Monday 27 January 2020

'Brendan is one of the greatest hurlers I've ever seen' - Maher hits point with broken hurl in masterclass

Borris-Ileigh 1-21 St Thomas' 1-14, All-Ireland club SHC semi-final

Brendan Maher of Borris-Ileigh celebrates
Brendan Maher of Borris-Ileigh celebrates
Borris-Ileigh’s Jerry Kelly gets a shot away as Cian Mahoney of St Thomas’ watches on. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Early in the second half of this AIB All-Ireland club hurling semi-final in Limerick's Gaelic Grounds, Brendan Maher erred slightly by pulling a free marginally wide.

It invited comment because, in the context of what he did, it stood out as something so rare. There may even have been a few gasps from Borris-Ileigh's loyal followers among the 4,192 crowd.

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Those gasps would have come from supporters who were shocked to witness a tiny flaw in their superhero.

Otherwise, it was a near-flawless display from Maher once more, mirroring his heroics in Páirc Uí Rinn for the Munster final against Ballygunner in November.

He scored 10 points, consisting of six frees, two 65s and two from open play. His first score was a trademark effort, racing on to the play at pace and firing over on the run from near the stand side sideline after St Thomas' had taken an early two-point lead.

His last score, right at the end, will be the stuff of legend in Borris-Ileigh in years to come. Part of his hurl had broken off as he converted a free in the 62nd minute. But after calling for a replacement, he remained in an advanced position and took possession to drive over, again off his left. He'd have nailed it with the branch of a tree!

Brendan Maher takes a free for Borris-Ileigh. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Brendan Maher takes a free for Borris-Ileigh. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

"Brendan is one of the greatest hurlers I've ever seen," said Borris-Ileigh manager Johnny Kelly.

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"He's a pleasure to coach. There's no airs or graces about Brendan, he's a Borris-Ileigh man first, a Tipperary man second, and he doesn't need any words of mine today to recognise how great a player he is."

To think that this time last year he was still in recovery from a cruciate ligament tear.

Conor Kenny of Borris-Ileigh gets past Cathal Burke of St Thomas'. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Conor Kenny of Borris-Ileigh gets past Cathal Burke of St Thomas'. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The journey Maher has travelled since, at the level of performance he has consistently reached, has been nothing short of incredible.

Of course he'd be the first to defer to his team-mates and on this occasion, he'd be fully justified as this was far from a one-man show.

Conor Kenny won the official man-of-the-match award and he caused endless problems at half-forward for St Thomas', landing three points and winning crucial frees. Dan McCormack regularly dropped back from midfield to provide extra assurance at centre-back, allowing Maher to drive forward and influence play as he did.

Both McCormacks, Sean and Ray, at wing-back, supported impressively while their youthful attack flourished often and used their edge in pace to good affect, with James Devaney finishing a late goal.

James Regan of St Thomas' gathers possession ahead of James Devaney of Borris-Ileigh. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
James Regan of St Thomas' gathers possession ahead of James Devaney of Borris-Ileigh. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Their industry stood out. On at least three occasions they got in important blocks or tackles to turn over possession and score.

In the 51st minute, Kevin Maher smothered James Regan's clearance and punished for a 0-17 to 1-11 lead before Niall Kenny shunted David Sherry off the ball to set up Conor Kenny for his third. As much as Maher's majesty mattered, these were the plays that helped drive momentum.

St Thomas' will have regrets on a few fronts. They finished with 15 wides, four-in-a-row during an important period between the 45th and 50th minutes when the game hung in the balance. The next score was that Kevin Maher turnover, a hard psychological blow to the stomach after so much dominance.

They had crafted a superb 10th-minute goal. Darragh Burke's delivery, Fintan Burke's catch and perfectly timed pass for Eanna Burke to crash home for a 1-2 to 0-3 lead.

But afterwards manager Kevin Lally lamented a couple of other goal chances that weren't capitalised on as Borris-Ileigh went in at half-time 0-11 to 1-6 clear and looking in better shape.

Borris-Ileigh players, from left, Brendan Maher, Kevin Maher, and Dan McCormack celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Borris-Ileigh players, from left, Brendan Maher, Kevin Maher, and Dan McCormack celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

St Thomas' did get a big performance from centre-back Shane Cooney, but David Burke was more muted and Conor Cooney, while contributing three fine points, never really threatened to cut loose. Maybe they didn't extract enough from Fintan Burke's clear aerial supremacy.

"Our scoring efficiency wasn't where it should have been and that was ultimately our downfall," said Lally, referring to the wides count.

Afterwards, Brendan Maher highlighted the success of his understanding with Dan McCormack.

He said: "It suits Dan to play a sweeper role. He is very good at reading the game. It allows me to push on. A lot of centre-forwards now play deep so it allows me to push up on my man. I can attack a little bit then."

He also touched on what it meant to his community that has suffered much bereavement in the last 18 months.

"This is just dream stuff for us. The dark cloud that was over the parish, we are slowly but surely lifting it, and hopefully one big day ahead."

Of course, five months on since the county sides clashed in the All-Ireland final, it means another Croke Park date between the best of Tipp and Kilkenny - this time between two parishes just over an hour's drive apart.

Borris-Ileigh have been considered outsiders in so many games to date. Ballyhale will be another huge test.

However, as is now abundantly clear, the pride of the Premier County will relish the challenge.

Scorers - Borris-Ileigh: B Maher 0-10 (6f, 2 '65s); Kevin Maher 0-5 (3f); J Devaney 1-1; C Kenny 0-3; Kieran Maher, J Kelly 0-1 each.

Scorers - St Thomas': Darragh Burke 0-5 (3f, 1 '65); E Burke 1-0; C Cooney 0-3; B Burke 0-2; S Cooney, J Regan, David Burke, O Flannery 0-1 each.

Borris-Ileigh - J McCormack; S Burke, P Stapleton, L Ryan; S McCormack, B Maher, R McCormack; T Ryan, D McCormack; C Kenny, J Kelly, J Devaney; Kevin Maher, N Kenny, Kieran Maher. Subs: J Hogan for N Kenny (57), C Cowan for Kelly (61).

St Thomas': J Barrett; C Mahoney, S Skehil, D Sherry; D Cooney, S Cooney, C Burke; J Regan, David Burke; C Cooney, Darragh Burke, B Burke; O Flannery, E Burke, F Burke.

Ref - Paud O'Dwyer (Carlow)

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