GAELIC GAMES

All Ireland win puts Tipperary players in the county's pantheon of all-time greats

WESTSIDE COLUMN

All Ireland win puts Tipperary players in the county's pantheon of all-time greats

Paidi Maher - Tipperary's pivotal pillar throughout the decade that refused to budge

 One of the pleasures of winning All-Irelands is that it certainly does shorten the winter. There’s a deep satisfaction with everyone embracing the warm afterglow of it all. Gone, for the moment at least, are those winters of discontent where regrets and recriminations dominate. Instead there’s a cosy contentment in the air.

This autumn invites more reflection that usual because it signals the ending of a decade. For Tipperary hurling it’s been a profitable ten years. We sit atop the hurling pile and can look back with pleasure to survey a decade of major achievement.

In fact it’s been a golden age for Tipperary hurling. Unless you’re of a vintage that remembers the early sixties (I don’t incidentally) then the past decade has been the most glorious period to follow the blue and gold.

The facts deserve underlining. Three All-Ireland senior titles, three U21/20 crowns and two minors represent rich pickings. We don’t want it to end, of course, but the autumn of 2019 is a suitable vantage point from which to observe the achievements of a decade.

Of course the era had its origins before 2010. The minor wins of ’06 and ’07 are a very obvious starting point. Seldom has a minor crop yielded such a rich harvest. Those teams saw the emergence of a generation of players who would take Tipperary to new heights.  The Mahers, McGrath and Callanan were the cream of the crop.

Recently some stats relating to Paudie Maher have been posted online. He started all 49 championship games Tipperary played between 2010 and 2019 and only missed 26 minutes of action when withdrawn late in three matches, with Tipperary already home and hosed. It’s an incredible record of service. 

What the stats don’t tell you, of course, is that his level of consistency during that period was astonishing. Game after game he churned out one heroic performance after another. Teams targeted him as the pivotal pillar you had to shift if Tipperary were to be undone – but it mattered not. 

All Ireland hurling final man of the match Noel McGrath accepts his award from GAA president John Horan

Noel McGrath too has had a stellar career, though probably only getting his due recognition this season. The subtlety of his game often escapes observers. You can’t miss the high fielding and bustling advances of Paudie but the deft touches and hurling brain of Noel are sometimes overlooked. 

Seamie Callanan too stands apart as one of the greatest-ever Tipperary forwards. His leadership this year as captain added yet another dimension to his game. And what about Brendan Maher, a man you’d want on your side every day for his versatility, as well as his blending of natural skill and combativeness. 

Add in the Bonner when he’s fit and I have no problem in stating that these guys stand shoulder-to- shoulder with any of the greats Tipperary produced over the decades. 

What makes this 2019 win so special is that it nails down the legacy of these players. Two All- Ireland medals was impressive but a third puts you into a higher category, up there among the best that Tipperary has ever produced. Many reach the top but only the greats stay there for a prolonged period.  Longevity is the acid test of greatness and these guys have passed it with honours.

And hopefully it doesn’t end there. Writing about them in this manner might imply that their careers are over but I see no reason why they can’t ride the wave for a number of seasons yet, especially with the quality of supplementary talent coming on stream. 

Anyway in this autumn ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, as Keats put it, the feelgood factor has the county abuzz. Savour it, because the worm can turn faster than you think.

It’s a great time then to be a Tipp hurling fan and the upbeat mood in the county should be reflected in interest in our domestic championships. There’s a glut of games these weeks as the County CCC plays catch-up after the delays caused by the All- Irelands.

The club hurling championship resumed last weekend with some interesting outcomes. The perception that Thurles Sarsfields are on a downward curve gained further traction on Sunday when they fell heavily to Kilruane MacDonaghs. Having lost their opener last April to Eire Og Annacarty, the Sars now depend on Mid success in order to make the knockouts of the Dan Breen. On present form they’ll struggle against the likes of Loughmore or Drom/Inch or even Upperchurch so I wouldn’t bet on progress there.

Being an avid football fan I couldn’t resist the TV action on Sunday, so the most I could manage was a quick dash up the road for the pair of evening games at Boherlahan. They were interesting games too, even if the winners were signposted from some distance out.

