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Westside column 16th October. Sarsfields-Toomevara match preview

posted 12 Oct 2010, 01:15 by Unknown user
Westside column - October 16th 2010


There’s no doubt the highlight pairing in next Sunday’s county semi-finals is the clash of Sarsfields and Toomevara, the reigning champs versus their title-rich foes. It’s the older order versus the newer, the latest chapter in a rivalry that’s been dominated by Toomevara over the past two decades. By contrast the second semi brings novelty in the form of Clonoulty and Kildangan. Clonoulty haven’t been in the final since losing to Toome’ in ’98; not since the far-off thirties has Kildangan graced county final day.

While those semi-finals will be the on-field focus, off-field the big issue is the shock resignation of Liam Sheedy and his cabinet just five weeks after landing such a stunning All Ireland success. It’s unwelcome news at a time when Tipperary’s stock has never been higher. Tributes to the retirees have been deservedly generous. The search for replacements begins immediately. The championship draw for next summer has once again pitted Tipperary against Cork in a provincial quarter-final.

First to those semi-finals and that clash of the titans from Thurles and Toomevara. In a sense it would have been the perfect final but in any case it’s a pairing that’s certain to whip up interest at whatever stage of the series it happens. The rivalry between this pair has been the story of our domestic championship since the early nineties when Toomevara made the big breakthrough. The ‘greyhounds’ have been top dogs in every clash between the pair, apart from ’05 when Sars’ finally had their day. This surely is the one to decide if indeed a new order has been established in the county.

The raw statistics here don’t make pleasant reading for Sarsfields. The teams have collided ten times in the county championship since 1992 with Toomevara winning on eight occasions. There was one draw, the 1992 final, and Sarsfields solitary win over Toome’ was in the ’05 quarter-final. That was the year when Ger Cunningham finally convinced Sarsfields that they could do it. The ‘Blues’ then may be favourites on Sunday but there’s a lot of background baggage that will make them jittery defenders of the crown.

The truth is that in the modern era Toomevara have consistently found the knack to beating Sarsfields. Even after that ’05 breakthrough by Sarsfields the teams met again in the final of ’08 and guess what? Toomevara once more did the business to take their eleventh title in the modern era. It’s an incredible record, one that dwarfs Sarsfields’ two titles in the corresponding period.

For Sarsfields then this is the one they need to deliver if they’re to properly claim succession rights to Toomevara. Their passage to this semi-final as defending champions has been relatively smooth, re-taking the Mid from Drom and having a bit to spare over Loughmore in the ‘quarters’. They weren’t impressive in the Mid final but Sarsfields, like Toomevara, are a team that tends to find best expression in Semple Stadium in the latter stages of the county series.

The ‘Blues’ are certainly not short of big-name personalities. It will be interesting to see how they utilise Padraic Maher in defence this time, either at centre back as in the quarter or perhaps at full where his commission would be to ‘stalk’ John O’Brien. Michael Cahill is another noted ‘stalker’ whose real gift is for those man-marking assignments. In Michael Gleeson and Alan Kennedy Sarsfields have a smooth-striking pair who tend to get through volumes of work at midfield.

Up front Sarsfields have the colour personalities too. ‘Redser’ is still a potent force as we saw the last day when his greatest ally was Denis Maher. Lar Corbett often has less impact with his club than with the county but he’s still a menacing presence. Pa Bourke has been quiet enough in recent games but has the potential to inflict damage too. Johnny Enright’s main input is from frees and Aidan McCormack, ‘Redser’s’ nephew, is well capable of taking his scores if the chance arises.

Against all that there’s the old dogs from Toomevara. Terry Dunne, one time regular midfielder, now plies his trade at full back. He’s going for an incredible twelfth county medal this year; he was a fresh-faced wing forward when the clubs met in the draw and replay in 1992. He’s fronted by brother, Benny, at centre back, one of the best in the business at club level. Ken Dunne and David Young played midfield the last day while upfront they’ll once again call on the likes of the O’Briens, Willie Ryan, Francis Devaney and Michael Bevans to deliver the goods. Expect Eoin Brislane to make an appearance too.

Their last championship meeting was in the ’08 final. Toome’ have altered little since then, apart from the introduction of players like Darren Delaney and Andrew Ryan in defence. Sarsfields have seen a larger turnover including the departure of Liam Cahill and the arrival of the Kennedys from Clonoulty. Denis Maher has made the grade since then and overall I think Sarsfields are stronger now than in ’08.

It’s an intriguing contest. On paper Sarsfields look to have the personnel to do the job but always their past record against Toomevara keeps nagging at the edges. Any vote for Sarsfields then has to be a tentative one.

The second semi certainly has novelty; I can’t recall a past meeting of Clonoulty and Kildangan at any stage in a county championship though I’m sure I’ll be promptly corrected on that if there was a previous clash. The West champions will carry favouritism into this one but Kildangan will be happy with a draw that sees them avoid the big guns and gives them a real chance of making the final.

