A losing start to the new season as the students from Waterford pip Tipp in the Waterford Crystal. Declan Ryan's opening game may have provided a useful work-out for mostly fringe players but it didn't deliver an ideal result. A late pointed free saw the students home, so Tipperary's next competitive outing will be the League opener on February 12.
Elsewhere Sarsfields were in a different league to Arravale Rvs. in the delayed county U21 semi-final. The final against Kilruane, next Sunday at Dolla, holds out better prospects, though Sars' will again be heavy favourites.
It's good to be back in action and watching the old game in the flesh once more after being cooped up over recent months. Conditions were pleasant, if nippy, at Clonmel Sportsfield and in fairness the teams delivered an interesting and competitive clash for the followers, one that swayed this way and that before being finally settled in a tight finish. Waterford's Stephen Power hit the winner with Pa Bourke wide on a last-gasp attempt to send the tie into extra time.
The result won't bother anyone too much, though it would have been useful to have a few more games in the coming weeks to give fringe players more play time. We started in right positive mood putting 1-4 to our account without reply, John O'Neill volleying the goal off a Paddy Fanning pass. It was all very crisp and energetic from Tipperary at this stage, Hugh Maloney making some noteworthy catches on a dominant half back line and the attack looking inventive. We won the opening quarter handsomely.
However, we lost the second quarter quite decisively as the students settled, tightening up at the back and working the moves in attack to hurt our defence. Would you believe we lost that second quarter by 2-7 to 0-3 to go from seven-up to four-down by half time. It was quite a turnabout.
The leading personality in the WIT improvement was Timmy Hammersley hitting points from play and frees as well as being central to both goals, acting provider for Cathal Parlon on the first and then receiver from Brian O'Meara to finish the second. By now we'd lost our early impetus in attack though Darragh Egan was twice denied by excellent saves from goalie, Liam Tierney.
Twice on resuming the students went six-up but Tipperary clawed it back. James Woodlock made a welcome return and looked very sprightly at midfield. Still, and perhaps ominously, our scoring was being restricted to frees mainly, Pa Bourke impeccable from 'dead balls' and even goalie, Darren Gleeson, doing a Brendan Cummins from one deep within his own half.
In the end it wasn't enough. John O'Neill was denied by yet another great save from the WIT goalie and we lost out in a tight finish. Well into injury time they got a scoreable free far out and near the sideline. Timmy Hammersley had been substituted by now but replacement free-taker, Stephen Power, made no mistake. We did have one last chance with a similar free from the other flank but Pa Bourke couldn't hit the target this time.
As a season opener it was quite a useful exercise. The return of James Woodlock to active service was a noteworthy development, showing surprising sharpness for one who's had such a long lay-off. I thought John Coghlan at full back made a very positive impression in a defence where David Young was excellent. He seems the natural inheritor of Declan Fanning's post at number five and this game will have strengthened that impression.
Elsewhere I thought John O'Neill showed flashes of his capability in attack as he resumed his old Harty Cup rivalry with Noel Connors. Darragh Hickey hit two useful points in the first half. He's been out in the cold since the '08 Munster final. Sean Carey hit points either side of the break and Stephen Lillis was on target too when introduced in the second half. Nothing spectacular, perhaps, from players but individual nuggets to praise on a day when, let's not forget, these hurlers were having their first taste of competitive action for some time.
The management face a busy few weeks now as they decide on a panel for the league campaign. Inevitably there will have to be some disappointments but inter-county hurling is ultra competitive with little room for sentiment. I don't know what time-line the management is operating under but I suspect a handful of players from last year's panel will have to be 'cut' very soon. One presumes the four who were added before Christmas – John O'Neill, John Coghlan, Sean Carey and Michael Gleeson - will have to be given some time so the 'cuts' will be from among those who were part of the group that prepared for the All Ireland.
So who is in the 'at risk' category? From last Sunday's team I suggest Paddy Fanning, Jody Brennan and Darragh Egan are all in the firing line. Both Fanning and Brennan were brought in on the basis of excellent club form but both have struggled to step up to this level of fare. Darragh Egan has been there for some time, been dropped and recalled by Sheedy, but is probably running out of opportunities at this stage. I'll be surprised if any of these three survive the cuts.
