Not since the early sixties has there been a bigger gap between Tipperary and Galway in a league fixture. A sparkling display from Tipperary sends Galway crashing to an eighteen-point drubbing. Shane Bourke’s personal input to the demolition was the individual headline item on a happy day for the blue and gold.

It’s a result that keeps our final hopes alive for the seventh round on Sunday week when Wexford visit the Stadium to complete the series. The odds are still against our qualification but at least we keep the pressure on others going into that final game.

What a performance! Heading into the West on Sunday it would have taken the foresight of those esteemed Old Testament prophets to predict such a comprehensive outcome. Even the known variability of league results could hardly stretch to such one-sided proportions when two of the top sides in the country collide. Yet, incredibly, an extraordinary game leaves us trawling the record books for a parallel from history.

You have to rewind back to the autumn of 1963 in fact for a wider margin between these counties in a league fixture. John F. Kennedy was leader of the free world and Sean Lemass was Taoiseach when on September 29 of that year Galway came to Nenagh for the opening round of the National League. During the summer Tipperary’s golden era had been interrupted by Waterford in the Munster final but the team began the new league in quite emphatic fashion. They rammed nine goals past the hapless tribesmen to win by a whopping thirty-four points, 9-14 to 1-4. The following spring Michael Murphy would captain the team to a league title.

Prior to that you have to go back to the thirties and beyond for big-score margins against the Westerners, such as April ’37 when the gap was twenty-eight points (10-2 to 1-1), or the ‘28/29 league when Tipp won by twenty-six (11-3 to 3-1) or even the previous year when Galway were thrashed by thirty-three points (10-6 to 1-0). Those were the days when goals often outnumbered points, hard-hitting days of more rough-and-tumble play when scores were often scrambled through crowded goalmouths in hurling’s equivalent of a push-over try.

In modern times of course Galway have claimed their place among hurling’s elite though their paucity of senior All Irelands remains an irritant west of the Shannon and a puzzle everywhere else. There’s one other past meeting of the counties I’d like to recall. It was the league final of 1979, which was played in Limerick. Bro. O’Grady was Tipperary coach and despite being outsiders they pulled off a resounding win over the Tribesmen (3-15 to 0-8) to claim the county’s fourteenth league crown. On the panel that day was a certain Paddy Bourke from the Clonmore club in Mid Tipperary.

Last Sunday Paddy’s son, Shane, announced his arrival on the inter-county scene with a stunning 3-4. For the media a new starlet was born, a new name to interview and photograph ahead of this summer’s championship. He may have arrived under the radar but a display like this means that his cover is now blown.

Of course he didn’t emerge from the woodwork overnight. He has a minor All Ireland from 2006 and spent two years on the county U21s, winning a Munster medal in ‘08. Down Cork way he’s been a highly-rated member of recent UCC Fitzgibbon Cup sides.  He got his first league start against Cork but only lasted until half time. Last Sunday, however, he made one of those impacts that will always be recalled whenever his name is mentioned in future. Incidentally he’s a nephew of Seamus Bourke who won a Munster U21 medal in 1978 and was part of county senior panels until 1983.

Bourke’s hat trick of goals was the most eye-catching aspect of Tipperary’s display on Sunday. The first, early in the second half, came at the end of a great ensemble movement involving several players. Shane was the last link in the chain and he fairly drilled it home from a sharp angle. The second goal was a classic steal by the forward on the full back before a neat overhead bat past the gaolie. The third was a more orthodox finish from left of goal. A new star was born for sure. The general perspective on the Bracken’s clubman is that he has pace, skill and attitude in abundance though he may find the physical rigours of this level challenging. We’ll see. For the moment he deserves all the praise after a remarkable performance.

The journey home from the West on Sunday evening must have been a pleasant one for Declan Ryan and his management team. After a choppy enough start to the league series the team has gradually settled and shown incremental improvement in each outing. They went into Sunday’s test with just eight of last September’s fifteen on duty. New names in defence and attack gave an experimental flavour to the side and to turn up such a dazzling display in those circumstances is indeed impressive.

Most encouraging of all perhaps was the attitude of the team who in the lingo of the times was definitely ‘up’ for this challenge. The work rate was of a high order and their ‘touch’ had a summer quality to it. The movement and combination of the side were other aspects that had Galway floundering in all sectors. Once they got to half time in the lead against that Atlantic wind it was difficult to see the trend reversing.

