By Stephen Gleeson
“After that we just knew we were as good as, if not the best club team in the county.”
The rich history of Thurles Sarsfields GAA club means the club tops the roll of honour in Tipp with an unmatched 36 county senior hurling titles; the first arriving in 1887 and the most recent in 2017. With such a glorious history the belief would be that the club remained at the top throughout but like all great hurling dynasties, there were peaks and troughs.
At the turn of the millennium, ‘The Blues’ were in the midst of a famine period as the glory days of success were by then residing in black and white photographs from a bygone era. Behind the scenes, countless hours were put in by volunteers to help the club rise again from mediocrity. Realistic dreams of success were beginning to awaken once more as minor and under-21 county successes were delivered. But at senior level the club still struggled to reach previous heights.
Club stalwart and current player, Lar Corbett often wondered back then if success would ever return to the cub: “I started off playing senior hurling with Thurles Sarsfields in 1998. That’s 22 years ago now but I remember it well. We got to the county final in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 and were beaten in them all. I think we were probably the first Tipperary club team ever to get beaten in four county finals in a row! But we knew we were very close to winning. Toomevara beat us in 2000. And again it was Toomevara in 2001 and then in 2002 it was Mullinahone that beat us. We made it to the final again in 2003 but Toomevara beat us again!
“We were hearing that ‘The Rattler’ Byrne had 14 county final wins,” Lar continues, “Jimmy Doyle had 12 or 13. Thurles Sarsfields had won five in a row from 1955 to ’59. Then in 1960 they got beaten by Toomevara, but they went on and won the county football final that year! The following years they won another five in a row in the hurling again from ’61 to ’65 – that’s 11 county final wins in a short space of time. They were supposed to be an exceptional team, as such feats were never achieved before. I would have said to you ‘I think I’m never going to win a county final’ back in 2004 because we had lost four in a row.
“We just didn’t know what else to do or how we were going to get over the line.”
Thurles Sarsfields kept knocking. As the gap with the great teams of the 1950s and 1960s grew wider, the players grew more determined each year. A lesser team might have faded back to the rest of the pack, but a Thurles side made up of the Enrights, Brendan Carroll and Redser O’Grady looked to claim the elusive Dan Breen cup and end ‘a famine’ for the club. In Lar Corbett’s mind, there was one key ingredient in 2005: Ger Cunningham.
“Ger Cunningham, who had trained Newtownshandrum from Cork to win the All-Ireland club title before that, came in,” Lar explains, “and I suppose it was an outside impact or an outside voice that did help Thurles Sarsfields. It gave us a different way of looking at things. He had a good game plan as well, playing a running game. He was very shrewd, which suited our style.”
With Ger as a new coach and Redser O’Grady playing a captain’s part, the club claimed their first title in 31 years in front of a bumper crowd at Semple Stadium. Neighbours, Drom Inch, were a club on the rise and with James Woodlock, Séamus Butler and Séamie Callanan providing the firepower they reached the final, but Drom couldn’t compete on the day with an experienced Sarsfields side that ran out 1-17 to 0-15 winners.
For Lar Corbett, that win gave Sarsfields the oxygen to dominate Tipperary hurling. “After that then it’s history,” he says. “It made it so easy for us. Since 2000, I’m after playing in 14 county finals and I’m after winning eight of them. We had a replay with Mullinahone in 2002 as well. And I thought we’d never, ever, win one. Back in 2004 it seemed like that was that as we had lost four in a row. Compare that with the last few years.”
Continuing, Corbett says, “We won four in a row from 2014 until 2017. The whole thing changed around. From losing four in a row, to winning four. Back in 2005 and after, the likes of Tommy Maher played a very important role in the backroom team alongside Ger Cunningham. Ger trained a lot of very successful club teams. That passing game, similar to that type of game Newtownshandrum were successful with, played a part in our success but when we got over the line to win that first county final, we knew we could win more. We just needed that one win to get the monkey off our back and when we won the first one, we found it easier other years. I think the first one was the most enjoyable year. Getting over the line and winning the first one and being good enough to be able to do it. After that we just knew we were as good as, if not the best club team in the county.”
Sarsfields’ regular successes in county finals since 2005 meant their sights were set on further glory outside the county. The club added a Munster club title in 2012 when they beat De La Salle of Waterford 1-21 to 1-16 in the provincial final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Despite this win, other years proved disappointing at the conclusion, as highly capable teams failed to add to the trophy haul in the provincial championship.
The 2010 Hurler of the Year, Lar Corbett, says they kept trying throughout: “We focused on how we could get on in Munster and how we could succeed there. We often had a very disappointing run in the club championship when we got out of Tipperary. We did win one Munster in 2012 but I don’t know why we didn’t win more. I’m not a man for excuses. The one thing I would say is that the couple of months or so after September the weather changes, conditions change and you have to be mentally tougher. Thurles Sarsfields have good stick people, good strikers and good passers of the ball and that suits us for summer hurling and in around the time of the county final. After that, conditions change. I think it’s almost like a different sport from then on. The ball doesn’t bounce. The ball doesn’t roll to you like it does in the summer time. You have to get down and dirty with the ball and the opponent so that caught us for a few years, I think.”
The club still uses the traditional base of ‘The Outside Field’ by Semple Stadium. They are in the process of moving the short distance to newly-developed grounds out near Killinan, on the Nenagh road. Current Sarsfields forward, Corbett says he believes the club will remain a standard bearer for Tipperary in the future: “The likes of a Ronan Maher, Michael Cahill or Padraic Maher were key to successful years and drove on fellas with them. Padraic Maher is one of the best backs Tipp has ever produced. We’re lucky enough to have him in our club, alongside his brother Ronan and Michael Cahill who is another stalwart. When there’s fellas doing what they do, it’s easy get other fellas copying what they are doing. Like in the time of Jimmy Doyle, the club still has stickmen and, with the bit of brute force there in the backs, Thurles Sarsfields are no push around. I think you need a bit of both when it comes to club hurling.”
Thurles Sarsfields are sure to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.
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