Others too will come under the microscope. Michael Heffernan has yet to show form at this level, though as one of last year's successful U21s he has youth on his side which may keep him on board for the present. After the county championship Timmy Hammersley's presence on the panel was in question but he come up with a strong one last Sunday and the Fitzgibbon Cup, a competition he clearly relishes, should help his cause. Having a Clonoulty manager might be a factor too, though I suspect Declan Ryan isn't one to shy away from a tough call if it's necessary.
Hugh Maloney has been on the panel for some time now and like Darragh Egan may be running out of time. He's played everywhere between half back and half forward without pinning down a spot in any zone. Many consider wing back his optimum position but there's hardly a situation vacant there. One wonders what the prospects are for Pat Kerwick too. Injury has been his downfall and he needs to bounce back strongly this year if he's to advance his inter-county career. No doubt there are others too who will face scrutiny so it will be interesting to see where the axe eventually falls. The players who were given winter training programmes aren't officially on the panel and remain a fringe element who might or might not win promotion.
Eventually we got to see that county U21 semi-final, played in reasonable conditions at Golden on Saturday last. After the long wait I'm afraid it proved a major disappointment. It wasn't that anyone expected Arravale to beat Sarsfields but we did hope they'd put it up to them. Sadly they didn't, it was all done and dusted by half time when eleven points separated them.
As distant outsiders Arravale needed early encouragement but they got none. Sarsfields had the wind behind them and had clearly decided that the best way to 'kill' this game was to pin it down early on. From the start they raided incessantly into the Mantlehill goal and Aidan McCormack was the leading light as they began to clock up the points. They were seven-up at the end of the opening quarter and then McCormack flicked in the first goal to underline the heavy trend of the game.
By now the pattern was well established. Arravale were willing alright but unable to do much about a vastly superior force from the Mid. Padraig Maher was letting little by him at half back, Michael Cahill was controlling midfield and the likes of Aidan McCormack, Stephen Maher and Tommy Doyle were working the openings in attack. It mattered little that Denis Maher was relatively quite and Michael O'Brien out injured because Sarsfields had this one wrapped up ever before half time.
Any hope that Rovers would rally for the second half were stillborn on resuming when Denis Maher flicked in Sarsfields' second goal, albeit suspiciously near the 'square' as that ball dropped in. It mattered not. Arravale, true to form battled bravely but they just hadn't the hurling to match Sarsfields. Eventually Sean O'Meara whipped in a goal for the West champions but it was slim consolation on a day when they shipped a heavy defeat.
It's little comfort either for Arravale to realise that they were beaten by an exceptional Sarsfields team. The 'Blues' now face Kilruane in the final on Sunday next and will again be hot favourites, though they'll hardly have it as easy against the North champions. If they pull this one off Sarsfields will have capped an incredible year for the club at all levels. The final, I'm told, is at Dolla on Sunday.
Finally an interesting decision by Central Council has just been announced which allows Tipperary play their second team in the intermediate championship in 2011. I wonder how this one will be received elsewhere.
Remember last year when Tipperary threatened to withdraw from the intermediate championship. The county was seen to have little prospect in the competition under existing rules because our pool of intermediate clubs has dwindled since relegation was abolished. Eventually we agreed to enter the grade with an understanding that the position would be reviewed for 2011.
Tipperary recently applied for a derogation which would allow the county enter its second side for the intermediate championship and Central Council has now acceded to that request. The decision means that if you didn't play senior inter-county last year you're eligible for intermediate this season. Effectively it means that some players on the All Ireland winning panel will now be eligible for intermediate.
Somehow I'm not sure this will be the end of the issue. It seems an extraordinary decision and I can't imagine the likes of Cork allowing Tipperary enter their second string while they are restricted to intermediate clubs. It's good news for county manager, Michael Ryan, Fethard, but I suspect we haven't heard the last of this particular debate.