Clonoulty this year gave very mixed signals about their potential. Early on in the West campaign they looked a cut above anything else in that division. However, Kickhams nearly caught them in the semi-final and Eire Og gave them plenty of bother too in the decider. Even Burgess had them on the run early in the quarter-final before they finally found the gears to romp home quite convincingly in the end.

For further progress in this series Clonoulty will look to their attack for a more cohesive impact. There’s potential there if Conor Gleeson can get them to click. Timmy Hammersley carries a lot of responsibility but sharper form from the likes of John O’Neill and Thomas Butler would be a major fillip too. The return of John O’Keeffe to midfield is a major boost – he was quite influential against Burgess. Defensively James Heffernan and John Devane supply the spine, though some worry about their flanks especially if they get past Sunday.

I wouldn’t underestimate this Kildangan side. Remember they won a competitive North championship as recently as ’08 and even this year they came through their group stage unbeaten in the company of Nenagh, Portroe, Kilruane and Moneygall. They lost the semi-final to Toomevara by a mere three points. Besides they showed battling qualities in their last few games, holding their nerve when being trimmed by the Western combo of Sean Treacys and Galtee Rovers and then out-staying Swans in the quarter-final.

They’ve a solid half back line with Dan Hackett in the centre flanked by Gerry Slattery and Hugh Flannery who I seem to recall playing a game for the Tipp seniors up in Puckane some years back. Their midfield is useful too with Tommy Connors and Joe Gallagher, the latter a county U21 panellist this year and quite impressive in recent games. Darragh Egan is their best known forward but it was a guy called Cathal Hanrahan who did most to put Swans away in the quarter-final. Incidentally they’re coached by Dinny Ryan, ex-Newport and Tipperary player.

It’s certainly a promising double header at the Stadium then with Clonoulty fancied in the opener and perhaps Sarsfields getting a marginal nod in the highlight game.

Like a bombshell the hurling world was hit midweek with the news that Liam Sheedy and his management team had resigned en masse. It was enough to send the rumour machine into immediate over-drive. The conspiracy theorists had a field day. There had to be something sinister behind the story, it couldn’t be possible that the men who masterminded such a stunning defeat of Kilkenny had decided to step aside for such mundane reasons as work commitments. Isn’t it amazing how the obvious at times is so hard for people to accept.

Well despite all the prodding and poking by some it seems there is no background intrigue. There were rumours that Eamonn O’Shea would have a problem with work commitments and even last year there was speculation that Michael Ryan was reluctant to stay on board, so perhaps this outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected. One hoped that as the weeks passed since the All Ireland that no news was good news but unfortunately the big announcement was only held in abeyance.

Their collective decision does put the focus once again on the commitment needed at this level where a campaign is effectively hatched in the depths of November and carries through to the following September if you’re lucky to get that far. Three years of such intense involvement takes its toll and I suppose last September marked a pinnacle that could only be, at best matched in the future, never surpassed.

Anyway we owe them a debt of gratitude for three marvellous years during which they lifted Tipperary from the misery that was ’07 to the unbelievable heights of September 2010. I think Sheedy’s record will stand the test of time. A manager at his best is surely a facilitator, one who puts in place structures that allow the players to reach their potential. If you use that as a yardstick then Sheedy succeeded spectacularly. The team ethic was strong with everyone knowing their role and having the confidence of the manager to perform that task. Eamonn O’Shea was clearly pivotal but Michael Ryan too had his place and Cian O’Neill and all the other members of the team.

I admired too Sheedy’s dignity in the face of the venomous criticism that came his way, especially this year. It would have been easy to bark back but he held his counsel, was always gracious and dignified in interview and of course gave the ultimate response on 5 September last. He owes Tipperary nothing; he’s left the county in an immensely healthier position than that which he inherited and we will always remember the fabulous days he gave us, especially that day of days last September.

However, tide and time as they say waits for no man - or hurling team - so already our thoughts are turning to the succession stakes. There’s no timeline I’m told to appointing a replacement management. ‘We will select the right people in time rather than the wrong ones in a hurry’, was the answer I got on enquiring and it’s a philosophy I entirely endorse because this is a critical decision for the County Board. They hardly need reminding that they’ve got these appointments badly wrong on occasions in the past so it’s vital to get this one right. With such a talented panel at the moment and given the youthfulness of many of them it’s really important to manage the scene properly, otherwise we risk squandering a generation of outstanding talent.

Already thoughts too are turning to next summer with last week’s draw pairing Tipperary and Cork for the fourth year in succession. It’s not the best of draws for the All Ireland champs who ideally would have liked a bye to the semi-final, but you take what the dice throws at you and at least we’ll have Cork in Thurles this time. All in the womb of time as they say, whoever they are.