Portlaoise housed the last major hurling final of the year on Sunday. Appropriately, perhaps, Kilkenny’s Ballyhale Shamrocks collected their eight Leinster title with an extra-time win over Offaly’s Kilcormac-Killoughey. In hurling terms it’s been Kilkenny’s year – yet again.
There was a Tipperary connection to the win with Andy Moloney managing the team and Colm Bonnar coaching, though I doubt if there were too many glasses raised in cheer this side of the border.
Ballyhale’s record in this championship is incredible. Before Sunday they’d won seven Leinsters and five All Irelands, which means when they get out of Kilkenny they tend to go all the way. A semi-final clash now with either Portumna or Gort should be a February highlight.
They needed extra time to pull away on Sunday and, similar to the drawn All Ireland in September, they could have been undone by a late free at the end of the initial hour, one which dropped short. Free-taking proved costly for the Offaly champs who otherwise were more than a match for their big-name opponents.
Incidentally I didn’t think that Shefflin had as critical an impact as some reports suggested. A few trademark points certainly caught the eye but he was anonymous for a lot of the game and showed up best in the extra-time when Offaly’s high-energy effort had run out of steam.
Reflecting on Ballyhale’s achievements in this competition set me thinking about our own miserable record in the club series. Roscrea won the inaugural club championship back in 1971/72 but only two other Tipperary clubs have matched that deed: Kilruane in ’86 and Borrisoleigh in ’87.
It’s an abysmal record for a county of our hurling tradition. By contrast Galway boasts thirteen titles, with Cork on eleven and Kilkenny on ten. Even Offaly outshines the premier county thanks to Birr’s four All Irelands.
These are statistics that must raise serious issues about our club championship. Since Borrisoleigh beat Rathnure in that 1986/87 final we’ve rarely even got close to honours. Toomevara in their golden era from 1992 to 2008 harvested an amazing eleven county titles – but no All Ireland. They got close twice. In the ’05 final they lost out narrowly to Sarsfields of Galway on a day when corner back, Paul Meagher, was harshly sent off. That was a missed opportunity.
They missed the boat tantalisingly again in February ’07 when losing a semi-final to Ballyhale Shamrocks. They were without John O’Brien that day and had Tommy Dunne sent off. Isn’t it significant that dismissals cost them on both occasions; discipline is important in the chase for glory? Not reaching the Promised Land during that great era must be a nagging regret for the ‘greyhounds’. It also reflects on Tipperary club hurling.
Other than Toomevara I suppose Cashel K.C. were close to the peak in early 1992 with those epic games against Kiltormer. The Galway champs eventually got through and coped comfortably with Birr in the final. It could have been Cashel.
Thurles Sarsfields have inherited Toomevara’s role as Tipperary’s premier club but are they any closer to ending that long All Ireland famine? Sarsfields have won five of the last ten Tipperary championships but their record outside the county is poor. They did win a Munster title in 2012 but then fell to Kilcormac/Killoughey in the All Ireland semi in early ’13.
Given the age profile of the Sarsfields team they should secure many more county titles in the years ahead but ultimately, like Toomevara, their place in history will be judged by their Munster and All Ireland record.
I certainly hope Sarsfields reach that All Ireland peak in future years but I won’t be putting money on it. To win this All Ireland you need to be able to play winter hurling and Sarsfields are ill-equipped in that regard. Would they survive in the type of physical battle we saw last Sunday between Ballyhale and Kilcormac? I doubt it. Their hurling is a bit lightweight for the heavy demands of a dirty winter’s day.
In a sense Sarsfields’ problems reflect the character of our hurling generally. Our club games can be loose and free-flowing with plenty of skill but without the physical intensity you get elsewhere. As a consequence we tend to prize players with first-touch delicacy ahead of the sometimes unorthodox physical grafters. Would Kilkenny’s Aidan Fogarty have made the grade in Tipperary? I suspect someone along the line would have sent him away to change his grip.
However, maybe change is in the offing. Most of the new boys invited onto the block in recent weeks by Eamon O’Shea and company bring physical heft so perhaps the focus is shifting.
We need a shift too on the broader issue of our club championships and their chaotic structures. Two weeks ago the County Board met to consider a whole series of proposals relating to our structures but nothing happened. Delegates were told that we’re stuck with the present format until 2017.
Incidentally Croke Park appears to be pushing ahead with this proposal to complete the All Ireland club championships in the calendar year. Spreading it over two years is seen as untidy and unfair to the participants whose season is extended by up to three months into a brand new season. Mind you it’s a problem I’m sure Kilcormac and others would love to be facing this week.
In order to accommodate the calendar year idea there’s the suggestion to bring the All Ireland finals forward. Isn’t the club timetable under enough strain without adding this further restriction? It seems like a classic example of penalising everyone in order to accommodate the few.
In other news J.J. Delaney has joined that growing list of retirees which undeniably leaves Brian Cody with some defensive rebuilding for 2015. While others who’ve headed for the exit had become peripheral, Delaney was still a core cog in the overall machine. For one who was arguably a better wing back he certainly established a fearsome reputation on the edge of the ‘square’.
I liked Seamus Callanan’s tweet about he being an animal in the air – and not bad at hooking either! Here in Tipperary we’re unlikely to forget a couple of individual items from Delaney in the last two years: his interception of Eoin Kelly’s goal-bound shot down in Nowlan Park last year; and that hook on Callanan in this year’s All Ireland replay. You could argue that both were match winners.
Cody won’t easily fill the gap he leaves, though Joey Holden looked comfortable and capable in that role in Sunday’s Leinster club final.
If there’s a gap in Cody’s defence then I’m afraid there’s a gaping hole left in Cappawhite GAA following the passing of Johnny Breen. The name might mean nothing to outsiders because he wasn’t one who ever sought office or publicity. However, his contribution to that club over many decades was immense.
For me he was the quintessential GAA man, the one who loaded juveniles into his car, bought the crisps and minerals and did anything that was needed to keep the show on the road. The tributes to him have been heart warming. As one said, whether you were brilliant or brutal you were the same to Johnny who cherished everyone. His type represents the very heart beat of the Association, the type every club needs and so few have nowadays. A bachelor, he was wedded to Cappawhite GAA. They owe him a huge debt. May he rest in peace.
Finally, Johnny’s obituary wasn’t in time for the latest edition of the Tipperary Yearbook, which hit the shelves last weekend. It’s the usual compilation of all the key events from 2014, a year that failed to deliver any significant silverware at inter-county level.
All the usual, familiar stuff is there for perusal over the Christmas season. For me it’s a significant one as reviewer of the senior hurling year, a job that was so ably done by John O’Grady for almost fifty years before his health forced him to step aside. Not easy to try and fill those boots.