The second half was really a tour de force by the All Ireland champions. On top in every sector they built momentum and sustained the intensity to the end. The defence was towering, Curran excellent at full, showing typical bravery on one second-half block, Maher not far behind at number six and the others chipping in to complete an impenetrable barrier for Galway. At midfield then you had another dominant partnership in Gearoid Ryan and a much improved Shane McGrath. Shane Bourke took the attacking honours but Patrick Maher stepped up majorly on recent form (and broke a hand bone for his troubles), Corbett was influential and all six got on the score sheet. Sean Carey and Brian O’Meara arrived to share in the score-fest and it was all exhibition stuff by the end.

Of course – and here we interject a cautionary note – all of this must be tempered by a recognition of Galway’s ineptitude. Who’d be a follower of Galway hurling? One day they turn over Kilkenny in spectacular fashion and then they buckle embarrassingly to Tipperary. They certainly don’t do things in half, it’s famine or feast, visiting both ends of the spectrum in turn. Form? What form? There’s still a fickleness at the heart of Galway hurling that leaves them the most frustrating of entities in the GAA world.

And yet Galway might still win this league. Remember last year they came to Thurles and crumbled in the second half scoring a mere point. Angry words were reported from the dressing room afterwards and of course the record shows that they put that reversal aside and went on to win the league. They’ve had an up-down campaign so far this year, annihilating Wexford, doing something similar to Offaly, crashing to Cork, crushing Kilkenny, lucky against Dublin and now abysmal against Tipperary. What odds now of a backlash against Waterford in the final game, which would ensure qualification for the final against Kilkenny.

We need to view Sunday’s win in the context of such variable form. The time and space we were afforded on occasions was amazing. Galway looked shapeless being dragged apart and having no leaders to hold the centre together. Joe Canning was on the sideline. They need him and Damien Hayes and Shane Kavanagh and others back on board soon if 2011 isn’t to slip away like so many of its predecessors.

For Tipperary the story is more encouraging, though that injury to Patrick Maher is another unwelcome addition to a long list of ailments. I think the management will take major encouragement from the form of the newcomers who blended in seamlessly. John O’Keeffe is slowly and quietly establishing a base at half back. John Coghlan is showing merit too. Perhaps neither will be championship starters when Stapleton and O’Mahony get back but the options are increasing.

Gearoid Ryan’s midfield form has been a revelation. What happens when Brendan Maher returns? Then you have Shane Bourke making a major impact in attack, hopefully offering more options. Brian O’Meara continues to show signs of merit though still needing to convince. John O’Neill was back on Sunday too. And remember it’s an attack without Kelly and McGrath as well as Callanan.

We’ll be expected to beat Wexford in our final game, though it may not be enough to earn a place in the league final. We need favours from Waterford against Galway and Cork against Dublin. It’s certainly possible though the odds are surely against both results falling favourably. Galway will find it difficult ‘away’ to Waterford, though the reported injury to Richie Foley is bad news for the Deise. Incidentally in the event of a tie on points the result of the head-to-head between the teams will decide the winner. If the teams drew when they met then score difference will decide.

It’s quite remarkable that league positions will only be settled in the last of seven rounds of games. I suppose it indicates just how erratic results have been. In a sense it counters the argument for changing the system to include semi-finals, though I think the present series of games have been quite eccentric and are hardly representative of what happens on a more ‘normal’ year.

In other games at the weekend Colm Bonnar’s Wexford pulled off a major coup by beating Cork, though it’s unlikely to save their bacon. They need points from Semple Stadium because if they finish level with Offaly then the midlanders survive on the basis of their head-to-head result. This relegation is a much-criticised system, seen as having a very negative impact on counties who take the drop. We employed similar arguments with regard to our domestic club championship in past years and after a few seasons without relegation it’s now back for 2011. Is there any perfect system?

Interesting to see that Clare are really struggling to get out of division two, losing last week to Laois. A curious scenario has now developed where Limerick play Antrim in their final game and if the Northerners win it will keep Clare out of the decider. A Limerick win will assist Clare. How should Limerick approach that one? I’m sure they’d regard Antrim as easier final opponents but they can hardly take that attitude into the next match.

Finally the local championships are already starting with the Mid in action last week where Loughmore had a comfortable win over Moycarkey. Boherlahan play Upperchurch this week and there may be other fixtures too, so consult the list. The first week in April is early action for club teams who could quickly find themselves in the ‘B’ grade if they don’t show immediate form. On top of that emigration is likely to hurt many clubs this summer. Challenging times indeed.

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