For Thurles Sarsfields it has been a week of rollercoaster emotions: from the high of their county final win to the low of the tragic death just six days later of their colleague, mentor and trainer, Jackie Griffin. Consideration of a Munster semi-final seems almost inappropriate in such circumstances yet that’s what faces the ‘Blues’ this week.
The club should be agog with excitement anticipating that Munster semi-final but instead all training is put on hold as they prepare to bury their colleague. There are suggestions that they may seek a week’s postponement of the game but at writing time there’s no confirmation of such a move so we can only presume that the match goes on.
It’s been an horrific weekend for the club. Jackie Griffin took charge of training on Friday night and again on Saturday. Shortly after the Saturday session news spread of the tragic accident which left the Sarsfields club and Thurles in general numb with shock.
He’d been a central part of Tommy Maher’s management team in recent years doubling as selector and trainer. In the latter role he was particularly close to the players who were left devastated by the news of his death.
Unlike some other clubs in recent years Sarsfields have stayed in-house for their backroom teams. Jackie Griffin was one of their own, a past player and dedicated Sarsfields man all his life. His late father, also called Jackie, ran a well-known business in the town. It was something of a landmark shop in Liberty Square for many decades.
As an army colonel Jackie was well placed to take charge of the physical preparation of the team and you get the impression that he was highly respected by the players. The loss to Sarsfields is immense though obviously it pales beside the personal tragedy for his wife, Tricia, and their three young daughters. They’ll have the deepest sympathy of all GAA followers at this awful time.
The tragedy overshadows the Munster semi-final meeting with Na Piarsaigh of Limerick, scheduled for the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday next. It’s a game of major importance for Sarsfields who have become the dominant force in Tipperary hurling in recent years but have still to make a breakthrough outside of Munster.
As a county our All Ireland club record is very poor. Borris-Ileigh in 1986 were the last to take national honours, which is a dismal record for a county with Tipperary’s tradition. Sarsfields made their Munster breakthrough in 2012, beating De La Salle in the final, but they fell disappointingly to Kilcormac-Killoughey of Offaly in the All Ireland semi-final. This year represents another chance of bettering that record and they seem very eager to push on after winning five of the last seven county titles.
There is a theory that Sarsfields will always struggle to win an All Ireland club title. As a team they seem more suited to summer action with plenty of light, skilful players whereas this championship has to be dug out in winter conditions. It’s the challenge they now face and ultimately the one that will define this generation of Thurles hurlers.
They face a really tough one in Na Piarsaigh. They’ve won three of the last five Limerick titles and gone on to take Munster on their two previous excursions outside the county in 2011 and 2013. They too look to progress beyond the province as their target this year.
If Sarsfields are well stocked with players of county experience then it’s similar with Na Piarsaigh in Limerick. From our perspective their best known players are Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes and David Breen, the latter struggling with injury recently. Then they have young guns like Ronan Lynch and Peter Casey, a young player whom many tip for future greatness. Overall they look formidable.
Besides the Limerick champions have the benefit of a quarter-final ‘away’ win over Niall Gilligan and Sixmilebridge of Clare. They trailed by nine points at half time in that game but kept their nerve and came storming back in the second half to top the Clare champs. They also faced adversity in the Limerick final, conceding four goals to Patrickswell, but out-scoring them on points. Such wins indicate a tough resolve in the side.
For all their known quality Sarsfields’ form in the Tipperary championship was a bit spotty, forcing their followers to sweat more than they’d have liked. They hit these purple patches but then seem to sit back and let the opposition rally. If they repeat that process against Na Piarsaigh their Munster campaign will be over. Sarsfields are marginal favourites for the game with the bookies. I’m not convinced. From my limited knowledge of Na Piarsaigh I think they could edge this one.
The one unknown of course might be the Jackie Griffin factor. After this week’s trauma will Sarsfields be able to regain focus quickly enough? Or will their trainer’s tragic passing be the spur to drive them on to something special? We’ll certainly hope for the latter.
In other club action it was great to see newly-crowned county intermediate champions, Clonakenny, advance in the provincial series with a four-point win over Portlaw of Waterford. Our newest senior hurling club is clearly on a high at the moment from the adrenaline of their county win over Sarsfields. Midfielder John Joe Ryan was the star of the show scoring eight points as they held off a late rally by the Waterford champs. John Costigan’s old club now faces Cork’s Newcestown in the provincial semi-final. Good luck to them.
Meanwhile in other issues we still await white smoke from Michael Ryan regarding his management team. An announcement was expected last week but was deferred; maybe it will happen before this appears in print. At this stage we must be the last county of significance to make an announcement after Davy Fitzgerald took the hurling world by surprise last week with his addition of Donal Og Cusack to his ticket.
You could view it as a major coup by Fitzgerald or an extraordinary gamble. They have hardly been buddies in the past so it will be fascinating to see how the chemistry plays out during next summer. Cusack has no track record in coaching at this level so there has to be an unknown element to the appointment. The Cork man is certainly high-profile though whether that will reap dividends with the Clare players will be interesting to see.
I suppose Clare is an attractive prospect at present with a young age profile and the experience of having won an All Ireland in 2013. They didn’t become a poor team overnight though the last two years have been something of a write-off.
It was always felt that Cusack would enter management at some stage though interestingly he wasn’t touted in connection with the Cork post. Perhaps his rebel past still makes him a little toxic for some established figures down Leeside?
Anyway imagine the scene next summer; a Munster final in Thurles, Kingston and Fitzgerald growling on the sideline, while in the background you have Frank Murphy in the Cork dug-out and Cusack in the Clare one – fascinating choreography. Then again on second though perish the idea; it would mean Tipp hadn’t made the cut in Munster.
Anyway with all this cross-fertilisation of personnel between counties one wonders if Michael Ryan will step outside the border for assistance? Answer please this week.