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Thurles firm favourites in Sarsfields vs Sarsfields but big Cork challenge expected

Like the film Kramer versus Kramer it will be Sarsfields versus Sarsfields at the Stadium on Sunday. There will be nothing litigious, hopefully, but just a good old-fashioned hip-to-hip hurling contest with the extra ingredient of a Tipp/Cork spice to add flavour to the helping. The Tipp champs go in as firm favourites with both teams chasing a first Munster title. De Le Salle travel to Sixmilebridge for the other semi against Newmarket.

Like the film Kramer versus Kramer it will be Sarsfields versus Sarsfields at the Stadium on Sunday. There will be nothing litigious, hopefully, but just a good old-fashioned hip-to-hip hurling contest with the extra ingredient of a Tipp/Cork spice to add flavour to the helping. The Tipp champs go in as firm favourites with both teams chasing a first Munster title. De Le Salle travel to Sixmilebridge for the other semi against Newmarket.

The same name and a liking for the colour blue in the jersey are just two of the many similarities between the Cork and Tipperary champions. Each has dominated their county championship in recent years, the Cork gang winning three of the last five titles Leeside and the Thurles men taking three of the past four Suirside. Like the Thurles club the Glanmire crew enjoyed glory years back in the fifties before hitting lean times until the present generation brought revival. For both, Munster is the new frontier so expect plenty of crusading spirit in this novel provincial semi-final pairing.

There’s no concealing the deep desire of the Tipp champions to go where none of their predecessors have gone before. For a club with such a rich heritage the lack of a Munster title hurts and must act as a huge incentive for the present generation to set themselves apart. They laid down a significant marker in their opening round against Kilmallock and this now is a further opportunity to push their claim.

Inevitably it won’t be easy; there are no soft touches at this stage of the club championship. Their Cork namesakes also have a proud tradition and have made no secret of the fact that Munster is also top of their wish list. Older followers – even older than me! – will remember Paddy Barry as the club’s most famous representative in Cork colours. For younger generations dual-All Ireland medallist Teddy McCarthy represented the club – his son Cian is part of the present formation. That sturdy defender, John Considine, was another to carry the club’s name onto Cork selections in past decades and of course the present Cork panel has a number of Sarsfields’ players too.

In the Cork final Sarsfields narrowly beat Pa Cronin and Bishopstown on a 1-15 to 1-13 score line. Bishopstown were in their first final so Sarsfields went in as strong favourites but had to come from an interval deficit to dig out a slender win, albeit Bishopstown did get a late consolation goal. However the Cork champs reckon they’re better than they appeared on October 7 and certainly bring a lot of past experience to this game having sampled defeat in Munster in ’08 and ’10, losing to De Le Salle on both occasions.

For Tipperary followers I suppose player recognition will be confined to Cork panellists, both present and past. They’ve a high-tower full-forward in Michael Cussen whom Tipp folk will be familiar with. He drifted out of JBM’s plans but at this level has dangerous potential. He’s seen as an important target-man on the edge of the ‘square’ and interestingly he’s likely to be marking Kevin O’Gorman who’s been struggling a bit this year at number three. Indeed that Sarsfields’ inside line looked vulnerable in the county final and is seen as something of an Achilles’ heel in the team, albeit one that’s well sheltered by an outstanding half line.

Stephen Maher suffered a recurrence of a shoulder problem against Kilmallock and his absence from corner would further weaken that line. It’s an area that, depending on selection, might have to deal also with another Cork player, Kieran ‘Fraggy’ Murphy, and a pacey county U21 called Eoin O’Sullivan. Cian McCarthy usually plays on the half line and also acts as free-taker.

At midfield too there’s likely to be a Cork panellist, Daniel Kearney, who saw championship action last summer for JBM. Beside him there’s a Wexford connection in Eoin Quigley. In defence there’s another one of JBM’s men in corner back, Conor O’Sullivan, while the remainder will be less familiar to followers outside Cork. Full back Joe Barry captains the side which is managed by former Cork player, Pat Ryan.

There’s little doubt Sarsfields will face a stiff challenge in this one despite the betting odds which have them listed as 8/15 odds on favourites; the Cork champions are available at 7/4 and if you suspect a draw as the outcome you’ll get figures of 9/1 for your money. The type of heavy favouritism that’s being accorded Thurles in this campaign is hardly justified given their past record. Perhaps the high-profile names in the team skew perceptions somewhat.

What was encouraging about Thurles in the Kilmallock match was the battling qualities they displayed. It was a game that was finely balanced for most of the second half and Sarsfields got two very timely goals to just about pull them over the line. In fairness they showed commendable nerve and resilience in hostile territory to win through that day. Their opponents this Sunday have conceded an average of one goal per game in the Cork championship while scoring an average of just over two. In winter hurling goals can be a huge item.

