Tipperary GAA club championships could benefit from shorter season - Westside

Hurling pitches echoing to the clash of the ash once more

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Darragh Mooney

Eire Og Annacarty/Donohill goalkeeper Darragh Mooney makes a save during last weekend's game against Clonoulty/Rossmore in the County Senior Hurling Championship

As I was saying before being so rudely interrupted ….

It has become a well-worn comeback line, hasn’t it, though I’m not sure who first coined the expression. There was a very popular Daily Mirror columnist called William Connor who made the line famous. For over 30  years he penned his column under the pseudonym Cassandra, being interrupted only by World War 2. His comeback piece at the end of the war began, “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, it is a powerful hard thing to please all of the people all of the time”. 

So, we’re back for the moment at least, though in these unsure times it’s unwise to make any solid pronouncements about the future. The hurling pitches, though sparsely populated, are echoing to the clash of the ash once more. The championship, a shorter and sharper version of the old model, is up and running after last weekend’s hectic programme of games.

In truth it’s good to be back and watching live hurling again after a four-month hiatus. You do tire of those look-back programmes replaying past games, the “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago” to quote the famous Wordsworth lines. I still find it too painful to revisit that 2009 final.

Anyway the first shots have been fired in the 2020 championship series, with live streaming of games helping to fill the void resulting from attendance restrictions. In truth it was a lively opening to the championship, with gripping entertainment and some noteworthy outcomes.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (King Henry IV Part Two). It’s a feeling Borris-Ileigh will become familiar with as they set off in defence of county and provincial honours, with every pretender snapping at their heels. The champions are always targets for a takedown so Borris can expect nothing soft here.

The neighbours’ children from Toomevara were the first to test the Borris mettle with a feisty challenge at Nenagh on Sunday.  The Eoin Brislane-managed ‘Greyhounds’ were certainly up for the chase.  Full of energy and industry they hunted in packs, hounding at every opportunity and fully deserved a share of the prize at the end.

Jerry Kelly resumed where he left off in last January’s All Ireland club final with four first-half points, which helped Borris to a two-point interval lead. 

Toome were well in it at this stage and might have snuck ahead just before the interval when awarded a penalty. From my vantage I thought it was a soft enough award though the referee, of course, was much closer to the action. Either way Toome goalie, Robert Delaney, came up to take the shot but it wasn’t a great strike and James McCormack saved easily.

Early in the second half Borris hit a little purple patch and pushed the lead out to five points. They were sluggish enough I thought at times but this seemed to be the moment where they’d grab the initiative.

Not so. Back came Toome with Paul Ryan setting up Mark McCarthy for a well-worked goal, the game’s only green flag. Thereafter it became a tit-for-tat affair, though Borris were very profligate with their chances, hitting an unpardonable dozen second half wides by my count.

It careered down to a knife-edge finish, with Jerry Kelly giving Borris the lead before a Joey McLoughney free tied things up for a share-out of the spoils.

In the end it was a fair outcome, Toome’s industry deserving something from the effort. Centre back, McLoughney hit some great frees from distance, which proved critical in that final quarter.

Paddy Stapleton was unable to play and near the end he was seen - and heard - roaring at his defence to wake up for the restarts. It summed up the Borris performance, I thought. There were snatches of what we became familiar with last year but these were mixed with a lot of lazy effort too. I expect they’ll sharpen as the series progresses.

Meanwhile, you look at the chasing pack and wonder who is best placed to push the reigning champions off their pedestal. After two down seasons Sarsfields pulled off a significant result when coming late and strong against Kilruane at Holycross on Saturday evening. It was a notable outcome, with hugely contrasting implications for the respective teams.

This was a strange game. Early on the MacDonaghs seemed to be in the mood to pull off a major triumph. They looked sharp and inventive, winning many key battlegrounds against a Sarsfields side struggling to find any traction. Aidan McCormack and Cian Darcy were swapping frees but Kilruane looked the more progressive outfit; only a series of careless wides into the road goal prevented the lead from stretching out.

