ON A day when winter finally came to town, with cold driving rain under stormy darkening skies, two outstanding club sides nevertheless combined to give us a club hurling match of the uppermost quality in this, the opening round of the Munster Club SHC.
Even the magnificent sod in Semple Stadium can only withstand so much, and the heavy rains over the past few days meant conditions underfoot were testing, to put it mildly, yet the crowd of 3,500 witnessed hurling of the highest order, score-taking from the top drawer.
For Newtownshandrum the peerless Ben O’Connor ended with a Grand Slam, scoring points from play, from frees, from a 65 and from a sideline, midfielder Cathal Naughton scorched through for three points, while Ben’s twin brother Jerry also had a hat-trick, two of his points coming in the trench warfare of the second-half while being marshalled by no less a defender than recently crowned All Star Pádraic Maher.
The second of those points was the match-winner, in the first minute of added time after a pass from minor star Jamie Coughlan, and the Newtown youngster, having come close to man-of-the-match in the Cork final a few weeks ago, was again impressive yesterday, this time for his work-rate.
And yet, he wasn’t the most impressive minor on the pitch – that honour fell to Thurles Sarsfields wing-forward Denis Maher. A Tipperary minor this year, Denis finished with six superb points from play, was the leading light for Thurles, while Pa Bourke, All-Ireland minor winner with Tipp three years ago, also added to a growing reputation of his own, finished with 1-5.
Just as they had done in the only previous meeting of the sides, back in 2005, Thurles Sarsfields again had a superb start, led 1-1 to zero after three minutes courtesy of Pa Bourke, the goal coming after a long, wind-assisted centre from midfielder Alan Kennedy.
Newtown came back from that, and in a blistering four-minute spell, points from Ryan Clifford, Michael Bowles, Cathal Naughton and Jerry O’Connor had them level in the sixth minute. The wind was a factor, however, and with the rain holding off, Thurles Sars it was again gaining the ascendancy and with Maher and Bourke shining, in the 20th minute they led by six, 1-10 to 0-7. One thing about Newtownshandrum, however, and a fact well known in Cork – they are never easily beaten, and again they came back; five points before the break, the last of those a superb sideline cut by the ever more prominent Ben O’Connor, left just one between them at the break, Thurles ahead 1-10 to 0-12. Those who thought this would be easy for the Cork champions were being proved wrong, very wrong.
Five minutes into the second half the sides were level, a pointed free by Ben, soon negated by Denis Maher, but three minutes later, and courtesy of points from Jerry O’Connor and Cathal Naughton, Newtownshandrum took the lead for the first time in the game, 0-15 to 1-11.
It was a short-lived lead, however, and from there to the finish, in conditions made worse by the showers falling since the break, it was as much a battle of wills as a contest of skills. That they eventually prevailed, then, huge credit must go to Newtownshandrum. A team that thrives on pace and control, these were far from their ideal conditions, favoured the bigger, stronger Sarfields team, yet they dogged it out.
Most prominent in those final minutes was Ben O’Connor, shifted from the corner to midfield but popping up everywhere. Jerry got the winner, but Ben it was with the three Newtown points before that, and all from inside his own half.
“What more can I say about this man,” said Newtown captain Dermot Gleeson, who had a sterling match himself – “He has won more than most who ever played the game, yet he was still back there at the end around the half-back line, busting his arse, clearing ball – they’re serious men, the O’Connors. It mightn’t have been the most spectacular performance ever by us, but there are days like this when it’s more about character.”
His display said all that needs to be said about Ben, but his reaction at the finish said more – for him, for Newtownshandrum, this one meant a lot: “For a couple of days after the county final I had no interest in this but we got back training the Friday night after it and I think you see the interest we have in this after that game there today. We were down six or seven points at one stage in the first half and we could have said, ‘Ah we have enough’, but we didn’t, we dug in and we got it back to a point just before half-time.
“Fellas were doing everything they could to win it, from (William) Biggane in goal to Jamie (Coughlan) in the corner at the other end of the field – every fella was doing everything they could to win it, hooking, blocking. It’s very easy for a forward to be lazy if the ball is cleared but here in this squad we think an awful lot of the hooking and the blocking.
“Our backs would be delighted with us to see it and we’re delighted with our backs the way they give us the ball so it works together – if they’re happy with us and we’re happy with them, things aren’t too bad.”
After this, everyone in Cork has to be happy with Newtownshandrum, but spare a thought today for Sars – they too did their county proud.
Scorers for Newtownshandrum: B. O’Connor 0-8 (0-4 frees, 0-1 65, 0-1 s/l); Jerry O’Connor 0-3; C. Naughton 0-3; R. Clifford 0-2; J. Coughlan, PJ Copse, M. Bowles, 0-1 each.
Thurles Sarsfields: P. Bourke 1-5 (0-2 frees, 0-1 s/l); D. Maher 0-6; S. Ryan 0-2; J. Enright, M. Gleeson, 0-1 each.
NEWTOWNSHANDRUM: W. Biggane; D. Gleeson (c), B. Mulcahy, J. O’Mahony; S. O’Riordan, P. Mulcahy, P. Noonan; PJ Copse, C. Naughton; R. Clifford, Jerry O’Connor, M. Bowles; J. Coughlan, John O’Connor, Ben O’Connor.
Subs: JP King (John O’Connor 50); J. O’Herlihy (Bowles 58).
THURLES SARSFIELDS: P. McCormack; M. Cahill, P. Maher, K. O’Gorman; S. Lillis, L. Cahill, B. O’Dwyer; A. Kennedy, M. Gleeson; D. Maher, S. Ryan, L. Corbett; P. Bourke, J. Enright (c), R. Ruth.
Subs: D. Kennedy (Ruth 42); G. O’Grady (Ryan 47).
Referee: G. Hoey (Clare).
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