Optimistically we’ll hope that Sarsfields have the firepower in attack to outscore their opponents. Lar Corbett and Mikey O’Brien were the key men the last day while Aidan McCormack did the business in the county final. How about Denis Maher and Pa Bourke stepping up this time or wouldn’t it be something special if all units hit form together? And surely there’s a bigger role for ‘Redser’ to play in the set-up?

Midfield I felt was only adequate the last day so they’ll be asking for more this time. By contrast you could hardly ask for anything else from the half back line which is outstanding every day.

Overall it’s a big day for our county champions who certainly won’t want to lose on home turf. Hopefully they’ll emerge the right side of what should be another tight affair.

Recently I received email correspondence from a man who is genuinely worried about modern trends in hurling and in particular how the physical (illegal?) aspects are developing. By way of contextualising his argument he included sections from articles by Donal Og Cusack, Christy O’Connor and Denis Walsh, all echoing a similar sentiment: hurling is being brutalised and the ultimate victim is skill.

It’s a topical issue as we reflect back on another hurling year, another instalment of Kilkenny monopoly, and in prompting my response I suspect the correspondent knows in advance that I share much of his concern. It’s an issue that revolves around two areas – Kilkenny and refereeing.

We all know that fashion can become a type of slavery and unfortunately hurling is not immune to trends set by successful teams. In the nineties Clare popularised the notion of fanatical training regimes – real or imagined - as the key to success. Running up and down sand dunes at ungodly hours became the fashion and every two-bit junior side in the country started copying. Cork, Donal O’Grady and Newtonshandrum introduced the running/hand-passing craze and you were out of kilter if you didn’t imitate. Donal Og Cusack became the model for the short puck-out so now you see U12 goalies embarrassing their corner backs with unwanted possession.

And now there’s Kilkenny dictating a new trend, one that sets aside the rule book and declares that anything goes in the pursuit of success. I’ve been to Kilkenny training sessions and know the drill. Cody stands statuesque around midfield and effectively they play a brand of rule-less hurling. It probably resembles the game that was played pre-GAA when teams tried to carry the ball from one parish to another and the opponents tried to stop them by whatever means necessary.

In fairness to Kilkenny they do unto each other what they do to opponents. There’s no sentiment or squeamishness involved, it’s ruthless, functional play where you do whatever is necessary to get the result. Kilkenny play in training as they play in major games and because they have been successful their pattern has gained credibility, even to the extent of refereeing indulgence.

Donal Og is correct when he writes about the curse of the ‘spare hand’. It has now become a weapon used for high tackles to stop an opponent, to interfere with face guards, to restrain a player’s catching hand, to tug an opponent’s jersey or waistband, to hold an opponent’s hurley and many more. He’s right too when he talks about the facile arguments of some who use phrases like ‘letting the play flow’ and ‘it’s a man’s game’, code for letting foul play flourish.

Christy O’Connor is correct too when he highlights the swarm tackling that Kilkenny have patented. You break one tackle where you’re fouled but get no free and then you’re hit by another and another until possession is eventually turned over. Dickie Murphy is correct in pointing out that there can be no advantage in such circumstances; the advantage would be to get the initial free so refereeing acquiescence is at the core of this malaise.

And yet you have the absurdity of Brian Cody claiming that physicality is being taken out of hurling. Some of his most passionate pronouncements have been on refereeing, which is no coincidence because his team needs a degree of refereeing benevolence in order to prosper as they have done. Former president, Christy Cooney, put Cody on a committee detailed to consider playing rules. It’s hardly surprising that the committee produced nothing of note.

All of that isn’t designed to take from Kilkenny’s hurling quality. Players like Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan et al are rare hurling talents who would stand apart in any generation. But it is surely appropriate to question the physical legacy that Brian Cody’s teams have bequeathed to the game of hurling. Cody’s unbelievable success rate has earned him a deference that is unhealthy. One consequence is that development squads are now putting an emphasis on bulky, muscular players at the expense of the more skilful.

I leave the final word to my correspondent who sums it all up better than I ever could. “The Charlie McCarthys and Jimmy Doyles of tomorrow must be allowed to display their talents on the big stage. They shouldn’t need to be rugby-sized, rugby-conditioned so as to break free of multiple illegal swarm/holding tackles. Hurling needs and deserves no less”.

P.S. A fascinating little snippet from another excellent press pack by Munster PRO Ed Donnelly: no ‘home’ team has won a Munster club game in the past three years – that’s a run of seven defeats for ‘home’ sides. Sarsfields beware.

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