Loughmore's Evan Sweeney is challenged by Seosamh Ryan of Thurles Sarsfields during the drawn FBD Insurance county senior hurling championship final. Picture: Eamonn McGee
The Loughmore Castleiney story continues to grab headlines – or perhaps by now we should simply call it the John McGrath story. For a player who has struggled with his inter-county form in recent years, he’s having a remarkable impact on the club scene. The family sideboard must be overloaded at this stage with man of the match awards.
In all of it the double is still alive, its prospect enhanced by the dramatic football win last Sunday. There’s nothing like a major success to spur on a side to further effort. Not that this Loughmore team needs any added incentive in their bid to replicate the double of 2013.
Thurles Sarsfields have had more time to regroup and reassess their game plan ahead of Sunday’s much-anticipated rematch. By general consensus they were the more fortunate side to escape in the drawn final, even though it was Loughmore who hit the leveller at the end. Sarsfields’ bright start aside, it was Loughmore who had the better of three quarters of that game so there’s much for the Blues to rethink.
It has emerged since the drawn game that Paudie Maher was unwell going into the match and, of course, Ronan was hampered by a thigh injury. That may go some way to explaining performances that were not as dominant as usual. It also serves to underline the central importance of the pair to everything that works for Sarsfields.
It doesn’t, however, explain the poor displays of others who struggled. They could be grateful to Pa Bourke for rolling back the years and to Denis Maher for poaching those early goals. Otherwise too many of the side struggled to cope with Loughmore pressure.
Interestingly the betting odds have tightened since the drawn game. Sarsfields are now at 4/7 against 7/4 for Loughmore.
It will be fascinating to see what changes are made since the first game. By now Sarsfields should know that John McGrath is the central player who must be curtailed if they are to win. Michael Cahill tried to police him the last time but it won’t be a surprise if there’s a change this time, especially if Ronan Maher is in full fitness.
Replays often take on a different life to the drawn fixture and sometimes it’s the team that felt most hurt from the draw that steps up at the second attempt. Sarsfields have reason to be very unhappy with their game a fortnight ago but they now have a second chance to make amends. They’ll look for more from a host of players and will hope to eliminate a lot of the sloppiness this time.
The one guarantee with Loughmore is that they rarely deviate from game to game. So we know what they’ll produce on Sunday, but there’s less certainty about Sarsfields. If the Blues can correct the errors of the last day then they deserve to be slight favourites; if not then that amazing double is certainly on.
Meanwhile, Colm Bonnar has signposted his intention to search out new talent by resuscitating that old-time inter-divisional format, the Miller Shield. Last weekend the north was too strong for the south and the west just about mastered the mid in interesting games. The follow-up this Saturday sees a double fixture at Clonoulty, with west against north and mid versus south.
This Miller Shield (anyone know where the name comes from?) is a throwback to a former age when these fixtures were a regular feature. It was a different era with fewer club games and less exposure for players, in particular those from less prominent clubs.
Over time the series became redundant. It was seen to be just about as useful as a fifth wheel in a car. I’m not convinced that has changed, though obviously it’s useful for a new manager to be seen to be on the lookout for any worthwhile talent.
It was amazing the interest that was shown in these two fixtures last Saturday, especially the mid/west affair at Littleton, where a really decent crowd turned up. They saw a keenly contested game too, with the mid the early pacesetters but the west eventually wearing them down and edging the final score by a few points.
The north/south event earlier at Holycross drifted very one-sided by the end. The presence of some existing Tipperary panellists perhaps indicated that nothing can be assumed with the new man in charge. Past performance is no guarantee of future inclusion, though inevitably these things never start from a clean canvas.
I noted former Tipperary PRO and present Munster Council official, Ed Donnelly, tweeted his best fifteen from watching both games. He’s a shrewd observer of these things and I wouldn’t disagree much with his selection. It seemed a pretty accurate assessment of individual displays.
