On a weekend when the weather played foul and football dominated, the North division alone featured senior hurling action, where Burgess raised eyebrows with a notable win over Nenagh Eire Og.
As a hurling county Tipperary is top-heavy geographically. Thirteen of the county’s 30 senior sides come from the region, which supplies the Board with a very competitive local championship.
Burgess have never won a North senior title in its present guise, though you will find Youghalarra listed as winners from far-off 1909. Yet so far this season they’re making significant waves and gathering notice in the process. In their opening county championship game the previous week they drew with Loughmore/Castleiney. That in itself was eye-catching but now they’ve gone a step further by dumping a fancied Nenagh side out of the North.
All this comes from a team that last year narrowly beat Moycarkey/Borris in the Seamus O’Riain Cup final and many predicted they’d struggle in the higher grade. Instead they’ve embraced their promotion and will now have to be reckoned with, whether in the North quarter-finals or their remaining group games in the county series, where they face Upperchurch/Drombane and a re-match with Nenagh.
It’s early in the season but so far theirs is a success story for coach Paul Keane (Adare) and selectors Pat Gibson, Paul Hogan and Hughie Ryan. There is a perception – accurate I believe – that the Seamus O’Riain and the Dan Breen are as different as the men who give their names to the two tiers. Yet thus far Burgess have managed to bridge that gulf and nobody will be making assumptions about them when championships resume later.
In our mind’s eye I suppose Donie Nealon is the name most associated with the club. His role in Tipperary’s golden era of the late 50s and first half of the 60s gave him legendary status. His subsequent career as mentor to several county teams and long-serving Munster Secretary further enhanced that reputation. There’s always a special admiration for one who comes from a more obscure club and makes a profound impact, whether as player or administrator; Nealon ticks all the boxes in that regard.
More recently we tend to link the club with the Maher brothers. Shane played full back on Sunday, with Donagh in the pivotal number six role. No doubt they were leaders of the charge against Eire Og, as was Stephen Murray, who scored eight of their 14 points. They only led by a point after playing with the wind in the first half but outfought Nenagh on the turnover to take a major scalp in the North championship.
The remaining North games at the weekend were more predictable. Borrisoleigh were too strong for Newport, as were defending champions, Kilruane MacDonaghs, for Silvermines. There at least the gap between the tiers was evident. Ballina’s win over Portroe, however, bucked the trend. In the final game Kiladangan had the measure of Toomevara.
That Burgess win has seen the odds on their county title chances slashed from 100/1 down to 50/1. It’s a dramatic change about, though I doubt if too many will be rushing out to take up those odds.
A bit like the inter-county scene, the Tipperary county championship race looks more open than it has been for many seasons. Thurles Sarsfields’ decline has certainly levelled the playing field. Perhaps the Blues will resurrect later in the season when some players return from injury but thus far all the evidence points to the ending of an era. They looked a spent force against Annacarty last week and introducing Lar Corbett to save the game was hardly a nod to the future. Winning runs always come to an end and Sarsfields certainly look like a team that needs rejuvenation at this stage.
Drom/Inch too look like a team that has reached a point where their ability to win county titles is fading. It’s now eight years since they won their sole crown and at this point they’re listed down the betting table at 14/1.
Since they made the breakthrough in 2011 Drom/Inch have lost one county final, two semis and three quarters. On the positive side that’s a record which indicates they’re perennial contenders but there’s no convincing evidence that they’re on an upward curve. They’re in the mix but not progressing.
Clonoulty/Rossmore’s win last year came as a surprise but when you look deeper their modern championship record is remarkable. In the last ten championship campaigns, for example, the West side have won a final, lost two other deciders, lost one semi-final and lost six quarter-finals. In fact you have to go back to 2006 for the last year when they didn’t make the last eight of the championship. That’s an incredible level of consistency for a club that has so often been the West’s standard bearer. If you’re in the mix every year then perhaps a win like last year shouldn’t be such a surprise. The reigning champions are listed at 14/1 to retain their crown.
Of the other contenders in the championship race, Borrisoleigh are a team that always excites expectation when they start to show some form. Those recent wins over Clonoulty and Newport have raised their profile and they’re now listed on odds of 15/2 beside Nenagh Eire Og. Only Loughmore and Thurles Sarsfields are ahead of them.
There was an interesting fall-out from their recently televised game with Clonoulty when Paddy Stapleton and Brendan Maher went before the County Hearings Committee last Friday night. Stapleton was red- carded in that game and faced the prospect of a two-match ban based on the referee’s report. However the committee reduced the penalty to a one-match suspension. It was a strange decision, given the committee’s stated acceptance that there was no compelling video evidence to contradict the contents of the referee’s report.
Brendan Maher was also named in the referee’s account for challenging his authority. In his case the committee decided that the referee had cautioned the player and therefore no further action was required on their behalf. Had the wording of the referee’s report been slightly different then the consequences might have been very serious.
Anyway Borrisoleigh, who got to the decider in 2017, will be fancied to make the final shake-up again this year. They have Moycarkey and Toomevara still to play in their group and will definitely be tipped to make the knock-outs, whatever about winning outright.
Loughmore/Castleiney last won the county title back in 2013. Again they’re one of those perennial contenders who sometimes get caught between football and hurling. They’ve already dropped a point to Burgess in their county group so they’ll need to be on their guard against Upperchurch and Nenagh.
There’s no shortage of contenders from the North division. Nenagh regularly make the latter stages of the championship but often disappoint, as happened in last year’s final. Their solitary county title from 1995 is a very poor return for the quality of players they’ve produced over the years.
Kilruane MacDonaghs and Kiladangan are two sides who have been promising a major breakthrough in recent seasons without fully delivering. The Puckane club are listed at odds of 15/2, with the Cloughjordan crew on 9/1. They’ll surely be in the mix.
With no overwhelming favourite this year it’s an intriguing championship to anticipate. You could reasonably make a case for any of six or seven contenders, which suggests a very open field. For all their club strength the Dan Breen hasn’t gone North since Toomevara left the stage after their last hurrah in 2008. Maybe this will be the year.
In other news last week we watched with interest as Cork’s Seamus Harnedy and Conor Delaney of Kilkenny had their one-match suspensions reassigned by the Central Hearings Committee in Croke Park, thus freeing them for their championship openers in May. Kilkenny face Dublin in their opening round on May 11 while Tipperary travel to Cork the following day.
Their cases were curious. They were both sent off in their final league rounds but then the issue arose as to whether or not the play-off/relegation game that followed between Cork and Kilkenny could serve as their one-match ban. Both players sat out that match.
Technically this game was labelled a relegation game in which case it could not be used as their one-game suspension. However, because the league structure is changing in 2020, this game wasn’t used as a relegation tie but simply to decide which group the counties would play in next year. That uncertainty gave ample scope for an appeal and it was no surprise to me that the players won out. It’s a massive boost for Cork, though Kilkenny might still be without Delaney because of injury.
Finally the controversy over player availability to their clubs ahead of the first rounds of the county championship rumbles on. Killenaule, who have players on both football and hurling county panels, raised the issue at County Board but got little satisfaction, other that being told their point was noted.
It emerged that Killenaule’s county players were not available to them for the first week of April, which is contrary to the policy of dedicating April as a club-only month. It also emerged that the county hurlers didn’t train that week but did have a meeting one night. The county footballers, by contrast, did train that week, which is surely in breach of guidelines. Suggesting that the individual players were given a choice is simply offloading the blame.
The County Board can’t shirk its responsibility here either. Team managers will do what suits team managers. The Board has a much wider remit and should have delivered on its duty to clubs.