Autumn that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as the poet Keats so pleasantly described it, is a hectic one on the GAA pitches with club activity at its peak. Sarsfields failed to add the intermediate crown to their seasonal fruitfulness but now turn attention to a major target on their agenda with the visit of Ballygunner to Tom Semple’s field.
There’s no doubt our champion club sees this All Ireland series as the next horizon they must reach for. Periods of dominance within the county need to be underlined by success outside the border. Failure to do so remains a nagging regret up in Toomevara and Sarsfields won’t wish for a similar legacy.
Their mission begins with the Waterford champions coming to town on Sunday. Sarsfields will be fancied though they still have to convince the doubters about their All Ireland potential. Previous trips outside the Tipperary border have yielded just a single Munster crown in 2012 when they saw off De La Salle in a very frosty final at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. The subsequent loss in the All Ireland semi-final to Kilcormac-Killoughey lingers as an item of deep regret. St. Thomas’s won the final that year and coincidentally they are back as Galway champs this time.
Defensively Sarsfields look really formidable with a formation of inter-county standard. Perhaps they don’t have a specialist full back but the flexibility of players like Ronan Maher and Mickey Cahill means that they can cover any major threat that might appear at number fourteen. Paudie Maher is a real leader in the team and the deployment of Denis Maher at half back further strengthens that zone. Stephen Cahill is a really consistent performer at midfield and in recent games he was ably supported by Billy McCarthy.
However, it’s when you move to attack that questions arise. There’s no shortage of light-touch skill here but they’re not best suited to heavy winter hurling. In that regard the move of Denis Maher back to defence continues to surprise.
They face a Ballygunner side that came through comfortably in the end against Passage last Sunday in the Waterford decider – though not before having difficulties early on. On television it looked to be quite a hard-hitting encounter facilitated by lax refereeing. When you see one player on top of another punching and then grabbing the visor (a red card offence in itself) and pulling the helmet off before they both get yellow cards, then you begin to question the law enforcement.
Anyway like Sarsfields Ballygunner was completing a three-in-a-row so they too will be looking at new horizons. Their solitary Munster win came in 2001 when they beat Blackrock in the final. From a Tipperary perspective there’s no shortage of recognizable names on the Ballygunner team sheet, starting with goalie, Stephen O’Keeffe, who made one spectacular save last Sunday. The Mahony brothers are key players, with Philip anchoring the defence from number six and Pauric operating at half forward. Barry Coughlan is the other pivot in defence in front of O’Keeffe and then you have the O’Sullivans posing a threat further afield.
In one sense Ballygunner mirror Sarsfields as a team perceived to be underachievers outside their own county. Their manager, former Cork player, Denis Walsh, is keen to use that fact to goad them into action next Sunday.
The Deise champs lost last year’s Munster decider to Na Piarsaigh (who earlier beat Sarsfields) by seven points, which in the context of the Limerick champions progressing to win the All Ireland was a decent showing. Sarsfields are 15/8 favourites to win Munster this time with Ballygunner listed at odds of 11/2. So, an intriguing contest is in prospect. The winners will face the Clare champions, either Clonlara or Ballyea, in one semi-final with Patrickswell and Glen Rvs. in the other.
The completion of the intermediate championship last Sunday at Dundrum will free up some reserve players for Sarsfields. The ‘Blues’ came up short in this final for the third year in succession, an unwanted distinction, though on the positive side it does show a great depth of talent in the club when the second team is consistently vying for honours.
Newport have been threatening this breakthrough for a few seasons before finally hitting the jackpot this time. Earlier they lost the North final to Ballinahinch but obviously recovered, regrouped and peaked with perfect timing to take a first intermediate title in fourteen years.
It was quite a tussle at Dundrum with the issue staying in doubt right to the end. Newport had an early goal from Eamon McCormack and looked the better side in the opening period, going seven-up at one stage. All six of their forwards scored in that first half and eventually they took a five-point advantage to the break.
Sarsfields pushed hard in the second half but squandered a lot of chances. One sensed that the Mid side needed a goal and they came tantalisingly close near the end. Ex-senior, Mikey O’Brien, set up the opening but Kevin Dunne’s batted effort hit the goalie and the chance was gone. That incident came at a time when Sarsfields had momentum and the lead was a mere three points.
Then in the final tense minutes Darragh Carroll hit two mighty points from outfield to close out the win for Newport. There’s an interesting story around the same player. He played midfield for Limerick’s minors last September against Tipperary, scoring a first-half point in the All Ireland decider. Newport is his club of origin but the family relocated to Kilteely so you have this split loyalty playing club hurling in North Tipperary and opting for Limerick for inter-county. He’s a fine talent.
When Newport last won the intermediate in 2002 they held their senior status for just a few seasons before dropping down again. This time they’ve hopes of making a better impression with a team that’s youthful in most zones, apart from Conor O’Mahony who held the line at full back on Sunday, making one telling dash outfield in the second half.
One of their very best I thought was Odhran Floyd at wing back, a nephew of county secretary, Timmy Floyd, whose son, Conor, incidentally, patrolled the other wing. Centre back, Sean O’Brien, has been on Tipperary minor, U21 and intermediate panels while centre forward, Pa Ryan, son of ex-Clonoulty player, Cecil, has likewise worn county jerseys including this year’s U21. Of course midfielder, Cian Flanagan, was part of this year’s all-conquering county minor team, playing against his club mate, Darragh Carroll, in the All Ireland final.
Newport have others too who were on county panels. It’s always interesting when watching teams that one is less familiar with to check out how many of them have been part of county panels. It can be instructive because county panelists tend to have that bit more to offer than your average club player. Using that gauge, and based on their sharp form on Sunday, Newport look well set to take on the senior challenge next year.
For Sarsfields it’s desperately disappointing to taste defeat once again. I’m sure they’ll concede that they were second best on Sunday though it would have taken little enough to tilt the balance. Mikey O’Brien looked dangerous, especially in the first half, and Cian Treacy did well too from both play and frees. Corner back, Paul Maher, hardly put a foot wrong all day and looked one of their most accomplished. ‘Redser’ came on late in the day, too late to make any impact.
I’m sure the County Board would have liked if Sarsfields won because it would mean one less senior side in 2017. Against that Newport’s win means that the North division retains its huge quota of senior sides with the intermediate champs taking the place of relegated Moneygall.
I’m told there’s a move up North to try and change our senior structure for next season. They weren’t happy this time having to play a knock-out senior championship with some teams eliminated very early in the summer. Under present structures next year there will effectively be a senior hurling ‘B’ grade, though without the off-putting ‘B’ letter being used. It will involve Roinn 2 teams and will be called the Seamus O’Riain cup, a stand-alone competition with no route into the Dan Breen for the winners. Effectively it will mean next year that we’ll have a sixteen team county championship.
The North it appears is pushing the notion that the Roinn 2 group winners enter preliminary quarter-finals and, more controversially, that the bottom four teams in these groups all be relegated. Somehow I can’t see that idea gaining traction. It strikes me that the present structure is weeding out weaker sides and with the (whisper the word) ‘B’ competition you’ll have a much better realignment of teams. Anyway we’ll surely hear more in the months ahead.