Tipp hoping to capitalise on season of volatility
O’Shea’s men can still rise from flames in topsy-turvy campaign
MARTIN BREHENY – PUBLISHED 22 MARCH 2014 02:30 AM Irish Independent
When Eamon O’Shea faces the media in the Semple Stadium corridors around 3.35 tomorrow afternoon, he may well be in a position to declare: “sure what was all the fuss about? Aren’t we in the league quarter-finals?”
Tipperary begin the day at the bottom of Division 1A, with one win from four games and the worst scoring difference in the six-team group. But, on what is highly likely to be a fluctuating Sunday, it wouldn’t take much of a shift to hoist them into fourth place and a quarter-final clash against the winners of 1B, most likely Cork.
It’s as straight-forward as this for Tipperary. If they beat Dublin by four points or more and Kilkenny beat Waterford by three or more points, O’Shea will be planning for a quarter-final tomorrow week.
Tipp have no control over what happens in Nowlan Park, but since Kilkenny need to win to be sure of a quarter-final booking, events will probably take care of themselves in Tipperary’s favour. That leaves them requiring a minimum four-point victory over Dublin and since home teams have won 11 of 12 games in the group so far, it would, in ordinary circumstances, appear like a very attainable target.
However, it has been a fraught month for Tipperary, losing to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway, conceding an average of 4-17 per game.
Worrying about relegation seemed a long way off for them when, after beating Waterford in the first round, they led Kilkenny by 10 points on the half-hour mark next time out. That’s where it started to go spectacularly wrong.
Incredibly, in their next two hours, 30 mins of hurling, encompassing the final 40 minutes against Kilkenny, the full game against Clare and the opening 40 minutes against Galway last Sunday, Tipperary were out-scored by 11-37 to 1-34, a differential of 33 points. A lower-end Division 2 team would have expected to do better than that.
Despite those 150 horrific minutes, Tipperary could still reach the quarter-finals. They were only two points better off going into the final group game last year, but easily beat Clare and went on reach the final. Waterford, who led the table into the final round, dropped to fourth after losing to Galway and didn’t even make the knock-out stages.
A five-game group is more a blitz than a genuine league, so the margins between top and bottom (two points last year) are always likely to be very tight. However, the concern for Tipperary is that they are the only team to lose three of four games, with all of the losses coming in succession.
All three defeats can be attributed to catastrophic defensive lapses. Clearly, the security alignment has been seriously faulty, but once it’s improved – as it undoubtedly will – Tipperary have a whole lot going for them. Rightly, the high concession rate in a concern in the county, but on the plus side, only Clare and Kilkenny have scored more than Tipperary.
It’s all part of what has been a volatile first four rounds. With the exception of Tipp’s three-match slump and Clare’s all-round solidity, it has been a league of confusing shape and texture. Even then, Clare had a brief wobble, losing by six points to Dublin when the margin could have been a whole lot more.
The results pattern really has been bewilderingly uneven. Galway thumped Dublin before dipping to two defeats before rebounding against Tipperary. It has been a case of one step back, one step forward for Dublin; Kilkenny and Waterford lost their first game and won the next two, but lost the fourth.
Most form threads have snapped under the strain. How could Dublin lose so heavily to Galway, who lost to Kilkenny who, in turn, lost to Dublin? How could Waterford take such a tanking from Clare, who lost to Dublin who, in turn, lost to Waterford? Even Kilkenny, usually the most solid of anchors in even the choppiest waters, have found consistency hard to locate.
The unpredictable results sequence inevitably leads to claims that the league is unreliable in gauging the overall state of play. It’s an easy assumption, but it’s not necessarily accurate. The reality is that several counties fall into a band where they are capable of beating each other on a given day.
If that happens in the league, it’s classed as a negative against the competition when, in all probability, the exact same would apply if all the top teams met each other in the championship. Last year, Clare lost theMunster semi-final to Cork by eight points, yet came back to win the All-Ireland title, overturning the June result in a replayed final.
It was the same a year earlier when, Kilkenny lost the Leinster final to Galway by 10 points, yet came back to win the All-Ireland title, overturning the July result in a replayed final. Clare’s All-Ireland triumph was the big story of last year, yet they might have easily have been eliminated in the qualifiers by Wexford, who took them to extra-time.
Clare won easily over the additional period, but if normal time had extended for a further 30 seconds it’s quite possible that Wexford’s momentum would have taken them through.
This year’s league is giving every indication that standards are again extremely even at the top end of the market. Just how far that extends will be tested tomorrow week when Laois, who are most likely to finish fourth in 1B, take on the 1A winners.
Laois manager, Seamus Plunkett spoke during the week of how much they were looking forward to testing themselves against the superpowers. On the basis of the last year, Laois are making genuine progress and have plenty of scope for more advancement. Playing against 1A teams will enhance that process.
The only outstanding item to be settled in 1B is who fills the promotion slot. Cork are best-placed, having nudged a point ahead of Limerick and Wexford, whom they host in Pairc Ui Rinn tomorrow. Limerick blew a glorious chance to lead the group into the final day (on scoring difference) when dropping a point against Offaly last Sunday, but would still win promotion if they beat Laois and Wexford beat Cork.
It’s all much more tense in 1A where the only certainty is that Clare will be in the quarter-finals. Galway and Kilkenny are well-placed to join them, leaving Dublin, Waterford and Tipperary battling for the last slot and an escape from a relegation play-off.
There are so many permutations that it’s best to allow the action take its course and see what it delivers. On the basis of the campaign so far, it certainly won’t lack for drama.