Those who had thought that Cork had seen the end of Newtownshandrum and their running game, a style that had so divided the county, were proved wrong yesterday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh – emphatically wrong.
Sarsfields were reigning Cork hurling champions, had powered their way back to this final again in imperious fashion. On the other side of the draw, however, Newtownshandrum too had been doing the business, Glen Rovers (twice), UCC and the Barrs all clinically put to the sword. Clearly then these were the two best teams in Cork, and by some distance; the question to be decided yesterday was, who was top dog? From a Cork hurling perspective, however, the bigger question to be decided was this – which style would come out on top, the traditional direct Cork style as favoured by Sars, or the much-derided possession-running game perfected by the north Cork club over the last decade?
Well, now we know.
This is a much-changed Newtown team from that which won the club’s first senior title back in 2000; Brendan and Pat Mulcahy are still there, still commanding the centre of defence, along with big Phillip Noonan on the wing; the O’Connor twins too are still running the show, but now both are in the attack, Jerry shifting to the 40 from midfield, Ben in the corner.
Outside of those, a host of newcomers, from keeper William Biggane to 17-year-old Jamie Coughlan at corner-forward. The style, however, has remained the same; if anything – now that they’ve had so many years in which to perfect it – it is now even more pronounced; short puck-outs, possession valued in every part of the pitch, balls passed then passed again until advantage is finally gained. And the running, the scorching, ground-devouring running, as support runner after support runner shows for the ball. Thus it was yesterday from first minute to last in the park, on another glorious autumn day for this glorious little club.
The signs were there early as Newtown, though playing into a stiff breeze, were two points ahead within three minutes, courtesy of midfielder Cathal Naughton and a free from Ben O’Connor after a foul on his brother, Jerry. Pace was what had created both scores, the searing run of Naughton for the first point, the speed of Jerry drawing the foul for the second, and the pattern was set. Sars came back, towering full-forward Michael Cussen opening their account in the 4th minute, and from there to the interval they stayed close to Newtownshandrum, trailed by just a point at the break, 0-10 to 0-9.
That scoreline told a false tale, however; despite the presence of Kieran ‘Fraggie’ Murphy and Tadhg Óg Murphy alongside him up front, dual star Cussen looked like the only scoring threat for Sars, and even at that he was being well marshalled by the experienced Brendan Mulcahy.
"All year long Sars were running up huge scores," said Jerry O’Connor; "We knew we’d have to be tight on them, but our backs have been playing well too all year, conceding very little." Outstanding they were, speedy Jerry O’Mahony superb in the left corner, captain Dermot Gleeson in control on the right, with Seán O’Riordan and Phillip Noonan forming almost a total barrier on each side of man-of-the-match Pat Mulcahy in the halfback line. It was left to veteran midfielder Pat Ryan then to do the bulk of the scoring for Sars, and all his five points in that first period came from placed balls. Newtown, meanwhile, were spreading the workload, young wing-forward Ryan Clifford especially catching the eye with a fine hat-trick of points.
With the wind to come on the changeover, it was looking good for the challengers, and thus it proved, almost all one-way traffic as the Newtownshandrum possession game really began to bear fruit. They notched 3-12 in this period, all from play, several scores worthy of any highlight film. Their second goal, from Jamie Coughlan, was the pick of the lot; taking a perfect pass from Ryan Clifford, Jamie burst forward, only one thing on his mind – his pace made the space, his shot was a rocket – 2-13 to 0-10 by the 39th minute. Game over.
"It’s four years since our last title and for the team we have, that’s not good enough – we have underachieved in the last few years," said Jerry O’Connor. "This one is sweet. The effort that was made this year – bringing in Cian O’Neill and Will McGuiness as trainers was the difference, and that’s not to take anything from our own lads over the years. The intensity was there at training every night, yet we were never tired afterwards, it was absolutely scientific, everything done for a reason, no bluffing – that’s the way hurling is going." That’s the way it was in Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday, everything Newtown did was done for a reason, the ball treated as precious, possession not surrendered easily.
It was a glimpse of perfection, a hint of what hurling could be like if every team had the same attitude as Newtownshandrum.
Scorers for Newtownshandrum: B. O’Connor 1-4 (0-2 frees); Jerry O’Connor 0-5; R. Clifford 0-4; C. Naughton 0-4; PJ Copse 1-1; J. Coughlan 1-1; John O’Connor 0-2; JP King 0-1.
Sarsfields: P. Ryan 0-5 (0-4 frees, 0-1 65); M. Cussen 0-4; G. McCarthy 1-0; R. O’Driscoll, K. Murphy, G. O’Loughlin, 0-1 each.
NEWTOWNSHANDRUM: W. Biggane; J. O’Mahony, B. Mulcahy, D. Gleeson (c); S. O’Riordan, P. Mulcahy, P. Noonan; PJ Copse, C. Naughton; R. Clifford, Jerry O’Connor, M. Bowles; J. Coughlan, J. Bowles, B. O’Connor.
Subs: JP King (M. Bowles 38); John O’Connor (Clifford 51); J. O’Herlihy (Noonan 60+1); E. O’Connor (B. O’Connor (60+1).
SARSFIELDS: A. Kennedy; R. Ryan, J. Barry, C. O’Sullivan; D. Kenneally, C. Leahy, D. Kearney; P. Ryan, W. Kearney; P. Barry, C. McCarthy, G. O’Loughlin; K. Murphy, M. Cussen, T. Óg Murphy.
Subs: G. McCarthy (P. Barry 38); G. O’Kelly-Lynch (D. Kearney 39); R. O’Driscoll (McCarthy 41); B. McCarthy (Leahy 52).
Referee: D. Kirwan (Eire Óg).