Tipperary SHC Final: Thurles Sarsfields 2-17 Loughmore-Castleiney 0-23
For Loughmore-Castleiney, the eternal year continues.
As the sun set behind the Killinan End on a glorious early winter evening, a group that continues to defy every player welfare convention ensured they will be out for a 17th consecutive weekend, presuming Tipperary fix the replay for the weekend after next, with this draw in an epic Tipperary SHC final in Semple Stadium.
Eight points down after 17 minutes to Thurles Sarsfields, Loughmore-Castleiney, also in pursuit of the Tipperary football crown with the final against Clonmel Commercials next weekend, summoned fresh energy from somewhere to claw their way back into contention without the impetus of a goal.
It was a remarkable comeback with the perpetual journey they have been on since early August, first taking in a Mid-Tipperary championship (three games) before turning attention to two county championship fronts with seven (now) in hurling and five in football.
To mix it, week in, week out, in two competitive championships and persevere as they did here really is a tribute to club and players given that they went 11 weekends to lose two 2020 finals.
When Thurles captain and full-forward Denis Maher, playing in a role he wouldn’t have been all too familiar during his career, struck for two goals between the ninth and 11th minutes it could so easily have sucked the life out of the Loughmore challenge.
Maher first pounced on indecision in the opposing full-back line and then struck for a second after Loughmore ’keeper Aidan McGrath had parried his initial effort, Thurles got themselves into a commanding position. Beside him Pa Bourke, another veteran of Tipperary past, was also in scintillating form with three early points that grew to five by the game’s end.
When Maher scored a point on 17 minutes the gap was at its widest, 2-6 to 0-4. But from then on Loughmore’s resolve became the story of the game. Every ball became a battle for them as if the war itself depended on the outcome.
It was gripping stiff as first they stabilised to trail by just 2-9 to 0-12 at the interval, breaking the assured presence of the Maher brothers, Pádraic and Ronan, that had been a Thurles pillar early on.
John McGrath had started in the full-forward line but once he moved out to half-forward his influence grew and by the end he had amassed 0-12, his accuracy from frees, after missing two in the opening half, such an importance feature of their recovery.
He collected the man of the match award afterwards, his fifth in successive weekends, according to local interpretation of these matters.
In truth, they should have been closer than three points adrift at the break with eight first-half wides hurting them and thieving any momentum they might have generated otherwise. Their final wides tally was 13 with another five shots dropping short. But they kept pressing and winning those rucks and tussles that were prevalent in the conditions, in some cases balls they had no right to take control of.
After the heartbreak of their dramatic extra-time defeat to Kiladangan last year, the resolution in these players was evident and driven on by such vocal support in the 6,300 crowd they were level by the 48th minute, first John McGrath with a superb individual point and then brother Noel to make it 2-13 to 0-19.
They had survived a scare in the 41st minute when a short puck-out went wrong and Maher zipped in on to Conor Stakelum’s ball only for Aidan McGrath to advance and deny him.
Briefly Loughmore took a lead when Ciarán McGrath from play and John from a pointed free after the impressive Ciarán Connolly was fouled on 52 minutes.
But Thurles showed resolve of their own to level through Bourke and Aidan McCormack (free) and before coming back a second time to lead through Stakelum and Ronan Maher (free) after a monstrous McGrath free from inside his own ’65 had given Loughmore further initiative.
More heartbreak threatened but from one of those many turnovers, this time Thurles substitute Cathal Moloney felt the pressure, Liam Treacy prodded the ball to Liam McGrath and he sent over his third point to level again.
There was time for more but referee Conor Doyle blew when Loughmore had a sideline from just inside the Thurles half, Noel McGrath territory after an earlier conversion from much the same distance on the other side. Loughmore-Castleiney manager Frankie McGrath was satisfied there was no extra-time, especially with next weekend’s football final.
“It is going to be 17 (weekends in succession with the replay). Sure maybe we’ll get to 18 and 19 as well,” he suggested with a glint in his eye.
“Extra-time would have been a tough ask. There was a game on the television last night (Dublin hurling final) and it was fantastic for the 60 minutes.
“But all the fizz went out of it in extra-time. Extra-time can be a funny business. We knew coming here that there would be no extra-time so there is no issue there.”
Loughmore had eight McGraths on the field at the end and John provided the biggest influence with his range of scores and assists but in centre-back John Meagher they had an inspiring presence at the heart of the defence. Credit too must go to Brian McGrath who played despite a serious thumb injury and typically won so much ball with his anticipation.
“We weren’t in a great place at the first water break (2-6 to 0-4 behind) but we showed what we can do. People commented a lot on our battling qualities but I think we showed quite a bit of skill as well as that,” said manager McGrath.
Scorers – Thurles Sarsfields: D Maher 2-1; A McCormack 0-6 (3fs, 1 ’65); P Bourke 0-5; D Stakelum, P Creedon, Paul Maher, R Maher (f), C Stakelum all 0-1 each. Loughmore Castleiney: J McGrath 0-12 (8fs); N McGrath 0-3 (1 sl); L McGrath 0-3; C Connolly 0-2; E Sweeney, A McGrath (f), Ciaran McGrath all 0-1.
Thurles Sarsfields – P McCormack; Paul Maher, Pádraig Maher, S Ryan; D Corbett, R Maher, J Derby; S Cahill, M Cahill; D Stakelum, A McCormack, C Stakelum; P Bourke, D Maher, P Creedon. Subs: C Moloney for Derby (49), B McCarthy for A McCormack (58).
Loughmore-Castleiney – A McGrath; L Egan, J Hennessy, W Eviston; T Maher, J Meagher, B McGrath; L Treacy, N McGrath, L McGrath; E Connolly, E Sweeney, J McGrath. Subs: Ciarán McGrath for E Connolly (47), Conor McGrath for Sweeney (52).
Ref – C Doyle