Full steam ahead for the knockout stages of Tipperary county hurling championships

Tight margins decide places in championship's business end

Clonoulty Rossmore v. Holycross

Holycross Ballycahill's Philip Fogarty and Jimmy Ryan try to slow the advance of Clonoulty Rossmore's Michael Ryan. Picture: Eamonn McGee

After a weekend of hectic hurling, the decks are finally cleared for knockout action in all three major championships. Through it all there were winners and losers, with some of the margins incredibly tight.
Headline losers were clubs like Nenagh Eire Og and Drom/Inch in the Dan Breen series, the former falling flat against Borris-Ileigh and the latter pipped by Upperchurch on a single point score difference.
Spare a thought too for Carrick Swans, coming up one point short on score deferential to Kiladangan B in the Seamus O’Riain; or how about Portroe, missing out to St Mary’s by a single point in the scores for column.
The intermediate grade had its drama too.
So many ifs and buts then to tantalise and tease, the winners grateful for such narrow escapes while the losers are left cursing their ill luck.
In advance the Borris-Ileigh/Nenagh game stood out as a highlight fixture, a winner-take-all affair between two top sides. Not surprisingly TG4 saw its potential too, but what a let-down it turned out to be. A damp squib on a damp day, the hurling was poor and the contest non-existent as Eire Og once again failed to turn up.
It was a dismal performance by Nenagh, who huffed and puffed outfield but had little to offer upfront where it really mattered. With Dan McCormack doing a lot of defensive sweeping, the likes of Jake Morris could never get a foothold and it was a dreary day for the club, on a par with last year when they were again ten-point losers, to Loughmore on that occasion.
For Borris it was workmanlike and industrious. They were typically combative and had a deal more firepower in attack.
The lead was modest enough in the first half, but once Niall Kenny hit the goal the margin was out to a comfort zone and there was really no kickback from Nenagh.
The most enjoyable game I saw at the weekend was that between the neighbours’ children from Holycross and Clonoulty. It was a reprise of last year and a reprise too of the excitement of a year ago. This time, however, the west side had the final word, with a late surge seeing them through.
Holycross, with the wind, had the better of the first half. They had Bryan O’Mara back in harness and were tigerish in every tussle. Cathal Barrett set up Darragh Woods for an early goal and they had a second from David Fogarty before half-time to lead by five.
There was no great swing in fortunes in the third quarter but it all happened in the final phase. Immediately after the second water break John O’Keeffe, quiet up to then, made a great catch before advancing to land a rousing point. Dillon Quirke immediately followed up, with a line ball from midfield soaring between the sticks. These were inspirational scores and set the tone for the remainder of the action.
Clonoulty started winning all the individual battles now and then they had a real ace in substitute Stephen Ferncombe. Two minutes from the end he fired in a goal and even though Holycross instantly hit a cancelling score at the other end, it was Ferncombe with the two injury-time points that sealed the deal for the west team. They outscored Holycross 1-7 to 1-0 in the final quarter.
With a lot of Ferncombe involvement on the Holycross side, I’m sure there was much family fun afterwards, with one of the clan doing the business so spectacularly for Clonoulty. Stephen was undeniably the hero of the day, though if you were picking a man of the match over the hour it would be hard to overlook Michael Ryan (W) with a five-point input from midfield. Timmy Hammersley returned to free-taking duty and did well also.
Clonoulty’s win, plus Mullinahone’s spectacular upending of fourteen-man Toomevara, really turned this group on its head, with the south side topping the pile and Clonoulty keeping out Toome - all based on score difference.
Score difference had a huge bearing later in the day too when Drom/Inch and Eire Og Annacarty went at it over in Cashel in a bid to sort out group 1.
Halfway through and after playing against the wind, Drom looked well set for a substantial win which, coupled with an Upperchurch loss to Sarsfields, would see them safely through to the quarter-finals. That calculation, however, failed to factor in Annacarty’s battling qualities.
