Westside column

Westside column

All round it was a most satisfying Sunday for Tipperary G.A.A. The footballers earned praiseworthy promotion from division four, their victory over Mick O’Dwyer and Wicklow aided by a friendly favour from Waterford. But the jewel in the crown was the hurlers’ sparkling display in the league decider. A game of fine spectacle saw the side resist Galway’s late push and take a deserved nineteenth title.

So the promise of the earlier league rounds reaches fulfilment in a decider that has won widespread praise for its spirit as well as its sparkle. The contrast with Parnell Park invited obvious comparison. Poor Paddy Russell seems always to be caught in the crossfire of these battles, though with typical courage he refused to blink at the demands of the situation and waved five red cards.

Barry Kelly had no such demands on his shoulders at Limerick as Galway and Tipperary brought the curtain down on the ’08 league with a memorable final, one totally free of rancour. It will sit well alongside Tipperary’s previous eighteen. Beating Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway on successive Sundays represents quite a feat for team and management. They’ll enjoy this week in Portugal, the timing now looking inspired.

As a final this one will compare favourably with most of its predecessors. From recent memory perhaps only the ’03 score-fest against Kilkenny surpasses it as a spectacle. We’ve had plenty of tame finals too in games where upcoming championship fixtures tended to overshadow the event. This time there was no shadow for either Galway or Tipperary and the teams went after the prize with a wilful zest which guaranteed a final of genuine buzz right to the end.

A trademark of Liam Sheedy’s short term in charge has been to place emphasis on fitness and work ethic. Morale too has been a valued commodity and it’s instructive when you hear a player say that they’re hurling with a smile this year. Clearly the new management has succeeded in gelling together a highly motivated side, something which baffled his predecessors.

We’ve tended to focus on the defensive qualities of Tipperary wins in this league but after Sunday the attack too can take a bow. Corbett was clearly the cutting edge, the one personality who unnerved the Galway rearguard every time he chased down possession. His goal was a trademark one – and crucial to the pattern of the game – but he also scored a brace of points, set up others and might even have inflicted more damage but for a few wrong options in the first half. He was a popular man-of-the-match recipient and is clearly crucial to our championship prospects.

Others too in that attack took major credit. Kelly’s first half especially was impressive as was Willie Ryan’s second. Woodlock’s soloing may not always yield up scores but it is unsettling for the opposing defence. Then there was Seamus Butler, anonymous for the first twenty minutes but by game’s end the supplier of half a dozen points. His availability to take passes and his accuracy were major items in this win. Ryan O’Dwyer had less luck against an impressive John Lee but overall we had reason to be very happy with an attack which punctured Galway for 3-18 and left the Tribesmen with a few issues to sort ahead of the championship.

Midfield featured another in a line of big contributions from Shane McGrath, the most improved player on the team. His partner, Benny Dunne, had a more mixed day, doing reasonably well in the first half but fading in the second before being replaced.

The defence by now has become accustomed to lavish praise throughout this league campaign. It has cemented into quite a formidable unit. Curran and O’Mahony are central, both literally and metaphorically. The full back started slowly in the spring but has by now returned to his combative best. After years of bemoaning the lack of an established centre back, O’Mahony has finally delivered. The resultant stability is obvious.

Others too added their quota to the rearguard. Buckley was outstanding in the first half especially and Conor O’Brien has continued to earn respect as a developing corner back. Corcoran had his problems with Damien Hayes and was hampered by injury before being substituted. On the other wing Shane Maher had a slightly tentative first half before stepping up commendably in the second. Declan Fanning and Diarmaid Fitzgerald will have to show patience on this trend.

One cannot ignore Cummins either on a day when I thought his much-debated puck-outs showed commendable variety, some low-trajectory to midfield while others over-flew the half forwards to find Corbett and company. One brave second half stop was another significant item on the plus side.

The first half was high-tempo and intriguing. Galway had the wind and immediately Damien Hayes was ‘losing’ Corcoran; he scored four first half points. On the Tipp side Kelly from play and frees was monopolising the scoring, though Corbett was looking dangerous. Crucially though apart from the Corcoran\Hayes issue the Tipperary defence was doing the business with great assurance. Buckley had a tight rein on Canning and Curran and O’Mahony were clearing freely. McGrath was highly influential at midfield though there were some adverse factors in attack where Willie Ryan, Ryan O’Dwyer and Seamus Butler had yet to make any mark. John Lee and Adrian Cullinane were dominating on the Galway half back line.

It was a point-swapping exercise until the final eventful minutes of the half. The Galway goalie, James Skehill, had driven a huge point from a free deep within his own half but, from hero to villain he played an unfortunate part in Tipperary’s opening goal, misreading Benny Dunne’s shot from out on the wing. It was a giveaway score but the value didn’t last long because Galway had a cancelling strike before the break. Canning showed great strength in worming his way goalwards before Fergal Healy got to the break to poke it past the diving Cummins.

