..