A fine Kian O’Kelly individual goal endorsed impressions of the game’s trajectory, though an interval lead of two points was less than their dominance deserved.

The third quarter brought no great change, though I thought there were straws in the wind. Gradually Sarsfields were starting to win more individual battles. Their defence had firmed up, we were seeing more of Ronan and Paudie Maher, Billy McCarthy too was busy, Corbett was on and prowling and Denis Maher was now adding punch at full forward.

Still, by any standard the fade out from Kilruane was very striking. For whatever reason they just drifted, as Sars upped the intensity. None of the MacDonagh big names escaped censure; as a unit the entire team just tapered off badly. 

By contrast Sarsfields found the reserves of energy to drive on. They were now winning in most sectors and the points flowed from a variety of strikers before Denis Maher’s late goal polished it all off.

So are Sarsfields back? I wouldn’t make that judgment on this game alone. They’ll have been encouraged by the return of Billy McCarthy and Mickey Cahill and by the spirit shown to see out this game when things were initially going against them. Otherwise there’s still a way to go. 

For Kilruane, you wonder is there something brittle at the heart of a side that fades out so spectacularly.

The final game I saw at the weekend was the all-West affair at the Stadium on Sunday. We’ve become familiar with tight tussles between Clonoulty and Annacarty in the West division but there was nothing tight about this. Clonoulty were winners all the way on a day of frustration for Eire Og. 

By half time Clonoulty were four-up and by then Eire Og had lost Ronan O’Brien and Brian Fox to injury, the latter damaging a knee amid immediate concerns about the possible prognosis. From then on it was always going to be damage limitation for Annacarty. With typical spirit they plugged away at the job but could be grateful to get out without a heavier defeat than eight points.

Clonoulty, minus Timmy Hammersley because of a carry-over red card from last year, were always in command of this game. A few smart saves by Darragh Mooney kept the score down but the reigning West champions always looked comfortable here. Cathal Bourke planted their first half goal and now Fiachra O’Keeffe was the finisher of another defence-splitting move. Dillon Quirke was central to much of their attacking play, powerful in the air and when running at the backs.

The hurlers now take a week out before a crucial round of fixtures the following weekend, which should put shape to all of the four groups. Two teams emerge from each section for quarter finals so it really is a sprint series this year rather than the elongated format of past years, where everything waited on the progress of the divisional championships.

Interestingly this decoupling of the county and divisional championships is something that was often suggested in the past. It was resisted then but now it’s been forced on the county by the Covid crisis. Depending on how it works out this year it may well become a permanent feature. Wouldn’t it be ironic if it took a pandemic to bring about a change that many see as sensible anyway but vested divisional interests have resisted? 

There is also a growing sense that players are starting to like this shorter, snappier playing season. Endless months of training and waiting for games was the norm but now players are seeing the merits of a much tighter schedule. Perhaps some good will come from this pandemic after all.

Finally I couldn’t end this column without some reference to the changes that have taken place in this parish since lockdown altered everything. Mayo man, Michael Heverin, detoured to Wexford on his way to Tipperary, where he committed over three decades of his life in journalism to The Nationalist, before his recent retirement.

I recall when he arrived in Queen Street back in the late eighties this column was no more than an occasional piece before Michael insisted it be weekly. I’m sure it’s a decision he probably questioned at times, as he was left defending this corner against some who would willingly apply a gagging restraint. 

For that and all his assistance, as well as his good-humoured friendship over the years, I am forever grateful. He’s done Clonmel and Tipperary some service and I wish him well in retirement. Now if only Mayo could win an All-Ireland!

When one good man steps aside another takes his place. Coming from sound Boherlahan stock, Darren Hassett takes over as editor at a particularly difficult time for provincial papers. 

Times were difficult anyway before the pandemic but Covid-19 just adds yet another layer of challenge to the job of keeping a provincial newspaper afloat. I’ve no doubt he’ll give it everything and will have the best wishes of all in his endeavours. 

For more Tipperary sport see Camogie club championships have resumed