A novel county final pairing sees reigning champions Sarsfields as the hottest of favourites after their great ‘escape’ against Toomevara. For Clonoulty the mission is one of hope, hope for big deeds on the big day against their big-name opponents.
Being the champion club in a year of All Ireland success carries added distinction, the name forever linked with a glory year for the county. Sarsfields’ association with that All Ireland is assured through names like Corbett, Maher, Cahill and Bourke but I’m sure they’d love to cement the link by taking the Dan Breen in a year when the club looks set to dominate most of the major hurling trophies in the county.
For Clonoulty the landscape is somewhat different. Timmy Hammersley gives them a link to the All Ireland win and after dominating the West this decade they’d like, no doubt, to add now to their three county senior titles, the last of which was won in 1997. Few will expect them to do it, which psychologically isn’t a bad way to travel to Thurles.
Historically the clubs are poles apart with Sarsfields boasting a rich tradition that sees them top of the roll of honour on thirty titles against Clonoulty’s three. Interestingly there have been one hundred and eighteen previous finals and Sarsfields played in forty three of them. The corresponding figure for Clonoulty is seven. It means that Sarsfields have a seventy percent success rate in finals against a forty three percent strike rate for Clonoulty.
However, the past two decades have seen Sarsfields lose more finals than they’ve won, mainly against Toomevara, though there was that ’02 loss to Mullinahone also. It indicates that for all their high-profile names Sarsfields have been vulnerable; their record in the past two decades pales beside Toomevara’s.
It’s probably accurate to say that neither side has delivered full potential so far this season. They’ve both come through unbeaten from their divisions but they’ve stuttered along the way. Clonoulty needed extra time against Kickhams in a West semi and Sarsfields fell over the line against Drom in the Mid final.
Still Sarsfields have navigated their way through a more treacherous route than Clonoulty. The West champions have been very fortunate in a draw that kept them away from all the more fancied teams. For their part Sarsfields had to beat Drom – twice - in the Mid, followed by Loughmore and Toomevara in county quarter and semi-final respectively. That’s a far trickier passage than Clonoulty’s. After their West win Clonoulty faced North sides, Burgess and Kildangan, in the county series, neither of whom would be regarded as county contenders. Therein perhaps lies a slight worry for Clonoulty as they prepare for Sunday’s challenge.
Against that I’m sure Conor Gleeson will remind his Clonoulty charges of their last major clash with Sarsfields just two years ago when they took the Mid men to extra time in a replayed semi-final. The West team probably deserved to win the drawn game that year and again in the replay they were within a whisker until Sars’ got away in the extra time. A quick glance at the respective line outs from ’08 shows that while Sarsfields have altered quite a lot, Clonoulty remain very similar. I reckon Sarsfields will have about seven from the ’08 fifteen whereas Clonoulty will start with about twelve of the same players.
Of course one major difference this time is the inclusion of ex-Clonoulty players, David and Alan Kennedy, on the Sarsfields’ team, an aspect that’s bound to add spice to this encounter. The Kennedy brothers had their fall-out with Clonoulty before ’08 but didn’t transfer to the town side until last season. Liam Cahill was playing for Sarsfields in ’08 and this year they have ex-Clonmel player, Michael O’Brien, also on their panel. They seem to benefit more from the transfer market than any other club.
A major blow to Sarsfields this time is the loss of Ger O’Grady through suspension. Don’t underestimate his loss either because in the Mid final and again in the quarter-final against Loughmore he played a crucial role when Sars’ were struggling. Even in the semi-final he hit some valuable scores before seeing red. In his absence there will be greater pressure on the likes of Lar Corbett, Pa Bourke and Denis Maher to deliver the match-winning scores.
Sarsfields introduced Stephen Lillis and Ritchie Ruth to good effect in the semi-final and both must be in the frame now for starting slots. Michael Gleeson was very influential at midfield the last day and the likes of Padraic Maher, Michael Cahill and Kevin O’Gorman shore up the defence very effectively.
It’s against that defence that Clonoulty will hope for big displays by players who’ve been iffy so far this season. In the semi-final John O’Neill certainly looked to be regaining the old swerve but Timmy Hammersley needs a big one this time if Clonoulty are to have a chance. Tom Butler was impressive against Burgess but less so against Kildangan. Thomas Butler at centre forward could play a huge part this time if he can restrict the influence of Padraic Maher.
