Westside column – January 28th 2017

The draws for the county senior hurling championship, which took place at the Sarsfields’ Centre on Monday night, underlined the fact that we have a new championship structure in place for 2017.

In the past we’ve agonized over our large quota of senior sides, but this time, with a single stroke of ingenuity, the County Board has effectively relegated thirteen teams to ‘B’ status. In essence the 2017 Dan Breen campaign is a sixteen-team tournament with just an outside possibility that someone else might slip in under the wire as divisional winners.

Nominally the county still has twenty-nine senior hurling clubs but in reality only the top sixteen compete for the main prize with the remaining thirteen playing for the Seamus O’Riain trophy, which we can now unofficially label the senior hurling ‘B’ championship. The breaking of the link between the two sections was a sleight of hand, which caught clubs unaware, but, in truth, was necessary.

Anyway one of the big stories to emerge from last weekend was the announcement that Johnny Enright and Eoin Kelly have joined the Thurles Sarsfields’ management team. Former player, Enright, would hardly be seen as a surprise inclusion, even if he does live in Kildare, but Eoin Kelly’s first foray into team management certainly grabbed attention.

For Sarsfields it must rate as something of a coup to lure such a high-profile name on board. As a player Kelly was revered for his on-field exploits. Off the field, however, he is also regarded as a leader of men, a hurling thinker (careful with the spelling!) with a keen ability to read the game and inspire others.

What this appointment means for Mullinahone and Eoin Kelly’s involvement as a player seems unclear. Last year he got them over the line against Killenaule in the South final with a typical piece of brazenness at the end. However, his season ended badly in the county quarter-final against Clonoulty when a cruciate injury left many people wondering if we’d seen the last of a truly great player.

A few weeks back I speculated on Sarsfields’ need for something new, something akin to the arrival of Ger Cunningham back in 2005. It will be interesting to see if Kelly supplies that very spark to a club that’s really hurting since that late collapse against Ballyea in the Munster club series.

In the county draw Sarsfields were paired off with Kilruane MacDonaghs, Nenagh Eire Og and Carrick Swans. It’s a nightmare draw for the Swans. Remember how they were clobbered by Kilruane in a preliminary quarter-final last September and now having to face the might of Sarsfields and Nenagh as well is a scary prospect. On the plus side they don’t have to worry about relegation – for this season at least.

You’d expect Swans to struggle but the competition should be hot between the other three. Nenagh on their day will fell well capable of standing up to Sarsfields and Kilruane, with Shane McGrath on board, look like a team with potential even if they disappointed last autumn in a quarter-final against Killenaule. Perhaps Sarsfields and Nenagh will be the fancy to emerge from this group.

Group 1 looks very competitive too with Kiladangan, Borrisoleigh, Upperchurch and Loughmore facing off. On known form from 2016 you’d expect Loughmore and Kiladangan to emerge but I wouldn’t dismiss either the ‘Church or Borris’.

In group 2 Drom/Inch and Clonoulty will be fancied to progress at the expense of Portroe and Ballina. There’s an interesting match-up here in that Drom’s coach from last year, Sean Prendergast, is now in the Clonoulty camp.

Finally group 4 looks very even between Killenaule, Mullinahone, Eire Og Annacarty and Burgess. Mullinahone and Killenaule have dominated the South in recent years so on a given day that one could go either way. Annacarty slipped a bit in 2016 and Burgess look well capable of holding their own at this level. It’s probably the most difficult group to call, which is my excuse for opting out.

These sixteen teams will vie for Dan Breen with the top two from each group progressing. The top team in each section goes direct to quarter-finals with the second teams set up to play any divisional champion not already through. The chances of a team outside this sixteen winning a divisional final is slim enough.

The thirteen teams in Roinn 2 will play for the Seamus O’Riain Cup. There’s a lot at stake in this section with the two finalists winning promotion to Roinn 1 for 2018. There’s also a little matter of two bottom teams being relegated.

