Sars Face Stiff Test In Champions Opener
Domestic issues settled, the respective county champions turn from celebration to pursuit of an external target. For the second time in three years Sarsfields must go to Kilmallock. A victory there in 2010 led to a Munster final loss to Waterford’s De La Salle. Quest for a first provincial title will certainly demand their best - maybe better than was needed to prevail in the home issue.
Tipperary’s record in these competitions could stand improvement, both in the Munster sector and in the bid to reach St. Patrick’s Day. None of our representatives has got to the high profile climax since Toomevara lost to Galway’s Sarsfields back in 1994. All those who won out have been from the North Division - Roscrea in the initial year of 1971, Kilruane in 1986 and Borrisoleigh in 1987 (the dates being relevant to the finals rather than the County victory). Loughmore have been our last Munster winners, preceded by Toomevara - defeats by Portumna and Ballyhale Shamrocks ended those campaigns at the semi-final stage. Cashel fell to Kiltormer in a second replay in 1992; Moycarkey-Borris to Lochgiel in 1983, also at the penultimate hurdle. The Antrim club are current holders, illustrating the fact that county strength may not be reflected on the club front.
The Blues’ fortunes have fallen well short of ambition in their three defeats since entering the event - twice to Newtownshandrum and once to De La Salle, and none of them favoured by the “breaks” of the day. A sparkling first half at Pairc Ui Chaoimh was eroded in the 2005 season, with “Newtown” full-back Mulcahy leniently treated for a bad foul on Ger O’Grady in the second period. Even more galling was the 2009 outcome against the same club - a late, late free for a likely Pa Bourke winner being cancelled for a throw-in that broke to the opposition for a one point margin. That was the day Denis Maher had a personal outstanding hour in pointing repeatedly. A sadly similar loss was suffered to De La Salle a year later in the only Munster final so far reached by Sars.
They are now faced with a testing opener on away ground - the venues go according to County rather than club history of previous meetings. So all roads, as the saying goes, lead to Kilmallock. Not very directly, either - no motorway eases the route via Tipperary, Emly and Lattin! The venue used to be utilised quite a bit for college fixtures. It was there, too, that Borrisoleigh twice met Midleton in 1983. Noel O’Dwyer had levelled the first game after a Kevin Hennessy goal had put the Cork club ahead. The replay repeated the terrific tempo of the first, with “Borris” poised for success till a highly debatable penalty gave Hennessy the crucial opportunity to reverse the position. A hard to take defeat at a time when Tipp. hurling needed a boost.
That’s hardly the case right now in provincial context at any rate, but the Blues, with a familiar home title secured, will feel like making an impression on the wider scene. Predecessors Drom-Inch did not survive an away trip to meet Ballygunner a year ago, and Sars can be sure of all out effort on the part of Kilmallock on their own tight pitch. Soft it is apt to be, too, as it was in 2010, when the teams were not allowed to warm up on account of the conditions! Kilmallock are there after deposing Na Piarsaigh, last year’s Munster winners and Adare, whose CV includes a 2008 victory over Toomevara. Limerick club hurling is very competitive indeed. The 2013 Munster draw has, of course, pitted us against them, and at the Gaelic Grounds, so Sunday’s club encounter is an advance instalment of the rivalry.
The 2010 game went to Sars 2-10 to 0-11 but was closer than five points might suggest. Level at half time, it swung Sars way on a Lar Corbett goal in the third quarter and more so on an O’Brien one off a Denis Maher run through about ten minutes from the end. Very influential indeed were both Aidan McCormack and Michael O’Brien when introduced for Barry O’Dwyer and Alan Kennedy. It took a grand defensive display to keep a clean sheet on the day, with Padraig Maher dominant in the centre. Michael Gleeson was a tireless midfielder, he was also a key winner and provider in the County final that secured their visa to the current level. The loss of Stephen Lillis is another difference in their roster as compared to two years ago.
The most notable absentee for Kilmallock will be Andrew O’Shaughnessy. The former All-Star forward has in the meantime had an unfortunate health problem that rules him out for County and club. They have a capable centre back in Gavin O’Mahony and a potent attacker in Graeme Mulcahy. Curiously, Graeme racked up 3-13 against Na Piarsaigh but did not feature in their 1-15 against Adare. A Jake Mulcahy goal was the big lodgment in the final. Eoin Ryan moved from wing to full-forward to good effect in that game - he is quite likely to start in the inside berth. Their coach, Tony Considine, is well respected and has experience going back to the Ger Loughnane era in the best years of the Banner. Among his other posts was that with Burgess. No doubt he will have been taking notes at our County final.
All in all, this outing is sure to be a furiously contested one. Home advantage must count for something in terms of confidence and of purpose. Sars will be looking for Lar Corbett to be more in the thick of things than against Drom-Inch, and for tighter marking in the inner defence than that which nearly cost them a potentially disastrous third goal. This leaves a heavy burden on the half line to cut off the supply to the maximum extent - Padraig sure to be central, in several senses. Room for slick inter-passing among the forwards may be more limited on the confined pitch. Eyes will be on final star Aidan McCormack in particular, while Pa Bourke’s County status will make him an important figure too. The Blues will need their concentrated best to qualify for a semi-final against their Cork namesakes.
Some notable things happened on the local scene at the weekend, not least the victory of Moycarkey-Borris in the County Intermediate football final against the ‘Church. This elevates them to senior grade next season. They have reached that level previously - in 1980, I believe. Moving into a different sphere - or at least a bigger ball - be a second interest.
Holycross - Ballycahill have gained a substantial boost also in defeating Sarsfields at Littleton and taking the Mid minor hurling title against a side containing a Tipp. All-Ireland winning element.
Late Michael Small
Michael Small spent a career in the classroom. It was there, too, that I first knew him - with him in the role of pupil and myself as the nominal - at least - person in charge. His father, Bill, had been known as a selector on the Tipp. minor team that famously - or notoriously - got ambushed by Dub lin in the 1946 All-Ireland final. Bill had gained hurling prominence as a defender on the Dublin side of 1924 that won the All-Ireland against holders Galway - he had Tipp. company in Bob Mockler, Tom Teehan and Tom Barry. Teaching was in the family tradition.
Young Michael was a bright and lively lad with a ready smile and a roguish eye. The sense of humour stayed with him, and never failed to emerge when you met him. In “Borris” he had a natural environment for his sociable personality and he became a popular citizen of that sporting centre. As a Thurles and a Sarsfields man he had become a youthful Hon. Sec. to the Blues. Though still hardly thirty years of age he went on to become Mid Division Chairman 1973-76. Aspiring, as he said at their Convention in January 1977, to higher things, he stood for the County and gave Hubie Hogan a good run for the top position - the voting was 99 to 84.
Well known and well liked for his cheerful manner, reports of deteriorating health evoked widespread concern and sympathy over recent months. He bore it bravely but time was called last midweek. The massive turn out for the obsequies spoke eloquently of the general sense of loss at his passing. I share it with sadness and with good memories.