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26/10/2021

How Colm Bonnar's cabinet works as a team is critical to the future of Tipperary hurling

Appointment of backroom management will meet with widespread approval

Semple Stadium: Field of Legends

This famous photo from the 1962 Munster semi-final between Waterford and Cork is featured on the front cover of Liam O’Donnchu’s phenomenal book Semple Stadium: Field of Legends

During the fall of the year I always think of the poet John Keats and his famous Ode to Autumn. It was written over two centuries ago but remains a favourite of many people, particularly the frequently-quoted line, “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” which beautifully captures the essence of this time of year.
The fall is also a bountiful season for books, as publishers ramp up the production lines ahead of the lucrative Christmas market. Sports publications are an important element of this book harvest.
This year Liam O’Donnchu has got in ahead of the posse with a marvellous publication, Semple Stadium: Field of Legends. Already on the best seller list, this really will be sought-after, particularly wherever ash is clashed.
The front cover illustration is an eye-catcher like no other. It features that iconic photograph of Christy Ring in his final championship game against Waterford in the 1962 Munster semi-final at Semple Stadium. It’s an incredible shot that captures so much about the game.
It’s one of those old-style goalmouth grapples, before goalies were a protected species and the backman’s job was to hold out the forwards. It was an era when the third-man tackle was an integral part of the game, so there was a lot of off the ball action.
It’s all there in this photography. You have the incredible athleticism of Waterford goalie Ned Power, who is airborne as he makes the catch. Note the height he has risen and the timing and co-ordination needed to pull off that save. And let’s not forget the raw courage required as Ring is swinging at the same sliotar.
Then you have Waterford defenders Tom Cunningham and Austin Flynn doing their utmost to hold off the forwards. Cork’s Liam Dowling is also there, and you note the huge crowd in the background. The length of the hurleys is also worth noting at a time when fast pulling was the order of the day – whip and hip as Cyril Farrell might say.
It’s amazing how one photograph could distil so much of the game at that time, so one can only marvel at the brilliance of the photographer, Louis MacMonagle, to capture that precise moment in time. A second earlier or later and the impact wouldn’t be the same; bear in mind also the camera technology of the day. It’s surely the greatest hurling action shot ever snapped.
How do you write the history of a sports venue? There are the bare facts of how the site was purchased originally and then developed over the years but thereafter you’re left with the epic events which took place there over the many decades. And that’s precisely what Liam O’Donnchu does.
It was mentioned to me last week that the modern reader, especially the younger generation, has a short concentration span and little toleration for long tracts of prose. They work in snapshots and snippets, typical of the social media world. It’s more a visual world than a literary one.
This book will suit such tastes because it comprises a whole series of separate, though notable events that had as their common denominator the setting of Semple Stadium. The essential facts are condensed into vignettes and everything is illustrated with an extraordinary collection of photographs. It’s one of those books where you can dip in and out at random, so it should suit a very large modern audience.
I marvel at the work undertaken by Liam O’Donnchu to assemble all this material and present it in such an attractive fashion. It obviously has huge appeal for a Tipperary audience but it goes way beyond that to fascinate the hurling world in general.
I’m astonished too at the breadth of referencing in this production. This obviously reflects the scope of Liam’s reading and research, where he can call on references to Semple Stadium from a very wide variety of sources.
My hero of old, Con Houlihan, is in there with this characteristic piece: “Thurles is to hurling as Milan is to Grand Opera and Nashville is to country and western music … Its centre, Liberty Square, seems like the centre of Ireland on days of big games … Then in Bowe’s pub down by the railway station you feel that you are at the centre of the universe.”
Or how about Malachy Clerkin’s assertion that “Thurles is the best place to go to see a hurling match.” Or that absolute gem from the great Cork trainer Jim ‘Tough’ Barry: “Anyone who couldn’t hurl in Thurles shouldn’t bother handling a stick.”
