Every semi-final ever played has a double life.
All those classics contested in order to feature in a final have a doppelgänger which didn’t sparkle quite as brightly. Disappointing semi-finals often have a parallel existence on the other side of the draw, the great game which grows in stature because of the contrast.
On Sunday the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick had a bit of that dual identity going on, because Borris-Ileigh and St Thomas’ had to live in the immediate shadow cast by an epic in the far north.
The first of the All-Ireland club SHC semi-finals threw up a blood-and-thunder winter war in Newry, with Slaughtneil refusing to bow the knee to Ballyhale Shamrocks. The aristocrats eventually crushed the rebellion, but the clock was edging into the red zone when the game was put to bed. The interest in that contest among early arrivals in the Gaelic Grounds was keen, judging by the phone screens glowing in the shadow of the Mackey Stand.
Could Borris’ versus Thomas’ live up to that as they chased a spot in the other dressing-room for the club final? Confident predictions about the quality came up against the cold truth expressed in the aftermath of every semi-final ever played: those games are for winning.
As you may know by now, Borris-Ileigh were the side that did the winning in Limerick. Surprised? Perhaps you are.
Have the Tipperary side been patronised by observers since digging out a memorable county final win over fancied Kiladangan? There was a hint of that in their star player’s comments afterwards: ever-articulate, Brendan Maher said he and his teammates were being praised for their heart and attitude over and over again, so they were happy enough to show on Sunday that they could hurl as well.
Still, they needed to show heart in order to hurl. Inside the first ten minutes St Thomas’, who started the game well, engineered a good goal: when the ball fell to Eanna Burke after some careful build-up play by the Galway men, he was outside the 20-metre line, but he found the corner with a cracking drive.
Borris’ were soon back on level terms, thanks in no small part to Maher’s driving influence. In the Munster decider against Ballygunner, the No 6 was an outsize personality, top-scoring for his side and striking an immense, inspirational point just when it was needed in the second half. Here he front-loaded his good example, opening the Borris’ account with a terrific point off the run beneath the main stand.
The Tipperary men shrugged off that early goal and led by half-time, 0-11 to 1-6. Inevitably it was Brendan Maher who hit their last two points of the half, from a 65 and a free respectively.
St Thomas’ will not enjoy reliving that second half. They fought their way back into contention and the teams were level at the three-quarter stage — it could hardly have been better balanced as a contest — but their shooting, which had been erratic, tipped into profligacy. They hit three wides on the spin which drained the confidence, and Borris hit back with two inspirational points from Kevin Maher and Conor Kenny.
From then on it was all maroon: Borris clearly smelt blood in the water and surged forward, with Maher completing his day’s scoring with a ridiculous score: having surged upfield, he half-blocked St Thomas’ full-back Sean Skehill but split his hurley lengthways in doing so. When the ball shot back in he still managed a point. Off the run. Over his shoulder. With half a stick. James Devaney’s late solo goal for the Tipp men was the icing on the cake as they won by seven, 1-21 to 1-14.
Standing on the field afterwards, Maher paid tribute to his teammates for their work ethic: “I think we’ve got lots of scores from turnovers and this year, one thing that our forwards are priding themselves on, they’re fighting but I think we saw today as well we get the scores, all the boys can play ball.
“That was something that we spoke about, saying ‘God everyone’s talking about our heart and our attitude, it’d be nice to show we can hurl, too.’”
Maher was correct in his analysis. Looked at coldly one might have expected St Thomas’, with an attack spearheaded by Conor Cooney, to hit scores easier than their opponents, but it was their accuracy which began to fray in the final quarter, with some of the shots being taken a surprise for such an experienced outfit.
By contrast, Borris-Ileigh’s forwards struck the right note of hunger for work and an eye for goal: the classic case was Kevin Maher’s second-half blockdown of James Regan. Maher not only got in the block but gathered the loose ball and pointed.
Very well. We started with the eternal quandary of the semi-final, a stage of competition which exists to serve up two teams for a further game. In this case, Borris-Ileigh face one of the great club powerhouses of all time in a fortnight, a Ballyhale Shamrocks side steered by one Henry Shefflin. Can they do it? Do they believe they can do it?
“This year, the one thing we said that we want to enjoy every minute of this,” Brendan Maher said. “We’ve enjoyed training, the slog over the Christmas, we came down here with a smile on our faces and we’re leaving with a smile on our face again today.
“The next day we go out we’ll do everything we can. We’re absolutely going to be underdogs again. Ballyhale are a savage team, we watched a bit of it (the other semi-final) over in Na Piarsaigh — we’re going to have to do our homework, to make sure that we prepare as best we can.
“We’ll go out and give it a rattle and see what happens.”
As Maher was speaking, by the way, the lights went out in the Gaelic Grounds, and all was plunged into darkness. An excitable novelist would have been castigated for overdoing the symbolism, but there you are. (Said novelist would have been laughed out of court if he or she suggested Sunday was Maher’s birthday, but it was).
There’s a potent message in the two sides of Maher’s message: Borris’ are a relaxed side (stacked with “free spirits” in his own words) but are well able to play, and have been ripening nicely ever since that Tipperary county final victory. Croke Park may be familiar to more of the Ballyhale players, but the Tipp champions’ mindset is good, and Sunday will boost them even further.
Semi-finals are for winning, after all. So are finals.