Championship ignites with Clonoulty’s sensational defeat of red hot favourites



I reckon it’s safe to call it sensational without being accused of exaggeration. Depleted Clonoulty dislodge champions Sarsfields in spectacular fashion. A championship that was plodding along predictably enough suddenly throws up a major shock at semi-final stage. Out go the sizzling-hot favourites in a dramatic reversal of last year’s County Final outcome. Clonoulty march on to a novel final against Drom after the latter put Mullinahone to the sword in a dominant first half.

Recently I was commenting on how predictable the championship was and then this happens. Mind you the Clonoulty followers heading into the game were in downbeat mood too, holding out little prospect for their side, which was so ravaged by injuries. The talk was of damage limitation, hoping their team would put up a respectable resistance; talk of winning wasn’t on the agenda.

And perhaps that general expectation seeped into the Sarsfields ranks too because they seemed to expect things to happen in this game rather than proactively make them happen. You’d have to exempt Padraic Maher from that sweeping statement and to a lesser extent Michael Cahill and maybe others in defence too like Kevin O’Gorman. But the attacking end will take the main hit for this defeat.

It began poorly for Sarsfields and the clouds never lifted. Clonoulty brought a right positive attitude to the game, showing scant regard for reputations and having an uninhibited go. They got the perfect start when Timmy Hammersley hammered home a 20 metre free inside five minutes. It was a bold statement of intent; already the mood music was set.

The West champions had their homework done too, planting John O’Keeffe on Pa Bourke and letting Joey O’Keeffe annoy Corbett. However after that rocky start Sars’ briefly steadied the ship with Denis Maher to the fore as they drew level by the end of the opening quarter. Clonoulty’s initial surge seemed to abate and perhaps we expected events to now follow prescription.

Such notions were soon challenged, however, when Conor Ryan fed Ciaran Quirke for a smashing second goal by the five-times West champions. It was the score that would separate the teams at the interval. In the meantime Sarsfields squandered a number of goal opportunities when first Redser and then his nephew Aidan McCormack couldn’t find the onion sack. Pa Bourke too rattled a free off the crossbar, as Declan O’Dwyer’s goal enjoyed a charmed existence. Crucially Sarsfields remained goal-less.

I’d nominate the opening minutes of the second half as critical to the day’s outcome. Sarsfields had shrugged off poor opening halves in previous games, most noticeably against Kildangan, only to turn up the heat in the second period. This time, though, they got no such encouragement. Instead it was Clonoulty who found the gears on resuming. An instant Conor Ryan point, followed by a pair of Hammersley frees and a further John O’Neill point stretched out the margin to a sweet seven-up and now Sarsfields really faced a challenge. One little cameo during this phase underlined the pattern: heroic hassling by a cluster of Clonoulty players in front of the Old Stand forced Sarsfields into over-carrying and Hammersley landed the free. Several Clonoulty men did a little jig of delight and you sensed that this really was going to be their day.

The margin eventually went out to eight points with no visible sign that Sarsfields could muster the required response. Padraic Maher continued to play defiantly in defence but his colleagues in attack were offering little relief. Eventually the Sarsfields replacements did spark a revival that would pare back the lead to just three heading into the final moments. It was a surge that yielded five unanswered points in about six minutes, substitutes Michael O’Brien, David Kennedy, Johnny Enright and John Maher being central to the pick-up in their fortunes.

It was now Clonoulty’s turn to sweat nervously. Disruptions to play through injuries and various flash points didn’t help Sarsfields’ momentum as the hurling became edgy. Frustration eventually boiled over as David Kennedy and Lar Corbett were dismissed. In the heat of it all Clonoulty found the cushion of security through a precious point from substitute, Martin Sadlier, the one that stopped the rot. Timmy Hammersley had the final word with a late free before the West went wild to celebrate a famous win.

After the hurt of last year’s County Final this was sweet medicine for Clonoulty. They had heroes all over. The defence was outstanding, led especially by such as John Devane, James Heffernan, Padraig Heffernan and John O’Keeffe. In a newly cobbled together midfield Tom Butler hurled a lot of ball before giving way to Martin Sadlier late in the action. On a day when John O’Neill took a heavy knock early on the attack found new heroes in youngsters such as Ciaran Quirke, Sean Maher and Jamie Moloney. Timmy Hammersley was rock solid on the frees, making a vital contribution to the win. Conor Ryan too waded in with a critical input as did the various subs. They’ve certainly got a lot of young talent coming on stream.