Liam O’Donnchu, Hollyford’s gift to Thurles, has done a phenomenal job here. Last Sunday’s Independent had the book listed as the third best seller in the sports books section; I suspect it will be on that list for some time. With over 380 pages it’s a magnum opus, a credit to Liam and a fitting tribute to the famous stadium.
Meanwhile, Colm Bonnar has finally named his cabinet, one which, I suspect, will meet with widespread approval. There’s a blend of the known and the new. Tommy Dunne brings continuity from the previous regime while Paul Curran and Johnny Enright will be new to the scene. How they gel now and work as a team will be critical to the future of Tipperary hurling.
Tommy Dunne’s involvement with Liam Sheedy in recent years gives him an intimate knowledge of the present panel, something I suspect the new manager would have wanted. I never quite understood the coaching roles under Sheedy where you had Eamon O’Shea, Darragh Egan and Eoin Kelly all playing their parts, however loosely defined. I assume Tommy Dunne’s function will be more pivotal in the new set-up.
Johnny Enright had a significant playing career with both club and county. Lightweight in stature but very skilful, he was a really promising underage player, spending three years as a county minor and another three as U21.
He never quite made the senior grade so I was a little surprised to see the county board statement on the new appointments suggesting that he was part of the county senior panel over a seven-year period. Even the board’s own archive lists the Sarsfields man on the county senior panel for just one year, 2002.
Anyway, he has since taken up roles as coach with the UCD Fitzgibbon Cup team and more recently with the Meath senior side. He’s very well liked and obviously Colm Bonnar hopes he’ll bring an element of freshness to the set-up.
It will be a new experience for Paul Curran when he re-joins many of his former team mates, this time in an entirely different capacity. As a player he really was (and still is) the warrior type, the type who would certainly enter the “bearna bhaoil” and encourage others to follow.
He had an outstanding Tipperary career and was seen within the camp as a leader by deed if not by word. I hadn’t realised that he’d dipped his toe in the coaching scene in recent years, being involved with O’Loughlin Gaels in Kilkenny and this year with Darren Gleeson in Antrim. He’s exactly the type of ex-player one would like to see getting involved with the county.
Colm Bonnar has made much of the divisional spread of his new backroom team. From an optics perspective I suppose it’s seen as desirable, though I wouldn’t overplay that particular angle. There was the odd rumbling about the northern dominance of Liam Sheedy’s backroom team, though I can’t see that it influenced selection. A divisional spread is certainly necessary at underage level but at senior the talent pool is pretty well-known anyway.
The hope now is that the new management team will find cohesion and structure in their efforts to re-energise Tipperary hurling. Colm Bonnar doesn’t see it as a rebuilding job and is anticipating an immediate return to the top. I don’t quite share the Bonnar-style confidence but I certainly hope in this case that he’s right and I’m wrong.
U20 manager Brendan Cummins too has finalised his backroom team with the addition of Shane Stapleton from Golden and Borris-Ileigh’s Martin Maher.
Finally, I assume the new managements will be interested spectators at the must-see game this weekend, which is the clash of Killenaule and Loughmore/Castleiney in a preliminary quarter-final. The corresponding game from 2018 should offer the South side some encouragement, though they’ll still be outsiders for this meeting.
The U19 final meeting of Sarsfields and St Mary’s will be interesting too. The general opinion is that Sars are red-hot favourites but these perceptions are there to be challenged if the underdog can find a way to ruffle feathers.
P.S. The handpass issue in hurling has certainly got a lot of publicity recently, especially since the All-Ireland final. Many prominent voices have taken up the cause and, apparently, it’s having some effect. I’ve even noticed recently some referees actually penalising the odd throw. I suppose you could call that progress of sorts.
Conor O’Donovan has been waging a very determined one-man campaign on this problem and there are signs that Croke Park is listening, with suggestions that the rules review committee is set to address the problem.
We await developments.

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