Willie Connors is aiming to help Kiladangan retain their FBD Insurance county senior hurling championship title. Picture: Eamonn McGee
A feast of club hurling awaits this coming weekend, as the last of the round robin series of fixtures is set to decide positions ahead of the knockout games. Twenty four games in total across the Dan Breen, Seamus O’Riain and intermediate competitions will see fans spoiled for choice, as clubs line up for the business end of the season.
It has been an intriguing championship season thus far, with some fascinating games in store for this coming weekend. We often get things wrong in this county but the grading system of recent times has certainly been a success story. Across the three major championships, teams have been profiled on merit and this has resulted in hugely competitive grades, with often little separating sides. What a pity if this structure is tampered with in coming years because of pressure from the divisions.
Thurles Sarsfields hold an honoured position in the county with 36 titles to their credit and in many ways they’ve been the story of the championship so far. After a few slack years since they completed a four-in-a-row in 2017 they’re on a rebound that has everyone sitting up and taking notice.
In fact, the Sarsfields story goes far beyond their senior team, with the club set to dominate Tipperary hurling at all levels. Their senior B team is blazing a trail as well in the Seamus O’Riain competition. They’re unbeaten after two games and guaranteed a quarter-final position irrespective of the outcome in their final game with Burgess at the weekend.
Imagine if Sarsfields B won the Seamus O’Riain. Then they’d have two senior sides in the Dan Breen for 2022, with all the oddities which that might present. At present they’re third favourites to win the O’Riain Cup behind Killenaule and form setters Templederry.
But it’s when you look at the conveyor belt behind Sarsfields that you get a glimpse of their potential to monopolise Tipperary club hurling into the future. Their U19s cruised through the mid division this year and last weekend put 6-23 past Kiladangan in the county semi-final. Kickhams and St Mary’s play the other semi-final this week but either side will be considered rank outsiders in the final.
Last year Sarsfields won the county minor title with quite a bit to spare over Cashel KC in the final. This year their U17s are highly rated too. In fact, there’s speculation they could do a clean sweep of titles at U17, U15 and U13. The 15s have already won Feile.
Of course Durlas Og, who manage the juvenile section, is nominally a separate, independent entity from Sarsfields but their best players inevitably graduate to the Blues. Durlas Og is effectively a Sarsfields nursery and they have a rich stock of talent at the moment.
For other clubs looking on, the Sarsfields potential is scary. Already this year their A team stormed the mid and have carried that momentum into the county series with impressive wins over Drom/Inch and Annacarty. Their score difference is 28 points, which is the highest of any team across the three grades. In fact, their nearest competitors are their B brothers in the Seamus O’Riain with a score difference of 26 points, the same as Templederry’s – no other team comes even close.
Because of their depth of talent, Sarsfields’ skill levels tend to be of the highest order. Most teams will have some skilful players mixed in with more average guys but Sarsfields are laced with skill all through. Against Annacarty in the last round they had eleven different scorers in what was an exhibition of pinpoint shooting.
With a new manager in Mark Dowling and a revamped team, Sarsfields look razor sharp at the moment. Full of energy, running and first-touch hurling, if you’re any way off their pace they’ll embarrass you, as they did to Eire Og in the last game.
Not surprisingly the bookies have Sarsfields listed as championship favourites at the moment ahead of Kiladangan, Kilruane, Loughmore and Borris-Ileigh in that order of fancy. In a free-flowing shootout it’s difficult to see any of the other contenders matching Sarsfields, but if they can get in their faces and bring the game down to a dog fight then it’s a different matter.
Sarsfields’ recent record outside the county is poor, because in winter hurling when stiff challenges were presented they were found wanting. There’s a suspicion that a soft underbelly may still be there if you can get at it and play the game on your terms rather than theirs.
Upperchurch have put in some sturdy shifts against Sarsfields in recent years without managing to get over the line. This time they’ve the encouragement of a useful win over Drom in the last game so they’ll be well fired up for the job.
