YOU could dismiss their recent success as being ‘only the league’ but Sarsfields are hoping back-to-back RedFM SHL titles can propel them towards the business end of this year’s championship.
The Riverstown-based club have been a hurling powerhouse in the modern era to the tune of four counties since 2008 but haven’t made the final since their defeat to Glen Rovers in 2015.
For veteran forward Tadhg Óg Murphy, there’s no shortage of talent or desire in the club to get their hands on the Seán Óg Murphy cannister again. Retaining the league ensured they were in the right frame of mind at the end of 2018.
“We always treat the league with the respect it deserves. When we lost last year so early, we drove on and tried to use that disappointment as the motivation to finish the season on the high. If we hadn’t won the league fellas would have been doubting themselves over the winter.
“Instead we’d a bit of a feelgood factor from it. We’ve won two leagues in a row and it’s up to us to kick on from that now.”
Last summer Sars were beaten by UCC, who they had got the better of a year earlier only to lose a semi-final replay to Imokilly.
“We were fierce unfortunate in 2017. We played Imokilly here in the Páirc and trailed the whole way through but nicked a goal and then got a point to go ahead. That was the time to beat them.
“They came back and caught and then blew us out of the water in the replay. It was both teams’ fourth weekend playing in a row and they just have so much in the mix, so many options off the bench, that we’d no answer in the replay then.
“Last year it was more about a bad day at the office. We never got going against UCC. It was a huge disappointment because we played with the wind and never really capitalised. They were able to bring in Mark Coleman which shows what you’re up against but it was still a game we could have won if we’d done ourselves justice.”
Brian Roche, a former professional rugby player, is at the helm again. “Brian has been there in probably seven of the last eight years in some capacity. He started off in strength and conditioning, he was out for a season and then was back in as selector and now manager.
“He’s really experienced and hugely consistent. The training sessions are always great. He played sport at a high level and he relates to every aspect of our preparation.”
At 33, and two days younger than keeper Alan Kennedy, Murphy is now the second oldest in the panel. Former Wexford senior Eoin Quigley called time on his career last winter.
“Quigley actually never got to play his last championship game for us because we lost to UCC on a Sunday and if the game had been brought forward to the Saturday he’d have been available. He’d problems with his back but he was an incredible servant for Sars. A brilliant hurler and leader.
“It’s almost like walking into an U14 dressing room for a fella like me. The majority of them are U21 or just out of it.
“When we won it in 2008, we had Craig Leahy, William and Daniel Kearney, Conor and Eoin Sull, they were the young guys then and they’re hitting 30 and showing the way. Just like Pat Ryan and Joe Barry did before them. The roles are changing but we have loads of hurlers.”
That production line of talent means Sars have a clutch of Cork seniors, including the Kearneys, Conor O’Sullivan, and Jack O’Connor. Yet Murphy explains he was in favour of the experimental new championship format whereby clubs would have played two of five round-robin fixtures mid-summer without their marquee men.
“I was all for option C. Now if you asked me two months ago I’d have voted against it but the inter-county scene has evolved so much, it’s become a monster, so there has to be a sacrifice somewhere. We’re playing a summer sport but not playing in May, June, and July. For me, that’s a killer.
“You can talk about developing a good league but that’s not the same at enticing young hurlers to stay around. In Dublin and Kerry, the leagues work very well but that’s been the way for a long time and it’s a mindset we might never have around here.
“Younger guys would have got their chance in option C. It would have been an incentive, in two games, for young lads to get a run for the top team and try and prove themselves.
“The system they voted for is slightly different but it’s too similar to what we’ve had before and doesn’t give us championship hurling at the time of year we want to play.”
And playing hurling is what the Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG teacher still loves. He gets advice from team-mate Neil Fitzpatrick on the best approach in the gym and he feels fresher than ever.
“I live for hurling. My training is also evolving though. I’m into yoga and Reformer Pilates to get the body fresh. I’ve never had any serious injury, touch wood. I feel fitter now than I did at 23! I’m doing all the right things now, which you don’t when you’re younger.
“Bulking, which I’d struggle to do anyway, isn’t the way to go. It’s all about mobility. You’ve to be strong but be able to move as well.
“The standard two-legged squat is gone now and it’s more bodyweight and dynamic. Neil, one of our players is a strength and conditioning expert, and it’s great to have someone to monitor it and drive the younger lads.”