Still it was a profitable half for Tipperary, a point up after facing the wind. Woodlock made a few strong runs at the defence in the second quarter and Seamus Butler had come more into the picture near the break but still we needed improvement from the attack.

The second half began brightly for Tipperary. After Corbett and Canning (free) swapped points Willie Ryan slipped through the Galway defence and made no mistake with our second goal. But in an eventful game Galway hit back. Canning seemed unthreatening near the corner flag but suddenly an overhead pass prised open our defence, substitute Aonghus Callinan the last link in the chain with a simple tap in. Was he in the ‘square’ for the final pass? Probably, but nobody complained.

Back at parity it was now an engrossing tussle and remained on a knife edge until a key moment ten minutes from the end. Damien Hayes raced through once again but opted to pass and missed his target. A let off for Tipperary and immediately the damage for Galway was compounded when Cummins’ puck-out found Corbett who raced in to smash home our third goal. Worse followed for Galway as Corbett, Willie Ryan and Butler stroked over further points to put us seven-up and looking sweet for a comfortable win. It was a purple patch from Tipperary. On such cameos games turn.

But there was to be no comfort zone for Tipperary in this contest. By now Galway had Shane Kavanagh at full back to police Corbett and they moved Adrian Cullinane to attack in a bid to rescue the game. For Tipperary Corcoran finally gave in to the pain and Alan Byrne was introduced – surprising it wasn’t Fanning. Seamus Callinan arrived for Ryan O’Dwyer and John O’Brien replaced Benny Dunne with Woodlock returning to midfield.

Galway will take comfort from the final ten minutes. Canning sparked the revival with an extraordinary goal. He seemed to be no threat when collecting possession about forty yards out but somehow managed to evade a few defenders and head goal-wards. En route he passed Buckley (there are times when one must foul, even risk a yellow card) and from the left of posts with the ball spilling away from him he somehow swivelled the wrists to flash one past Cummins. Game back on.

The final phase of the match was nervy for Tipperary. Encouraged by Canning’s goal Galway came at the leaders with a series of pacey raids. The lead shrivelled to one point but Butler was on hand to take Callinan’s pass for an insurance score. Again Galway came at Tipp, Hayes bearing down on goal before Conor O’Brien executed a classic hook. In the end we held out, relieved, excited and breathless.

It has been a remarkable series from Tipperary building momentum through the early rounds and then coming with a surge in the knock-out phase of the competition. Management and players have our appreciation for reviving spirits after a dismal few seasons. Now to build on the progress.

I like Liam Sheedy’s pragmatic approach working on the basics of fitness and focus and clearly creating the environment where players feel comfortable. It’s hardly the finished product yet but there is a basis now from which to approach the championship. Our profile has suddenly risen and any talk of championship prospects will now factor Tipperary into the equation.  That’s progress.

What of Galway? Ten minutes from the end they were heading for a substantial defeat, which would have been deflating for all concerned. Canning’s goal, however, inspired that late surge and saved the day. They still have some difficulties in defence, full line especially, though the return of Ollie Canning will tighten the cover in that zone. I’m not sure they’re totally confident in their goalie either and one side of midfield struggled too on Sunday. Against that Joe Canning has added a powerful dimension to their attack and I suspect they’ll be a major threat to everyone in the championship.

On a happy weekend for Tipperary G.A.A. generally there was one downer in the shape of Thurles C.B.S.’s one-point defeat by De La Salle in the All Ireland Colleges’ final. Another cracking game it seems – I didn’t see it – another great comeback by the C.B.S. but then a tantalising loss at the end. It’s heartbreaking for the lads and probably little consolation to hear compliments on their brave showing. The All Ireland at least proved that the Harty final was a freakish day, one that didn’t do justice to their capabilities. Hard luck to all concerned.

P.S. I’ve been critical of referees all through the league, could find little to compliment in any of the Tipperary games. It’s a pleasant change then to be able to finally praise the man in the middle. Barry Kelly hasn’t always been our favourite referee in Tipperary but credit where it’s due he was outstanding on Sunday. Mind you the fine spirit shown by both teams was a help but he was accurate and decisive throughout. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of him during the coming championship.

P.P.S. There was much criticism of the thirty-euro admission charge to the Mackey Stand on Sunday last. It does seem family unfriendly to charge so much, even for a league final. Another crib: the G.A.A. could do much more to promote these games. They had no problem with lavish publicity campaigns to draw crowds to those appalling ‘compromise’ games but there seems to be little investment in a league final. Hurling especially needs all the oxygen it can get and Sunday last was a lost opportunity.

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