In the other group game Annacarty will need to rebound against Drom/Inch or they could be in relegation difficulty. There’s the possibility here of a three-way tie, depending on results, which is something Eire Og will need to avoid, given their inferior score difference. The stakes are high.
Kiladangan are widely seen as Sarsfields’ main rivals for outright honours, though putting titles back-to-back, especially as first-time winners, is very difficult. Apart from Sarsfields and Toomevara, the two clubs who built winning dynasties in recent decades, you have to go back to Kilruane in the 70s for the last team to retain the title. Since then, we’ve had lots of one-hit wonders but building a sequence is especially challenging.
Kiladangan’s famous breakthrough last year has been followed by steady displays since then. They held onto the north title after a stiff examination by Kilruane MacDonaghs, and in the county series repeated last year’s narrow county final win over Loughmore before having just two to spare on JK Brackens in the last round.
It’s a form line that’s consistent and steady rather than spectacular and has already ensured quarter-final involvement, irrespective of the outcome of their game with Moycarkey at the weekend. The clash of Loughmore and Brackens, however, is a straight shootout for a position in the knockouts.
Arguably the most mouth-watering clash of the weekend will be the meeting of Borris-Ileigh and Nenagh Eire Og in group 4. With Kilruane topping the group and already assured of a place in the quarter-finals, this meeting of Borris and Nenagh is a winner takes all affair.
Borris will probably feel unlucky to have lost out to Kilruane in their previous game. The injury to Dan McCormack was especially damaging after he’d made a major impact on the game before shipping a late tackle that ended his participation.
In Eddie Ryan, Borris-Ileigh had a lively forward who was new to me and I expect a strong kick from the 2019 champions.
Another game to anticipate with relish at the weekend is in group 2, where Clonoulty face Holycross in a fight for survival. This group is very delicately poised with table-toppers, Toomevara, facing Mullinahone in the other tie.
The clash of Clonoulty and Holycross is a reprise of last year’s corresponding game, which ended all square at Boherlahan. They may eye each other across the divisional boundary but there’s always a bite to games between these close neighbours. Bryan O’Mara’s injury is a huge blow to Holycross this year as they remain anchored at the bottom of the group table following an agonising one-point defeat to Eoin Kelly the last day. You’d expect Clonoulty to have enough but in this fixture you never know what will transpire.
In the Seamus O’Riain Cup the bookies have Templederry Kenyons listed as favourites ahead of Killenaule, Sarsfields B, Cashel KC, Newport and St Mary’s. Cashel’s defeat by Mary’s the last day was a significant outcome in this group, where several permutations are still possible depending on outcomes at the weekend.
Sarsfields B, Templederry and Gortnahoe are all safely through to the quarter-finals, though topping their groups will be an incentive at the weekend with a view to getting an easier draw in the knockouts.
It’s interesting to contrast the fates of Burgess and Gortnahoe as they head in different directions. The north side played in Dan Breen last year but were relegated and are now in danger of slipping further to intermediate status. By contrast the mid team won the intermediate last time and now top their group after two wins in the O’Riain cup. Passing ships in the night, heading in different directions.
Finally, the intermediate grade isn’t short of juicy games either at the weekend, with much to be decided in all groups. The only certainty ahead of the last round of games is that Cappawhite are heading into a relegation battle, irrespective of the outcome of their game with Moyne/Templetuohy.
Kickhams have found momentum in group 2 with useful wins over Ballybacon and Moneygall, though they could still get caught in a three-way tie depending on results at the weekend, including their game with Davins. The west side won the corresponding fixture last year. The clash of Boherlahan and Golden will be an item of local interest in Group 3, where Kilsheelan/Kilcash are setting the pace while Group 4 looks delicately poised, with several permutations possible depending on outcomes at the weekend.
For most teams in all grades, it’s a crunch weekend.
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