The first half evidence from Drom was impressive. Seamie Callanan set up Maidhc Fitzpatrick for their first goal and Tony Cahill landed a second to backbone an interval lead of nine points.
Johnny Ryan’s input was hugely significant too, landing six points (five from play) in that opening spell.
It all looked silky smooth then for the men from The Ragg at that juncture. Indeed, the third quarter saw further enhancement, the lead stretching out to ten points. But Eire Og never go quietly into the night.
Somehow the Annacarty men found a response. A few subs had brought new energy, with Paidi Bradshaw now buzzing around the pitch. Tom Fox found a gap for a reviving goal and the Drom followers shuffled nervously as the lead began to dwindle. Eire Og outscored Drom 1-6 to 0-2 in the final quarter and suddenly all was changed, changed utterly.
Annacarty didn’t win but they took Drom out of the championship with them.
All the while the phones were flashing updates from the Sarsfields/Upperchurch game. The lead there fluctuated out to double figures, then back to single digits before settling at a ten- point margin.
A quick calculation showed Drom on a differential of minus 9 points, with the Church on minus 8. Drom were out, Upperchurch through to a county quarter-final.
Annacarty’s pasting from Sarsfields meant their score difference was huge so, like last year, a relegation battle is now their lot. They won’t wilt easily in that struggle either, though you have to wonder what fun there is in yearly fire-fighting for your existence in the top group.
A spell in Seamus O’Riain might ultimately be more rewarding, though I’ve no doubt they won’t view things that way.
Meanwhile, there was another dour battle taking place in group 3 of the intermediate championship, where Boherlahan faced Golden/Kilfeacle over in New Inn. Golden were propping up the table after two defeats but if they could win and Kilsheelan/Kilcash beat Moyle Rovers, as most expected, then a three-way tie would send the issue to score difference once again.
And thus it came to pass. The Golden/Boherlahan match was an edgy, niggly affair played in atrocious conditions and featuring a major bust-up in the second quarter, which left both sides a man short.
Golden led 0-4 to 0-3 at half- time, a scoreline that sums up the quality of the play. It was really drab stuff from both sides, even allowing for the conditions.
Then in the second quarter a major melee erupted in front of the stand. It wasn’t pretty. With order restored the referee flashed the red card to a player from each side. How you could single out two from the mass is a mystery to me.
The referee wasn’t helped by the fact that you had an individual from each side doing linesman, so he had no option to consult there. Instead, he reverted to his umpires at the village end, who were eighty or ninety yards from the action and surely couldn’t be accurate witnesses either.
Not having neutral linesmen for a match of this importance, where every decision and every score was vital, reflects very poorly on the organisers. It’s a throwback to older, chaotic times which I thought we had left behind.
Of course, the whole refereeing issue has been in the news lately, with a glut of games to be processed and not enough officials to go round. I’m told several club games hereabouts were deferred at the weekend because of a shortage of referees.
Anyway, back to the game at New Inn. Golden, physically stronger and more combative, dominated the second half of the match and really should have won more comfortably than the six-point margin in a tally of 1-9 to 0-6.
Had they managed to tack on a few more scores, Boherlahan would now be facing a relegation battle because they only managed to nudge out Moyle Rovers on a score deferential of minus 10 versus minus 12 for the south side.
Meanwhile Killenaule, fresh from their win over Gortnahoe, have drawn the short straw in Loughmore/Castleiney for their preliminary county quarter-final. It’s a repeat of the corresponding fixture back in 2018 which was played under lights in Borris-Ileigh. That night a hobbling John McGrath was sent to full forward, where he won the game with a late goal. Killenaule deserved better on the night so the rematch will be interesting.
Finally, there are glaring anomalies in our present structures, such as the fact that Killenaule could theoretically win two separate, unlinked competitions with the same team. Or the fact that Cappawhite are in a county intermediate preliminary quarter final as well as a relegation battle.
The common denominator: the divisional link.

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