Moycarkey man Ed had a Moycarkey goalie, Rhys Shelly, on his fifteen. The two games, I guess, didn’t really test the goalies on duty. Shelly is a big hitter of the ball, finding his full forward line with some puckouts, albeit with a wind behind him.
Ed’s full back line had Johnny Ryan (Arravale Rovers), James Quigley (Kiladangan) and Diarmuid Ryan (Clonakenny). He opted for an all-west half back line – Dillon Quirke and Enda Heffernan (Clonoulty) and Eoghan Connolly (Cashel KC). Quirke is seen more as a forward but did play half back under Liam Cahill. I though Enda Heffernan had a really fine game for the west.
Cian Darcy and Ger Browne got the midfield nod, both with Tipp panel experience, and each now being looked to for evidence of progress. Darcy hit six points from play and Ger Browne slotted five.
Ed’s half forward line had Sean Kennedy (St Mary’s), Tom Stakelum (Killenaule) and Philip Hickey (Nenagh). Kennedy hit five points from play in his game against the north, which was a rich haul on a well-beaten side. Hickey showed major pace and hit two of the north side’s goals while Stakelum, a grandson of the great Pat, had a useful contribution also.
Finally, the full forward line had Dylan Walsh (Ballingarry), Darragh Woods (Holycross) and David Gleeson (Ballinahinch). Gleeson hit 2-4 for the north.
You could certainly build a case for some other players on view but Ed’s judgment is pretty sharp here – and it saves me the hassle of figuring out my own fifteen!
Finally, in recent weeks major changes have taken place in the format of the Tipperary championships, and with so many games hogging the limelight there’s been little space for comment. The two main moves were the rebranding of the Seamus O’Riain as premier intermediate and the retention of the U19 grade. These are moves that deserve to be noted and parsed.
The County Board’s management committee led the move to rebrand the Seamus O’Riain. The result of the vote here couldn’t have been closer, 43 to 41 in favour. If one voter had switched you had a tie, which I assume would have meant the status quo remained. They don’t get any tighter than that.
Some background is needed here. For years - decades even – there’s been a widely-held view that Tipperary had too many senior sides, many of them senior in name but not in standard. This year, for example, we had nominally 32 senior teams in the county but, realistically, only the top sixteen were deserving of the senior label.
Last year’s Congress then voted in favour of restricting club championships to just sixteen sides, which was the prompt for Tipperary to rebrand the Seamus O’Riain as premier intermediate, with the winners going forward to represent the county in Munster and All-Ireland competitions.
It’s a move that hasn’t won universal approval. The opponents see it as a mass regrading of sixteen teams from senior to intermediate by the stroke of a pen. There’s an emotional attachment to the senior tag which, unfortunately, at times leaves people blind to reality.
It’s no secret that our grading system was chaotic for years, and in fairness order was brought through a rigorous promotion and relegation process that sorted 48 teams into 3 groups of sixteen, based solely on merit. John Devane, from his time as chairman of the county CCC, takes major credit for seeing this development through. The result is three very even grades where teams are at their correct standard and, by general consensus, the competitions have been outstanding for the past two years.
The next logical move was to rebrand the Seamus O’Riain. In essence it alters little but the name. The teams will still be playing against the same opponents and playing at the same standard, only this time the winners have an avenue all the way to an All-Ireland as well as promotion to senior ranks. It makes perfect sense.
What makes no sense, however, was the County Board vote to retain an U19 grade instead of an U20 or U21. Of the three options the clubs made the worst possible choice. U19 is too close to U17 and then there’s nothing beyond 19 for developing players. It’s nonsensical and I’ll be surprised if there’s not a move for change.
U20 is the established grade at inter-county level and was the obvious choice here for this county to fall in line. There’s a rich irony here: the board was heavily criticised in the past year for not properly consulting clubs and giving them a say in changes; now you see exactly where that leads.
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