The build-up to the hurling league continued with Laois visiting Dr. Morris Park on Sunday last for a wind-blown friendly. A game of two very distinct halves saw the visitors in fine fettle early on with wind backing before Tipperary’s ‘second’ team took over on the turnaround. In the end it was another facile win, the final margin a whopping seventeen points.
I’m not convinced of the value of any of these January games but, sure, it’s all we have as we await the start of the league. By the time this appears in print we’ll have played Wexford midweek under lights in preparation for that league opener versus Walsh Cup winners, Dublin, on Saturday week. Laois have ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett, Brendan Cummins and Ger Cunningham on their backroom team; their front room men outplayed Tipperary in the first half to lead fourteen-six at the break.
Okay, the gale that was blowing their every effort towards the road goal was a major factor but they were also livelier and more inventive than Tipperary in that spell. A point each from Dan McCormack and Conor Kenny were our only scores from play in the opening thirty-five minutes.
It was another Tipperary line out that mixed the regulars with ‘irregulars’. Gleeson in goal was fronted by Joe O’Dwyer, Tossy Hamill and Mickey Cahill. Interesting to see Hamill in the full back role for a second day where he was again solid. That inner defence was never threatened with a goal breach as Laois opted for the aerial route instead.
At half back we had Barry Heffernan in the centre, flanked by Willie Ryan and Liam Ryan. I wouldn’t have seen the Nenagh man as a potential number six. He took a heavy frontal hit near the interval and seemed concussed. The Ryans did okay on the wings, Liam especially looked strong early on. Midfield had an interesting partnership – Noel McGrath and Michael Breen. Now there’s a contrast in styles. The Ballina man again looked useful putting in plenty of physical graft beside Noel’s more ethereal play.
At half forward we had ‘Bonner’ in the centre flanked by Dan McCormack and Seanie Ryan (Rodgers); the full line featured ‘Kiwi’ Morris, Conor Kenny and John O’Dwyer. It was a sector that made little impact into the gale.
Victory for Laois then in the opening half; we put out almost a new team for the restart; Goalie Gleeson and Conor Kenny were the only survivors. This time we had a more formidable looking defence: Barrett, Barry and O’Brien on the full line; Brendan Maher, Joe Gallagher and Paudie Maher on the half line. It was unusual to see Gallagher at centre back but he did well in the role. Overall that rearguard conceded a mere three points in the second spell; it was regularly the launch pad for attacking efforts at the other end.
At midfield Dylan Fitzell and Daire Quinn were busy contributors, both getting on the score sheet. The forwards then availed of the wind – and a visibly wilting Laois effort – to crank up the scores. Andrew Coffey, Jason Forde and Sean Curran were on the ‘forty’; the McGraths, John and Liam, flanked Conor Kenny inside.
The game’s only goal was created by a great Conor Kenny fetch; he laid off to John McGrath who drilled it home from the right corner. Liam McGrath ended with six points, four from play; cousin John ended on 1-2 from play. Jason Forde was influential too hitting four from play; Andrew Coffey hit three.
Just to complete the picture Sean Curran got injured in a collision with a team mate early on and had to be helped off by the medics. Kieran Morris came on but he in turn got injured later and was replaced by Willie Ryan. Dan McCormack returned for Conor Kenny and both Darragh Mooney and Brian Hogan got spells in goal but hardly warmed up given the one-sided nature of the second half.
So a game of two halves then, the first half selection being the unlucky one having to face into the storm.
Look, you take these games for what they are, which means avoiding definitive, dogmatic judgments. The real test will come on Saturday week when the Dubs come to town. Worryingly Seamie Callanan seems unlikely to be ready for the league opener.
Meanwhile we had a game of genuine merit on Saturday afternoon in Bansha. The Harty Cup semi-final turned up a real cracker as Our Lady’s Templemore eventually tamed De la Salle in extra time.
Listening to a radio report on the way home it all sounded very ordinary and unremarkable. It wasn’t. This was a great spectacle full of high-drama as two wholehearted and honest teams locked horns in a battle that ebbed and flowed to the very end.
Templemore were significantly better that the Waterford side but yet could so easily have lost this encounter. They dominated the second and third quarters of the game but could only manage a seven-up lead. Missed goal chances and a litany of wides – eighteen in the game – left them vulnerable and they got hit with a sucker punch.
De Le Salle’s blocky full forward, Thomas Douglas, looked menacing all day. Now as the game careered down the home straight he left his mark with a brace of goals. Templemore’s lead was wiped. De La Salle hit the front and went three-up as the tie drifted deeper into added time.
Another De La Salle clearance brought a joyful cheer from their supporters who thought it was the full time whistle. It wasn’t. One last play was flagged – a line ball to Templemore. Drom’s Kevin Hassett took the ‘cut’. He lofted it towards the Waterford posts where Loughmore’s Anthony Ryan met it sweetly overhead for an old-style goal. At the ‘death’ Our Lady’s had saved the day; the game was going to extra time.
It was a fortunate reprieve for Our Lady’s coming four minutes into added time despite three additional minutes being signaled. And yet they should never have been in that predicament. After an even enough opening quarter Templemore took control to eventually lead seven-four at the interval. It might have been better if Lyndon Fairbrother’s batted effort hadn’t gone the wrong side of the post.
Still Templemore were looking the better side driven on by defenders Diarmuid Ryan (Clonakenny) at full back, Bracken’s Tom Murphy at five and Brian McGrath at six. They had a busy Bracken’s pair at midfield in Paddy Cadell and David O’Shea. Drom’s Steven Nolan was doing well in attack as was his club mate Paul Bergin and Loughmore’s Anthony Ryan, the team captain. Their go-to attacker, Lyndon Fairbrother, was more subdued as De La Salle played a sweeper in defence. Templemore continued their dominance in the third quarter but once more failure to put away goal chances left them vulnerable to De La Salle’s late onslaught.
The key score in extra time was Our Lady’s second goal. Full forward Jerry Kelly (Borrisoleigh) did well to hold possession before kicking to the net. His earlier substitution had been questionable on a day when you needed bustling players to hold the ball in attack. His goal gave Templemore an advantage that De La Salle could never peg back though the game remained nervously tight to the very end.
Earlier in extra time Lyndon Fairbrother missed another chance to ‘nail’ this game. The Tipp minor did very well to fetch a high one, slip inside his marker, but then saw his point-blank shot saved by goalie, Ronan Ryan, from Piltown. It was either a great save or a bad miss depending on your perspective.
Anyway all was well that ended well for Templemore. They now drive on to a final on February 20 against Ardscoil Ris. The Limerick school scraped past Colman’s in the other semi-final on Saturday to set up what many were predicting for some time would be the ultimate showdown. After Thurles’s great win lasts year it would be fantastic to keep the famous cup in the county for another year – and let the Templemore heroes of 1978 fade into the background.