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The Tipperary hurling icons still central to club hopes as they chase county final glory

Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath remain key players as they face off in tomorrow’s Tipperary hurling final.

Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath.
Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath.
Image: INPHO

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IN LATE SEPTEMBER LAST year, as the GAA world was locked into the club game following months of being starved of competitive action, the county finals played out around the country generated heightened emotions.

On two Sunday afternoons, just a week apart at the end of the month, Noel McGrath was captured in a crestfallen state.

The first was by INPHO’s James Crombie after Loughmore-Castleiney’s hurlers had their hearts broken at the end of an extra-time by Kiladangan after an epic Tipperary hurling final.

noel-mcgrath-dejected-after-the-game Noel McGrath after last year's Tipperary hurling final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The second was by Sportsfile’s Ray McManus, the football final the following Sunday having delivered the same luckless and agonising conclusion for the Loughmore-Castleiney footballers, with the bulk of the hurling team in action, as they lost by a point to Clonmel Commercials.

The higher profile inter-county scene did not subsequently generate much joy. Tipperary’s last two hurling campaigns have been similar, succumbing to Limerick’s brilliance in their own province, then knocked out of the All-Ireland series by Galway and Waterford before the championship show had shifted to Croke Park for the annual conclusion.

And yet for all that disappointment, McGrath is part of a crew that have rebounded and find themselves back in a recognisable position. A Tipperary hurling final tomorrow afternoon, a football showdown the following Sunday.

Another attempt at a club double.

*****

There will be a familiar face in opposition tomorrow for McGrath in Padraic Maher, the anchor of the Thurles Sarsfields rearguard.

Since Liam Sheedy first took charge in 2008 and unleashed a bunch of brilliantly talented youngsters, they have grown to become mainstays that have fuelled the Tipperary hurling setup.

The last few months have seen change. Sheedy has departed as manager, calling time on his second spell at the helm. Brendan Maher became the first of their playing vintage to retire, when he made his decision in August. Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher has been hit with crippling injuries, a torn Achilles last May coming on the back of a cruciate setback suffered in June 2019.

McGrath, Padraic Maher and Seamus Callanan are the only three playing survivors from the starting Tipperary team for the 2009 All-Ireland final, a landmark game as the first of seven senior decider appearances for the county over the next decade.

As Colm Bonnar takes the reins for 2022, there is a strong sense of evolution in the Tipperary hurling scene.

And yet the local form of Maher, 33 next February, and McGrath, 31 in December, suggests their drive and influence has not been diluted.

Tomorrow has a significant feel for two dominant figures in the modern Tipperary hurling landscape.

Maher will feature in his ninth county senior hurling final. His only defeat was in his first one in 2008, at the hands of Toomevara. Since then it has been a succession of victories by varying margins, seven packed into the nine year time frame between 2009 and 2017. He manned a key defensive central berth for all of those wins and captained Thurles Sarsfields for four triumphs (2012 and 2015-17).

Club legends like Mick ‘Rattler’ Byrne and Jimmy Doyle, or his Tipperary coach Tommy Dunne from Toomevara, may be ahead of him in the county medal roll of honour with double digit figures, but landing an 8th medal would be a notable feat for Maher.

This is the most barren spell he has endured in the Thurles ranks with no senior title since 2017. The team has been remodelled of late with Maher still joined by the likes of Michael Cahill and Pa Bourke, but now supplemented by a youngster like Paddy Creedon, the star of their semi-final victory over reigning champions Kiladangan with 0-5 from play. 

There must also be a desire to have another attempt to conquer further afield. Their previous seven campaigns in Munster have yielded a single title for Thurles Sarsfields, a record that represents underachievement given the level of hurling talent they have possessed. That 2012 provincial victory was followed by an All-Ireland semi-final reversal at the hands of Kilcormac-Killoughey.

They find themselves back in a final pitted against their Mid Tipperary neighbours in Loughmore-Castleiney. The McGrath clan continue to backbone their setup with Noel as the spearhead. Accounting for both codes, tomorrow will be his tenth outing in a Tipperary senior final. 

His hurling record is split evenly between victories and defeats from four appearances. He dazzled as a 16-year-old in 2007, striking six points to illustrate his precocious talent in a Tipperary hurling showdown against Drom-Inch. Loughmore’s winter odyssey saw them land a Munster crown before being overturned by a stellar Portuman outfit the following spring.

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Another hurling victory arrived in 2013 before a loss at the hands of Thurles twelve months later and then the silverware slipped from their grasp in such dramatic fashion last September.

Only Evan Sweeney and Ciaran McGrath remain from the Loughmore outfit that Noel succeeded with in 2007. The club’s hurling history has only produced three senior title wins, for Noel to land his third crown in a time frame that spans 15 seasons would be significant.

There is also the prospect of a football final next week, where he will try to add the collection of three he has already accumulated in that code. For all his hurling prowess on the national stage, McGrath’s football input is critical at club level with the calibre of midfield displays he produces. Loughmore landed a historic double in 2013, only won the football of the two finals they contested in 2014 and then suffered the hardship of losing both last year.

If it seems difficult to pick up the pieces after those defeats, Loughmore-Castleiney have a deep reservoir of resilience they can draw from, as evidenced by the comebacks they have produced in county semi-finals against Borris-Ileigh and Moyle Rovers over the past two weekends.

McGrath was at the coalface of that effort, just like Maher was at the heart of the Thurles defence as they repelled the Kiladangan second-half advances a fortnight ago.

With six All-Ireland senior medals and nine All-Star awards stockpiled between them, their Tipperary exploits have ensured McGrath and Maher are celebrated figures.

That remains the case at club level. Still key, still ambitious, still central in the local storylines.

Another winter spent chasing success that will be cherished.

BTL 5

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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