Eight Left Standing..
In what seems like no time at all we have arrived at the quarter final stage of our county championships. It is early September and schools have reopened, evenings are closing in and the air is decidedly chillier than a few weeks ago. Aren’t we supposed to be in All Ireland mode, Croke Park, the hunt for tickets, the search for an affordable hotel bed in the capital. Garth Brooks filled that void for some poor souls in recent days but for the non-stetson wearing proportion of the population, it is an itch that isn’t being scratched.
The split season means that a long overdue parity of esteem is being conferred on the clubs and the club player, those who constitute the lion’s share of the GAA membership but whose season used to be shoe-horned into the back end of the calendar year. Dark nights, wet and cold grounds and soft pitches used to be the norm for the latter stages of the Dan Breen Cup. Not so anymore. Now we have even enjoyed Friday evening games in Thurles, Sunday afternoons in short sleeves and dry hard ground on brown crisp grass. Yes, there is a dissonance to it all and it takes a bit of getting used to.
But it is a good and worthwhile initiative. Not perfect but well worth an experiment.
Some clubs are continuing to have difficulties with players away and understandably so. After two years of confinement, young people are enjoying the use of their passports again and hanging around for a few club championship games is a hard ask. That said, the certainty that the new format has brought in terms of fixing matches allows people to plan. Plan weekends away, stags, hens, weddings even. It may seem quite ordinary for some but this is an extraordinary season.
Games are not coming one on top of another. Only juvenile games are being played mid-week.
Players are getting a chance to recover and plan for their next championship outing. It is all very new and in some ways quite radical. It says much about how things used to be organised that such trivialities such as removing fixture congestion and allowing players recovery time is seen as a radical move.
And in a further example of how different and strange the season is, Thurles Sarsfields are out of the championship. They have finished their hurling season in September. Clonoulty Rossmore brought the curtain down on Sarsfields’ season last week in dramatic fashion. A late Stephen Ferncombe penalty for Clonoulty earned them a two point win and last year’s beaten finalists and the side that won the Championship six times in the last decade are out. Also finished hurling for the year are Nenagh Eire Og. The North Tipp champions had their season curtailed by JK Brackens last weekend.
The Mid Tipperary champions making the quarter final for the very first time. New year, new faces, new format, new stories. Wisper it quietly around Thurles and Nenagh but it’s all turning out rather well.
So, four quarter finals to be played and it is anyone’s championship now. First out of the hat during Monday’s nights draw was Drom-Inch versus the current champions Loughmore Castleiney. Drom have been going about their business in a highly efficient manner this year. Three wins from three in the group stages without looking like dropping points at any stage. And remember this was a group
that included Sarsfields and Borris-Ileigh. For their part, Loughmore have yet to get going this year.
Understandable perhaps considering their injury list. But with only one win in the group stages they will not have the favourites tag on them when they face their mid Tipp rivals next week. And isn’t that exactly how they like it in Loughmore? These two sides met earlier this year in the opening round of the Mid Tipp championship with Drom prevailing that day. Added intrigue in this fixture is all the first cousins that will be playing against, nay probably marking, each other. Campions versus McGraths. Form goes out the window when Loughmore get to the knockout stages of the Championship and one thing is for certain, Loughmore know how to win. But Drom have been so impressive already this year that it is hard to make an argument against them. Absolutely a case of either side can win this quarter final and both are acutely aware of that.
Kilruane MacDonaghs were one of the top seeds having topped their group and will face Toomevara in the second quarter final. MacDonaghs are a bit of an enigma for me. Brilliant players who can perform at the highest level but who, on occasion, just fail to get a tune of the team. Take the group stages for example. They defeated Moycarky and Clonoulty but lost to Nenagh. This was a Nenagh side that lost to Moycarky and whose championship is now over. Does that tell us something about Nenagh or about MacDonaghs? And for all their super players, they only have a recent North Championship to show for it (2018). Toomevara survived the controversial moment against Mullinahone in the opening round to qualify in second place in their group having only won one game. No longer the powerhouse of old, they remain a legendary force in North Tipperary. The fact that so few of their current players have a senior championship medal (maybe only David Young and Joey Moloughney?) tells you how lean recent years have been for Toom but they are still Toomevara. And a win over their North rival, however improbable on paper, would not be jaw dropping.
The quarter final that throws up most intrigue is the clash between Upperchurch Drombane and JK Brackens. The Templemore side are in their first ever quarter final having won their first ever Mid Tipp senior championship just a few weeks ago. They are a club on a journey, in both codes. Near neighbours Loughmore have written the blueprint for how a club can be successful in both codes at senior level if it wants to be. And Brackens have the look of a team that are tired of seeing successful neighbours hog the limelight. They have reached the quarter final stage in both senior football and senior hurling with largely the same bunch of players. Speaking to me last Monday night on Extra Time, Eamon Corcoran was sanguine about their season to date and quickly putting me right when I asked him about preparing for the Upperchurch game; reminding me that they had to prepare for a football quarter final first. Against? Upperchurch Drombane. So it seems that the Loughmore blueprint is being replicated by more than one club in Mid Tipperary. Upperchurch are also having a super year, reaching the mid semi-final, dispatching Sarsfields along the way, before succumbing to eventual winners Brackens. They topped their group with three wins from three, and have married the demands of senior hurling and senior football as well as others. The fact that these two teams know each other well from the mid semi-final and will also face off on successive weekends in senior hurling and senior football quarter finals makes for an intriguing subplot. Sometimes familiarity can add spice to contests especially when repeat meetings are guaranteed. We are in for quite a series between the Church and Brackens. And it may finish one-all.
Finally Kiladangan will face Clonoulty Rossmore in the last of the quarter finals. Kiladangan are the bookies favourites for the Dan Breen Cup and I fail to understand why. I say them play Loughmore in the opening round and was anything but impressed. Indeed that was a game that Loughmore should have won before Kiladangan forced a late draw. Three teams from that group still survive in the championship which perhaps tells us that to top such a crowded field must add to Kiladangan’s championship credentials. Their win over Bracken’s in the group stages possibly being their best performance to date. Their opponents Clonoulty have been through an unmerciful time. The loss of Dillon Quirke reminds us of the fragility of life and how unimportant a lot of what I have written this week really is. But Clonoulty are a spirited side, with Dillon’s spirit coursing through them. Will that be enough, who knows. They are regular visitors to the quarter finals, I cannot remember them not being around at this stage in the championship. Their win in 2018 was memorable but a great number of that team have moved on. They are more youthful now but still have seasoned campaigners like John O’Keeffe pulling strings. For their part, Kiladangan know that there is more than the one county title in their current side and the smash and grab win in 2020 will have to be backed up with another. Clonoulty have another force with them this year that can be a wind at their backs or a weight on their shoulders. Only they themselves know. Another intriguing contest, the fourth from four.
So the split season has brought us here. At the quarter final stages in hurling and football. Our senior hurling champions will face Ballygunner of Waterford in the Munster quarter final. Ballygunner were crowned Waterford champions last weekend and will have to wait a full eight weeks before lining out again in the provincial championship. What was the rush in Waterford? The Tipperary senior hurling final is scheduled to take place on Sunday October 23rd which will allow the winners two weeks to prepare to face Ballygunner. The Waterford side will have been waiting four times longer.
How that will affect them will be evident in November. But as we enjoy our hurling championship in Tipperary the grounds in Waterford are empty and the place is silent. What was the rush Waterford,
what was the rush?