Maher heroics sum up Borris-Ileigh's spirit
By John Harrington
Decades from now, the tale of Brendan Maher’s broken hurley will still be told to wide-eyed youngsters in Borrisoleigh and Ileigh.
The story will have had a coat or two of gloss applied to it by then, no doubt, but even in unvarnished real-time you knew you were watching a moment that will live long in the annals of Borris-Ileigh GAA club.
Deep into injury-time in Sunday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final against St. Thomas’, Maher split the bas of his hurley in two while converting a close-range free.
There was no time to get a replacement before St Thomas’ took a quick puck-out, but even with a stick that more resembled a billhook than a hurley, Maher proved a craftsman can make do with even rudimentary tools.
Still up the field after taking the free, he burst a gut to cover ground and get a half-block in that turned over possession to Borris-Ileigh.
A second later the ball came his way again and after surveying his options he turned to his left-side and somehow arced a point over the bar on the run from a narrow angle with his broken hurley.
It was fitting exclamation mark to what was not only yet another brilliant individual performance from Maher who hit a total of 10 points, but another fine display of guts, guile, and skill from a Borris-Ileigh team that is getting better with every match they play.
“To be honest Brendan is one of the greatest hurlers I’ve ever seen anyway,” said team manager Johnny Kelly after the match.
“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.”
Maher is a hugely inspirational figure for this Borris-Ileigh side, but it’s their collective work-ethic, speed, skill, and opportunism that makes them such an effective unit.
They hurl with no fear. Every player backs himself to attack the ball at full throttle and at no time do they err on the side of caution when it comes to committing to a run, tackle, or attacking move.
For the most part they bested St. Thomas’ in the physical stakes on Sunday, especially when dirty ball had to be won in rucks, but they complemented that grit with some really classy hurling too.
“I think we’ve got lots of scores from turnovers and this year, one thing that our forwards are priding themselves on, they’re fighting but I think we saw today as well we get the scores, all the boys can play ball,” said Brendan Maher after the match.
“That was something that we spoke about, saying ‘God everyone’s talking about our heart and our attitude, it’d be nice to show we can hurl, too.’
“This year, the one thing we said that we want to enjoy every minute of this.
“We’ve enjoyed training, the slog over the Christmas, we came down here with a smile on our faces and we’re leaving with a smile on our face again today.
“The next day we go out we’ll do everything we can. We’re absolutely going to be underdogs again.
“Ballyhale are a savage team, we watched a bit of it (the other semi-final) over in Na Piarsaigh — we’re going to have to do our homework, to make sure that we prepare as best we can.
“We’ll go out and give it a rattle and see what happens.”
Defending champions Ballyhale Shamrocks will be hot favourites to make it back to back titles in the AIB All-Ireland Final on January 19, but you wouldn’t write Borris-Ileigh off.
They were underdogs against St. Thomas’ and Ballygunner too, but belied that status by hurling with huge conviction.
They have serious momentum now and as a club have traditionally never lacked self-confidence which will be an asset going into an All-Ireland Final.
Johnny Kelly is well aware though that if they are to unseat their Kilkenny opponents they’ll have to raise their game to another level again.
“Underdogs, we will be, on the basis they are All-Ireland champions, the players they have, and the youth they’ve brought through over the last year, we’re very aware of that,” said Kelly.
“If we don’t set up properly, bring up our intensity levels in two week’s time, Ballyhale will hurt us, and hurt us badly.
“We also have to deal with the tension that comes with the final, and if we do that it gives us a chance anyway.”