The Western Kickhams survived relegation last year and are in a tough enough group this time beside Holycross and Lorrha. Group 3 looks very even with Brackens, Borrisokane and Clonakenny in opposition. Templederry will be fancied in group 2 unless Moycarkey and Silvermines can upset expectations. Finally group 1 is the only four-team section and is probably the most competitive of the lot. Newly promoted Newport face Toomevara, Ballingarry and Roscrea. In all of this past performances may have no bearing on future outcomes, so we’ll wait to see what emerges once the action kicks off.

Speaking of kicking-off our county hurlers returned to combat last Saturday when they travelled to Portlaoise to play Dublin champs, Cuala. The club side won by a point in what was described as a lively workout. The All Ireland champions are probably some weeks behind other counties in their early season preparation but these things tend to even out after a few league outings.

In a goal-less game against Cuala Brian Hogan started between the sticks in front of John O’Keeffe, James Barry and Donagh Maher. Willie Ryan, Tossy Hamill and Paudie Maher manned the ‘forty’. Kieran Bergin and Daire Quinn started in the middle. In attack Noel McGrath, Sean Curran and Dan McCormack began on the half line with Aidan McCormack, Steven O’Brien and Niall O’Meara inside. Others such as ‘Bubbles’, John Meagher, Tommy Heffernan, Paul Flynn, Paudie Greene and Darragh Mooney also saw action

The Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups blast off this week and on a quick check of the college panels I note that seventeen of Michael Ryan’s forty-one man crew is involved in third-level action. It’s one of those added complications for a manager at this time of year. Some of those players will return quite quickly as their teams exit the college tournaments but others are likely to be missing until the end of February.

Incidentally UL is the pre-tournament favourite to win the Fitzgibbon and it has a strong Tipperary representation on its listed panel. Jason Forde, Barry Heffernan and John McGrath from the Tipperary seniors are involved as well as David Gleeson (Ballinahinch), Shane Hassett (Drom) and Paul Maher (Moyne). They have others like Tony Kelly (Clare) and Ronan Lynch (Limerick) also on board so you can see why the bookies have put them top of expectations.
Michael Breen, Seamus Kennedy and Billy McCarthy (Sarsfields) are with UCC who come in as second favourites just ahead of LIT and last year’s winners Mary Immaculate. The Fitzgibbon is an intense competition with teams close to inter-county standard and the end prize highly rated by all involved.

Speaking of end prizes the Harty Cup is heading for penultimate ties this weekend with an all-Tipperary semi-final billed for Toomevara on Saturday. Our Lady’s Templemore will be fancied to top neighbours Nenagh CBS in what should be a very keenly contested encounter. Templemore’s potential is well advertised at this stage but Nenagh less so. I saw them in their game against the Abbey, which I suspect wasn’t their best form. Since that game they put out Castletroy and De Le Salle so clearly they’ve picked up some momentum. Still, Templemore will be fancied and whoever wins let’s hope they complete the job in the final against either Midleton or Colman’s, who face off in the second semi also this weekend.

Finally there’s a new inter-county championship being launched by Munster Council. It’s an U25 hurling championship, the odd age confinement no doubt a source of puzzlement to some. Some context is needed by way of explanation.

Last year counties like Tipperary used the intermediate championship as a type of development squad for the senior team. It overlapped quite a bit with the U21s too so it was seen as a development vehicle for future seniors. This time the intermediate is being confined to players from junior and intermediate clubs only so the response of Tipperary and other counties was to withdraw from the competition. Cork is the only Munster county taking part. As a fall-out then the Munster counties came up with this U25 grade to replace the intermediate. You could argue about the twenty-five year barrier but obviously the logic is that potential future seniors will be operating within that bracket; also there’s a wish to avoid having ex-seniors dropping back after their senior careers end.
I would assume that U21 manager, William Maher, will again take charge of this group though that hasn’t yet been decided.

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