This AIB Munster Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final played in Ennis on Sunday was decided after just 10 seconds.
Sarsfields supporters could hardly believe their eyes when half forward Denis Maher saw red with the game in its infancy - just 10 seconds had passed when the incident at midfield took place - and with his departure went the Blues’ hopes of adding to their 2012 provincial title.
Despite the numerical disadvantage Sarsfields battled with everything they had but the shortcoming was always against them, especially in attack where they simply were unable to get on the kind of ball they needed to create the mayhem they wanted.
At the best of times this season the Sarsfields attack found it hard to win fifty-fifty, ugly ball, but with Maher’s departure went the one man in the forward division who was capable of adding this. Throw in the fact that Clare defender Conor Ryan was then free to patrol the defensive lines and you have a recipe for disaster for Sarsfields.
The sending off happened so quickly that many people missed it. It was the biggest talking point of the game and coming so early many might have expected referee McAllister of Cork to reach for a yellow card, rather than a red. But red it was and while few who saw the incident would have argued against the decision there were plenty of decisions to be argued during the course of a game - the Cork referee didn’t have one of his better outings and left both sides perplexed at various stages.
So, Denis Maher was off and Sarsfields had to get to get on with it - Maher, a strong, fair and sporting hurler held his head in his hands in the stand as the game progressed, his season terminated in the blink of an eye.
Sarsfields had employed the services of Tommy Doyle in the starting line-up with the intention of playing deep to help cut down on space. But this tactic was out the window after the dismissal and the Blues had to recalibrate fairly quickly.
Predictably Conor McGrath was the main thorn in the Sars defence - a defence that performed superbly, considering the quantity of quality ball presenting in front of them. McGrath had the game opener in the 3rd minute - a score cancelled by Tommy Doyle two minutes later. The duo traded scores again before Sars, playing with the aid of a decent breeze, hit the lead for the only time with a superb Michael Cahill point after a long dash into the attacking division.
By the time Sarsfields scored again they were three in arrears, as Cratloe turned the screw and availed of the space to wreak havoc. Liam Markham levelled the game and then McGrath and Cathal McInerney shoved the Clare men in front. They pressed on with Podge and Sean Collins points and Cratloe also struck the upright on two occasions during this period.
The story could have been more difficult for the Tipp champions had Patrick McCormack not saved well from Conor McGrath in the 22nd minute after Podge Collins set him up. The Clare lads were running riot and Sarsfields couldn’t wait for the half time break in order to get in and re-group.
By the time the half time whistle sounded Cratloe had added a Liam Markham point and a Podge Collins goal at the very death was a real blow - it was even more painful from a Sars viewpoint in that Conor Lanigan had been felled at the other end for what should have been a free and a Sars point, and Cratloe went upfield to goal. It was a four-point swing in one swift motion.
1-8 to 0-4 down at half time and a man down also, things didn’t look at all good for Sarsfields. They would also face into the elements in the second half as well but as it happened, they actually drew with the Clare men in the second instalment 0-10 apiece. The damage had been done in the first period, though, and try as they did Sarsfields just could not force the goal they needed. Cratloe keeper Gearoid Ryan didn’t even get a save to make in the game at all with the extra protective layer in front of him shutting up shop before any Blues man got near the counter.
Cratloe came out with all guns blazing in the second half and had two on the board from Conor McGrath and Liam Markham within two minutes of the restart.
Sarsfields, though, enjoyed a good spell that yielded scores from Pa Bourke, Conor Lanigan and Bourke again, before Conor McGrath and Stephen Cahill traded points again.
Cratloe were just able to find scores easier and despite the outstanding play of Michael Gleeson, Michael Cahill and the four Mahers in the Sarsfields defence, they managed to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Conor McGrath had another brace from placed balls - Pa Bourke responded in kind with a real peach from play to boot. But as the third quarter came to a close Podge Collins and McGrath again extended the Cratloe lead to eight.
The Thurles lads did not give up the chase with Padraic Maher driving them on, on his knees at times, and hoping to make a break for a green flag. They had to be content with points from the likes of Bourke (2) and Billy McCarthy, who had a fine second half. But McGrath had three pointed frees before the end to seal a victory that had a sense on inevitability from 10 seconds in.
Cratloe won’t waste time wondering how they would have fared had Sarsfields had the full compliment for the full game. However the Thurles lads would have been more than capable of advancing to the Munster Final and considering the impediment they did remarkably well. Ennis would have been a difficult Alcatraz from which to escape at the best of times, but considering the huge heart the Blues showed and no shortage of character it is quite plausible to argue that they would have emerged had they remained at fifteen.
Even allowing for the fact that Lar Corbett was ineffective and Aidan McCormack had an off-day, Sarsfields could still have been in the race right up to the end. This was due to the huge efforts of youngsters Billy McCarthy, Tommy Doyle, Ronan Maher, Conor Lanigan and Stephen Cahill - men who have grown in stature and repute throughout the season. Throw in the entire defensive unit and a hard working Pa Bourke and this could have been Sarsfields day. But, it wasn’t.
Cratloe, fighting for honours on two fronts, are an amazing club and huge credit must go to them for their exploits. Conor McGrath was their dangerman and though Sarsfields marshalled him well he just received so much quality ball he was always likely to cause damage. Podge Collins too was impish and full of dash while Liam Markham, Conor Ryan, Sean Collins and Michael Hawes were impressive on a big day for them.
Sarsfields season finishes with the Dan Breen Cup - the ultimate honour in Tipperary. But it also ends with a bad taste in the mouth.
Cratloe - G Ryan, S O’Leary, M Hawes, D Ryan, S Chaplin, C Ryan, E Boyce, D Collins, L Markham 0-3, S Gleeson, P Collins 1-2, S Collins 0-1, C McInerney 0-1, G Considine, C McGrath 0-11. Subs - D Browne, B Duggan.
Sarsfields - P McCormack, S Maher, M Cahill 0-1, D Maher, R Maher, P Maher, M Gleeson, S Cahill 0-1, B McCarthy 0-1, D Maher, A McCormack 0-1, C Lanigan 0-1, T Doyle 0-2, P Bourke 0-7, L Corbett. Subs - R Ruth, M O’Brien.
Referee: C McAllister (Cork).