For Sarsfields the game supplied more evidence of an innate brittleness; all that hurling talent at their disposal and yet they lose the battle. One preview had them rated as the strongest side left in the championship by a distance. Many would have agreed with that assessment before this game but I’m not so sure. A team that lost early rounds to Holycross and Drom and was pushed very close by Loughmore could hardly be rated so far ahead of everyone else. Didn’t last year’s Munster club game against De La Salle also reveal a brittleness that clearly hasn’t been eradicated?

Anyway Liam Cahill and colleagues will take huge delight from this result, though they’d need to remember that Drom celebrated too on Sunday night and not just because they beat Mullinahone.

That opening game at the Stadium was in many ways overshadowed by the second event. Drom had this issue wrapped up too early for spectator enjoyment. A dazzling first half from the Mid side and Mullinahone were thereafter chasing shadows in a semi-final that will be rated a letdown.

Drom hit early and decisively in this one. Within the first minute Seamus Butler was able to find Callanan unmarked for an instant goal. The complimenting points soon followed, as the Mid men looked a class above their opponents. Johnny Ryan hit over three from midfield, David Butler and Seamus Butler waded in with several more and all the time there was little response from the South side. It was 1-6 to 0-1 after thirteen minutes and a dozen points separated them at the interval.

It was difficult enough to fathom the Mullinahone tactics at this stage. It seemed pointless pumping ball into an out-numbered two-man full forward line where any threat was easily mopped up. At the other end Drom had the movement and combination to clock up a succession of sweetly worked scores. To compound matters late in the half, when Mullinahone did finally find openings, Damien Young made two spectacular stops from Sean Curran and Donal Cody in turn.

Effectively this game was over well before half time, though Mullinahone can take some comfort from a battling second half display where they outscored the leaders by nine points to six. When you factor in a few missed frees by Eoin Kelly and a saved attempt at goal then the overall impression is modified even further. A few other statistics are interesting too: Drom’s forward line failed to score from play in the second half. Their meagre total of six second half points came from a pair of David Collins sideline ‘cuts’, two from midfielder Johnny Ryan, another from his colleague James Woodlock and the final one from wing back, James Ryan.

Does this suggest that Drom eased off in the second half? Perhaps, though I’m not convinced. After all the lead was back to six points entering the final five minutes when a Mullinahone goal would have set up a nervous finish. It wasn’t as if Drom were winning by a proverbial cricket score. Seamus Callanan certainly went out of the game in the second half against a Mullinahone defence that firmed up considerably through the efforts of such as A.J. Cronin, Eoin Fennelly, Paul Curran and Paul Kelly.

In the end Mullinahone were left to rue such a sluggish start. For Drom it was mission accomplished as they qualified for their fourth final in six years. In that first half they certainly looked slick, with Eamonn Buckley marshalling the defence, Johnny Ryan and Woodlock dominating midfield and Callanan and the Butlers running a drag in attack.

Anyway we have a novel final in store one that offers exciting possibilities.

Meanwhile the relegation race has become bogged down in controversy following Cashel’s defeat by Ballybacon. The King Cormacs are appealing the decision to play extra-time in that fixture and there are obvious ramifications for both Ballybacon and Borrisokane. I suspect this saga will drag on for some time.

Cashel were billed to play Borrisokane in the relegation final last Sunday but the game was cancelled in anticipation of the appeal by the King Cormacs. That appeal has yet to be heard, though I assume it will be on the agenda of some forum this week.

It appears that Cashel have the letter of the law on their side, since extra time was not stipulated for semi-final fixtures. Of course their agreement to play the extra time does somewhat weaken their case. It may sound a little like having it both ways, a sort of each-way bet, though let’s be frank any club would fight the case similarly given what’s at stake here.

It appears now that there are further complicating factors in that Borrisokane were geared for their game last week and may be reluctant to agree to a re-fixture given the emigration of some of their players in the meantime. Clubs all over are being hard hit by emigration, with Australia the destination of choice these days. Ballybacon too I’m sure won’t be pleased with the prospect of having to face a re-fixture when they thought they had avoided the drop with that win over Cashel. It’s all very messy. I can never understand why these regulations aren’t made clear in advance to avoid such controversy.

Anyway watch this space for further developments.