Westside column – August 22nd 2009

Westside column – August 22nd 2009

The result may have been as expected but neither the margin nor the method was anticipated by anyone. Tipperary’s freewheel to an All Ireland date with Kilkenny was facilitated by an unprecedented Limerick collapse. Six goals in the sack, a margin of historic proportions but such was the flawed resistance by Limerick that Tipperary are still left wondering about the true capacity of this team. No matter. We’ve got three glorious weeks now to anticipate the big day, our dream date on September 6th.

In the meantime it’s back to local business with a flourish next weekend with all four divisional finals on a busy menu. The county management will be nervously praying for an injury-free Sunday.

One of the fascinating aspects of sport is that it sometimes defies prediction. Nobody foresaw this ‘massacre’. How could they? All the indicators from the past told us that Limerick don’t do surrender – especially not to the blue and gold of Tipperary. Okay, on recent form we were expected to win, and perhaps do so with something to spare. But a twenty-five point margin after leading by thirteen at the interval? Not in our dreams, or Limerick nightmare’s, was that even countenanced.

Am I alone in feeling that the entire event had an air of unreality? The Croke Park intercom tried to add fanfare to the teams’ arrival onto the pitch, yet it seemed only to spook Limerick. Mark Foley and his team mates walked out of the tunnel, heads bowed like the proverbial rabbits caught in a light beam. The body language was telling. For whatever reason, this was a team suffering stage fright. Limerick at their best work on adrenaline but here was a team very strangely subdued, devoid of their characteristic passion.

And when they analyse this disaster Shannonside Justin McCarthy will have to defend his team formation which left a two-man full forward line and tried to crowd midfield and half back in that first half. Given the fact that their half back line was already highly rated and was playing against a Tipperary half forward line that has taken a lot of criticism, it’s difficult to understand the tactic. It hints at a manager who was fearful and on damage limitation even before the match began.

It backfired for Limerick on the double. The extra man did nothing to prevent the leakage of goals and their short-staffed attack never even got a sniff of Cummins’s house in that opening half. The tactic was ill-advised in advance but it’s even harder to understand why they stuck with it for so long. By the time they reverted to regular formation this match was over.

Ironically the opening five minutes gave little hint of what was to follow. In fact Limerick defended quite competently at that stage and there was no immediate sign of an opening Tipperary surge. The first goal though was an omen of what would follow. John O’Brien posted a low trajectory shot towards Eoin Kelly. Stephen Lucey played from the front and his misjudgement of the ball was akin to that the previous week by Aidan Kearney. The result too was the same, Kelly doing a Shefflin.

That goal was damaging but hardly match-deciding; the next two came rapid-fire and were far more critical. Corbett orchestrated the first leaving Mark O’Riordan in his slip-stream and tossing across goal for Noel McGrath to provide the tap in; had McGrath missed Seamus Callanan was next in the queue. Already the pace and mobility of the Tipp attack was stretching the Limerick defence.

The third goal was again post-marked by a defensive error. Mark Foley spilled possession this time and Pat Kerwick made his mark with a shot that flew under Brian Murray’s body. On a luckier day it might have hit a boot or shin but this was by now developing into a day of horror for Limerick.

Tipperary supplemented the goals with a modest flow of points but what was critical was Limerick’s lack of response. Brendan Cummins has enjoyed a long career but I doubt if he’s ever had an idler half. His defenders were mopping up everything, Curran excelling in the freedom, Padraig Maher and Paddy Stapleton excellent too. And when it rains it pours, Gavin O’Mahony’s free-taking went on the blink to add even more woe for Limerick.

At thirteen up half time pleasure belonged to Tipperary. Yet we can be burdened by history and I wasn’t alone at that stage in recalling ’81 and ’96, both remembered for similar interval advantages only to be followed by dramatic turnarounds. Would history again repeat?

The answer came sharply and convincingly on resuming when the lead stretched out with a string of unanswered points. Callanan and Kerwick hit a pair apiece and Kelly landed a free as the margin drifted to eighteen and little hint of any Limerick retort.

There was a brief flutter in Tipperary hearts in the thirteenth and nineteenth minutes of this half when Limerick bagged a pair of goals. Brian Murray’s penalty whizzed past the three-man wall for the first and substitute, Brian O’Sullivan, sneaked the second inside the post. But they provided only brief respite for a beleaguered Limerick team.

Tipperary’s response was rapid and devastating. Twice Noel McGrath fed Corbett for goals and the game was in its final agony when Lar’s hat-trick was completed, this time Callanan and then Webster setting up the finish into an empty net. By now Limerick were thoroughly demoralised, routed in a manner for which I can find no precedent.

Of course this display carries major caveats given Limerick’s sheer ineptitude but nonetheless a team can only do its own business on a given day and isn’t responsible for the shortcomings of the opposition. After all when Kilkenny demolish an opponent everyone raves about their brilliance and nobody bothers much about the weaknesses of the other side, such as Waterford’s feckless form last September.

