Tipp have to get Kilkenny monkey off their backs
If Eamon O’Shea won’t quite be Moses addressing the children of Israel in Tipperary’s dressing-room tomorrow, it would be a surprise if there’s not something ecumenical in his tone.
He knows that Tipp can’t keep losing high-stakes games to Kilkenny without more rivets popping on the belief that, in 2010, they had a team upon which an empire might have been built. That All-Ireland final was trumpeted almost as the founding of a new faith.
We now know it proved nothing of the kind. Kilkenny beat Tipp in the next three championships and even took their scalp in last year’s league final, despite pitching up at Nowlan Park without their manager and with a coterie of their most ravenous forwards convalescing in the stand.
The standard guessing game in the Kilkenny dressing-room last May was trying to figure out if the selectors were even keeping in phone contact with Brian Cody, the great man confined to home, recovering from heart surgery. Any glimpse of Mick Dempsey or Martin Fogarty with a mobile to their ear triggered nudges and a gentle enquiry.
“Was that Brian?” “Ah God no!”
Even Cody-less and Henry-less and Richie Power-less and TJ Reid-less, Kilkenny eased home by three points.
They did so, essentially, by physical coercion. Tipp’s backs found themselves so pressured when clearing ball, they didn’t have time to pick targets. Of 10 forwards O’Shea used that day, six did not raise a flag from play.
Two months later, the teams reconvened at the same venue in circumstance nobody had foreseen, a phase two qualifier. Just one step up from egg and spoon.
Kilkenny won again, the sense of replenishment complete when, five minutes from the end of a nervy contest, Henry came clacking down the steps of the new stand to go on as a replacement. Some Tipp men looked inconsolable afterwards, among them Brendan Cummins, having just played his final game.
Now it’s very much a moot point what the long-term implications of Cummins’ loss to Tipp might be. They did not concede goals against either Waterford or Dublin in this league but, in their other five games to date, Tipp leaked a mortifying 18. Such figures, clearly, can’t be automatically presented at a goalkeeper’s door, but they do make people wonder.
O’Shea, to be fair, has been refreshingly honest throughout, never playing precious when the general tone of enquiry bore a serrated edge.
Yet he knows that Tipp are in Thurles tomorrow only because Dublin neglected to gallop through an unlocked door into the quarter-finals. That their best two performances of the year (scoring 5-49 in the process) followed that March reprieve doesn’t alter the fact that this can’t be seen, thus, as the enactment of a grand plan.
Tipp got lucky. Now they must get serious. Lose tomorrow to Kilkenny, even with the consolation of a bright performance, and it will be impossible to escape the suspicion that they no longer believe their relationship with Cody’s men to be anything but that with a dominant poker player who lets you keep the watch on your wrist.
When the teams produced a February classic this year, Kilkenny came from 10 points down to win by six. Now 16-point turnarounds aren’t exactly unheard of in hurling. But Kilkenny being on the wrong end of them is. And that’s the worry for Tipp, the sense of a recidivist strand creeping into this relationship with their neighbours.
Both have experimented hugely in this league (Kilkenny using 32 players; Tipp 31), yet Tipp have been depending on one primary source of scores (Seamus Callanan), while Kilkenny have had Colin Fennelly, TJ Reid and even old Henry stockpile on different days.
League finals don’t often throw up dependable portents for the year to come. Last year’s palpably didn’t.
There is even the possibility that, come September, tomorrow’s game will seem oddly local and trivial as tassles are being tied to the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Tipp have 19 league titles already and a 20th won’t exactly see bonfires lit.
But how can O’Shea engender confidence in this group if they again discover that Cody and Kilkenny have their number? That’s the pressing issue for him now.
Tipp don’t need the silverware anywhere as bad as they need to buck the trend.