GAELIC GAMES: THINGS ARE different in Thurles. The
founding spot of the GAA and the home of hurling’s cathedral, you would
expect the club’s fingerprints to be all over any account of
contemporary club hurling history. Yet they approach tomorrow’s showdown
with De La Salle as novices. Not a provincial title to their name.
Toomevara have three Munsters, Roscrea have two, six other Tipp clubs have a title apiece but Thurles find that corner of their trophy cupboard is still bare. For a club with 31 county titles it suggests one thing, a tendency to punch below their weight in recent decades.
Thurles is different. The river feeds into tributaries instead of the other way around. The mighty underage operation which is Durlas Óg brings young players together from all over the town. Durlas Óg put those players on stream and polishes and buffs them until they are under-16 and ready for minor. Then the players choose between voyaging with Sarsfields – or as Lar Corbett puts it with genuine apology: “The other club”. Lar forgets the precise name but they are an amalgamation.
A quick crash course is therefore necessary. Pay attention. Durlas Óg came into being in 1979 to cope with what was perceived as a crisis in juvenile hurling in Thurles. Everybody who comes down to Páirc na nÓg gets good coaching. And then at 16 you choose a club. It was and is a great idea but it took a long while to percolate through.
For a while there were a handful of clubs besides Sarsfields to which a talented young fella might go to. The town was divided geographically. There was Rahealty, who long ago produced the great Billy Quinn, there was Kickhams and Fennellys.
A few years ago these last three merged and became Thurles KRF before morphing into Thurles Gaels. If you play with the Gaels there is no doubt you love your club and appreciate your hurling but to the outside world Thurles hurling is Thurles Sarsfields. Home of the big names. End of story. Lar Corbett, he whose mantelpiece groans under the weight of this year’s crop of personal awards, went down to Sarsfields at 15 or so.
Sort of a straggler, he had no family connections with the club and wasn’t much talked up about the place. He didn’t play minor for the county but in Thurles they could see enough in him that he made the senior team which got to the county final in 2000. But that’s another story for now.
The bad times didn’t end when Lar Corbett blossomed. Indeed at this point it might be convenient to examine why success came dropping so slowly in Thurles. They lost that county final in 2000. To Toomevara.
Always Toomevara. Sarsfields would have won an amazing 11 Tipp county titles in a row in the 1950s and ’60s, only Toome popped up in the middle of the run in 1960 to put a stop to it. They’ve been putting a stop to things since.
They did it in the 1992 county championship. They were the wet blankets on three out of the four finals which Thurles reached and lost at the turn of the decade. Mullinahone beat them in the other one. And in the 2008 county final who slapped Sarsfields until they woke up to find out they were having an old nightmare? Toome.
Toome were always quality. Thurles were forever embryonic. It went on eternally. This year, though, Sarsfields became men. Crossed the Rubicon. Grew up. They won a county championship by beating Toome along the way.
Lar laughs nervously at the mention. It is one thing to not remember the current moniker of the other Thurles club. Something else to bring down another dark era by denigrating or insulting Toomevara.
“Ah,” says Lar. “Any bit of luck going that day we got it. Pa Bourke got a last-minute 21 and scored a goal. It was pure luck. You look back over the years the players they have had, the Dunnes, the Brislanes, the O’Briens, George Frend, Phillip Shanahan, Tony Delaney and so on. They were great teams. They were serious. Say what you want, we just never won one.”
There were structures to be fixed. And then there was Toome to be stabbed through the heart. Success? The golden stuff came dropping slowly. Sarsfields won the county final in 1974 and had to wait 31 years to win again.
That slow. It took 30 years of the All Star awards for Sarsfields, the club of Tom Semple, Jimmy Lanigan, Tommy Doyle, Tony Wall, Jimmy Doyle, Mick “The Rattler” Byrne and others to win an award. Good boy Eddie Enright. Slow. The local CBS were ineffectual at Harty Cup level till 2008 when they reached the final. Slow but trickling.
Things are accelerating at last. Lar Corbett, All-Ireland winner, hurler of the year, Time magazine man of the year etc is at his peak. Pa Bourke, still wearing his next big thing tag even though other things have become big in the meanwhile, is a fine foil. And elsewhere they have that necessity for club success: confidence.
A minor title didn’t arrive in Sarsfields from 1973 until 1985 but they have added another six since then. When Lar Corbett arrived he went into a minor set up which won in 1999 and went on to win three in a row.
The club won the Tipp under-21 title in 2008, Thurles CBS won the All-Ireland colleges a year later. Suddenly there are a lot of fellas in Thurles who have medals that vouch safe their confidence.
“We beat Knockavilla Kickhams in Semple Stadium,” says Lar of his first medal, that minor win in 1999. “And it was the first thing I ever won. I was bad. I was bad but it made a difference to win.”
It made a difference and the process of Sarsfields regaining their self-respect continued incrementally. And they are on the verge of freedom in the Munster championships. They feel they own their history, a continuation worthy of the men who wrote the history.
“Everybody tries to prove a point and prove to themselves how good they are. Any team that wins any county final should want to prove themselves outside the county. Every match is huge for the club and huge for the town. We are putting ourselves up against the best club in Munster for the moment. That’s the way it should be.”
Confidence. Sarsfields are minor champions this year again. Not just that but Durlas Óg are under-16 championships this year, Sarsfields are still in the hunt for the under-21 title and they also won the county junior and senior titles. Thurles CBS played in their third Harty final in a row earlier this year.
Lar Corbett’s year continues. It started in January with Tipp and stretches and stretches. Hard work and graft. Those things got them dug out from under Toomevara’s mound of achievement. They make Lar’s impossibly long year stretch forward. All those thing have gone into making this year an epic. And next year is already whispering in Lar’s ear.