It should be an interesting battle at midfield where John O’Keeffe is in fine form for Clonoulty at the moment. Defensively I see a lot resting on the shoulders of James Heffernan and John Devane to anchor that division against an attack that can be very mobile and potent when moving well. I’d give Clonoulty an edge in the gaolie department where Declan O’Dwyer showed real class against Kildangan.
On form so far this year Sarsfields deserve to be red-hot favourites. En route to the final they’ve beaten three of probably the top five contenders whereas Clonoulty have got there against lesser opponents so one is unsure just how much they can lift their game. They’ll need to produce something vastly superior to what we’ve seen so far, though the absence of ‘Redser’ should narrow the odds somewhat. On balance you’d expect Sarsfields to still have enough to earn their thirty first-title unless Clonoulty can produce something spectacular on the day. Either way I expect it to be much tighter than some predict.
In other events the search is on for our new management with a club of nine charged with the onerous task of finding a successor to Liam Sheedy and his team. It’s a task the county didn’t wish for, but nonetheless has to be faced and, hopefully, got right. It will be the first county final day for years where we don’t have a management set-up in place but I suppose there are more important aspects here than speed.
At present it’s my understanding that the group is going through its wish-list and presumably eliminating those who eliminate themselves from the search. Given our successful profile at the moment it’s an attractive job at one level though on the flip side of that coin anything bar another All Ireland will represent failure for the new men. Donal O’Grady is probably the only manager guaranteed success in 2011 – Limerick have hit such a low ebb that upwards is probably the only way they can go.
Finding successors won’t be easy. When you pare away all the speculation and name dropping there are probably very few suitable candidates remaining. Cian O’Neill seems anxious to stay on as physical trainer and that much continuity at least would surely be welcome. In fact continuity is probably the key word for this task on the basis that if it’s not broken don’t fix it. I hope lessons have been learned from past appointments because the unavoidable reality is that we’ve got this decision spectacularly wrong in the past – in fact we’ve got it wrong more often than we’ve got it right, which is why I’m nervous about what will transpire in the next few weeks.
When Cork come to town next year for the first round of the championship they’ll be without Sean Og O’Hailpin following his enforced retirement last week. It’s always a bit untidy for the individual when he’s forced out like this at the end of a glorious career though I must admit to mixed views on Sean Og at this stage.
There was a time when Sean Og was known and admired solely for his hurling. As a player he definitely epitomised the finest of qualities that you’d like to promote in a hurler. He seemed to be a model of dedication bringing high levels of fitness and athleticism to the job and always delivered to the highest standard of sportsmanship. He was definitely a role model that you’d be happy any youngster should copy. His speech as All Ireland captain captivated people too.
However, I must admit that some of the gloss faded through the strike and his leading role in it all. This was an aspect that altered my admiration for the man. The debate as to whether or not he should have been dropped at this stage by Denis Walsh will, I suspect, be ongoing for some time – especially if Cork fail to impact next year. It was certainly a big call by the manager and the fall-out has revealed a lot of background noise in the rebel camp. It will be interesting to see if others follow him and if this decision has damaged Denis Walsh as manager.
Finally I was sad to hear during the week of the passing of Sean Mockler of Castleiney. Within the Tipperary GAA family there were few more popular characters than Sean. He served as Mid chairman and county football chairman and was well respected throughout the county. Over the years you encounter many GAA people, some friendly, some indifferent and others downright hostile. With Sean the friendliness was always to the forefront. There was a basic niceness about him that people liked. May he rest in peace.
PPS I wonder if Sarsfields are superstitious? In their thirty county final wins they’ve never won on a year where the last digit was zero. 1960 was smack at the heart of the club’s golden era but Toomevara caught them in that final. It was a defeat sandwiched between ten wins, five either side stretching from mid fifties to mid sixties. In 2000 they also lost to Toomevara and in 1970 Roscrea beat them in the final. I wonder will they be spooked by 2010 and the final on Halloween week?
PPS The senior final is being preceded by the O’Riain Cup final. I think it’s a pity the minor final has been denied its place on the big-day programme. Sarsfields have already won the minor. Facilitating colleges’ games is the stated reason for the change with tradition. I’m not convinced.