After losing to Borrisoleigh back in April, champions, Clonoulty/Rossmore faced a must-win scenario with Moycarkey/Borris if they were to stay alive in their group. They already had a goal and a few points on the board when I got there and won comfortably enough in the end against a game Mid side.

It’s the old cliché that goals win games and Clonoulty hit four to frustrate Moycarkey. Dillon Quirke hit a pair, one either side of half time and Sean Maher had their final one, which kept the West side well in control.

In fairness Moycarkey kept battling. Max Hackett looked very lively and got a goal back. They had a penalty too when Kieran Morris was impeded illegally but Anthony McKelvey hit the post with the free to let Clonoulty off the hook.

Moycarkey were game but Clonoulty had more quality. There was a fine cheer for Conor Hammersley when he made his return to action during the second half. Remember he was desperately unlucky to do his cruciate just after joining Liam Sheedy’s panel last winter. What an unfortunate year to miss out! He’s made a rapid return, though, and looked sharp, hitting three points. Sean Maher too is back in the colours and the injection of these players during the second half killed off any hopes Moycarkey had of causing an upset.

The second game was tighter and in some ways more interesting. Annacarty looked much more business-like than Killenaule in the first half, coming to the play smarter, reading the breaks and usually taking the right options. Seanie Ryan had a few early points and gradually they slipped well clear, leading 11-3 approaching half time.

It was a poor first half from the South side, though they might easily have sneaked a goal or two. Darragh Mooney frustrated Eoin Barry a few times, including one great retrieval when he was caught off his line. Thomas Keaveney had another chance and Bubbles hit the side netting.

The Eire Og goalie can count himself very unlucky to lose out last winter when Liam Sheedy assembled his panel. On the evidence of 2018 he was no worse or no better than the others but simply drew the short straw when the cut came. He’s a quality goalie who shouldn’t give up hope of a recall.

In fairness to Killenaule they upped their game considerably in the third quarter by simply injecting more drive and energy into their hurling. Eventually they cut the lead to just two points. Eire Og could be grateful for one masterful flick away by Eoin Kennedy. Eoin Barry was again thwarted on a quickly-taken free and near the end Bubbles hit the post and then had a free stopped.

There was a lot of action in the Eire Og goalmouth but Mooney’s line stayed intact and that made all the difference. In the end free-taker supreme, Aidan Griffin split the posts twice and Dinny Crosse pitched in with his third point to seal the deal.

It was a typically efficient performance by Eire Og, who are now through to the knockouts. 

By contrast Killenaule look down and out. It was a strange game for Bubbles, who might easily have ended with a few goals but was out of luck. His free-taking went a bit astray too, though Eoin Barry was a very able deputy. One second half point over the shoulder by Bubbles from near the stand sideline just oozed class.

After two rounds now of this disjointed championship series the picture is clear in most groups. The least clear is probably group 1, where Nenagh are on three points with Loughmore and Upperchurch on two apiece and Burgess on one. There are lots of permutations ahead of the final round this weekend where Upperchurch face Loughmore and Nenagh tackle Burgess. Nenagh and Loughmore are probably fancied to emerge.

In group 2 Borrisoleigh lead the way on four points, with Clonoulty and Toomevara on two apiece and pointless Moycarkey propping up the base. Borris’, after a big win over Toome’ last weekend, are already through ahead of their last game with Moycarkey. Clonoulty and Toome’ will be a crunch tie here.

Group three is done and dusted. Kilruane and Eire Og are through on four points apiece, the clash of the pair merely deciding who tops the group. The meeting of Sarsfields and Killenaule is effectively a relegation game.

Finally in group 4 Kiladangan lead the way on four points, with Roscrea on two and Drom and Portroe on one apiece. Kiladangan are already through ahead of their meeting with Roscrea; Drom need to beat Portroe and hope that Roscrea lose the other tie.

In the jargon of the trade then it’s all to play for in the case of several clubs. If you fail to qualify through your county group then the divisional route is the other avenue. 

Who’ll be in the final shake-up? The bookies have Kilruane and Kiladangan joint favourites on 4/1 each with Nenagh on fives, Borrisoleigh and Loughmore at 11/2 and Sarsfields on 7/1. Clonoulty’s chances of retaining the title are rated 9/1. Kilruane, with their input of prominent young players, are certainly attracting attention; they’re ones to watch.