In selecting their team for this match Liam Sheedy and colleagues made a significant decision in dropping Conor O’Brien and reshaping the defence by moving Padraig Maher to full and introducing Brendan Maher to the wing. For a normally cautions management it was a bold move to make for an All Ireland semi-final, but it was the right one. Conor O’Brien was unlucky to lose out, perhaps Paul Curran’s greater experience gaining him the nod more than any recent form evidence.

Overall the reshaped defence looks more balanced with Padraig Maher adding strength and physique to full and Brendan Maher deploying his widely-acknowledged abilities at wing. It’s a better equipped defence for the Kilkenny job and I suspect the management had one eye on September 6th when making this move, though they’d hardly admit as much.

On Sunday the defence was excellent. Paddy Stapleton is developing with each game, Fanning, a former Allstar full back, is showing his adaptability at wing and O’Mahony is getting back to his best at centre. Besides you now have defensive options with Shane Maher back from injury and waiting his chance on the bench.

In the midst of Sunday’s delight there was some concern over the fact that both midfielders were substituted. Being replaced is no novelty for James Woodlock but Shane McGrath’s untypical sluggishness – he was regularly baulked – is slightly worrying. He has struggled this year to regain his former vim and vigour though the Munster final seemed to suggest that he was back to his best. Still he’s a battler and I’d expect him to rebound for the final. Once again Benny Dunne showed his usefulness as an impact substitution, something he’s been doing all year.

For the forwards this was a day when they oozed class, albeit against quite a baffled and static looking defence. Noel McGrath’s impact this year is truly phenomenal. As well as those lightning-fast hands he has a perception that utterly defies his age. How many pin-point passes did he deliver on Sunday as well as taking his own scores with aplomb? The worry is that Kilkenny will have taken note.

Rarely have we seen a more complete attacking machine from a Tipperary side with all six sharing in the adulation. It was Pat Kerwick’s finest day in the jersey; Lar Corbett will be remembered for that hat-trick as well as setting up another; John O’Brien’s input was again significant, this time more as provider than scorer; and Callanan may have missed out on the goal-fest but he added three points to the rout.

So, with unexpected ease Tipperary march on. Liam Sheedy will do well to dismiss this semi-final as an irrelevance when considering the decider. For most people it’s the ideal final pairing, one that we can now anticipate with relish.

For Limerick it was one of those horror shows that’s best forgotten. One wonders what the fall-out will be in its aftermath. I have high regard for Justin McCarthy as a decent and passionate hurling man; he was highly complimentary of Tipperary both before and after this game. Still he’ll face questions about the preparation of the team and how it was laid out on the day. With little emerging at underage level Limerick hurling looks to be in a troubled state at the moment. Still I think we can sometimes exaggerate the long-term impact of such a defeat. After all it took Waterford less than a year to restore dignity after their All Ireland mauling.

The big news locally is that the green light has been given, it seems, for all four divisional finals to go ahead next Sunday. The management won’t worry unduly about the North and West affairs but they’ll keep their fingers crossed with regard to the South and Mid where no fewer than six of the Tipperary team will be in action.

I’ve been trying to get precise details on these finals but you’d nearly need to use the freedom of information act in some cases. I think it’s pathetic that in the modern communication era the G.A.A. is still behind the door in terms of disseminating information. By Tuesday morning I’ve pieced together some of the details but not all.

The West has a Sunday evening fixture at Golden where Clonoulty defend their title against Cappawhite. By general perception these are the two best sides in the division so it’s a final that holds out some prospects. As holders Clonoulty will be fancied and will have ambitions outside the Western boundary. Tipperary captain of 1997, Conor Gleeson, does the coaching for them. Austin Buckley, hero of Cappawhite’s famous county final win in 1987, will be in the opposite corner.

Unfortunately the West event is clashing with the South final scheduled for Kilsheelan also on Sunday evening. The meeting of Killenaule and Mullinahone is one that Liam Sheedy will fret about with four of his All Ireland side in action. At one end you could have Declan Fanning policing Eoin Kelly and Paul Curran facing Pat Kerwick at the other. Killenaule have been the most prominent Southern side in recent years and will presumably be fancied in that one.

The North has an afternoon fixture and it’s a novel one with Liam Sheedy’s club, Portroe, in their first decider tackling regular finalists, Eire Og Nenagh. The North has seen the emergence of lesser known clubs in recent years, such as Kildangan, and Portroe are part of the pattern. Still they’ll be outsiders against a Sean Treacy managed Nenagh team.

I have no detail on time or venue for the Mid fixture. Like the North it’s a novel event with Upperchurch making their final debut after defeating Sarsfields in the semi. They’re coached by Cashel’s T.J.Connolly and after seeing them in earlier rounds I wasn’t surprised by their progress to the final. They’ve a lively mixture of youth and experience and neighbours Drom won’t take anything for granted in this one. Still Callanan and Woodlock will lead the fancied side in that one wherever, and whenever, it takes place.

So on a hectic weekend of local action Nenagh, Drom\Inch, Killenaule and Clonoulty are all fancied to take the honours, though local ‘politics’ can often throw up a surprise or two when neighbours tangle. And through it all Liam Sheedy will be on his knees praying for safe hurling. Won’t we all.

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