Westside Column 12 January 2018



2018 promises to be an unprecedented year in the GAA’s history.

On many fronts change is the byword. A new Director General will guide the Association through pioneering times. Novelty will be the order of the day – new championship formats in hurling and football, new dateline for All Irelands, new age structures for underage competitions, new space for the clubs, new, new, new. It’s out with the old and in with the new, for sure.

These are extraordinary times, no doubt, and it will be fascination to see how in all pans out. Will we have the club carnage, as some predict, or will the basic unit of the association find a more comfortable niche in the calendar? Will the strain on inter-county panels prove too much?

For an organization traditionally denounced for its slowness to adapt these are truly revolutionary times. Will 2018 be an ‘annus horribilis’ or an ‘annus mirabilis’? Probably neither with some bits likely to work well and others needing adjustment.

Time will tell and the only certainty is that is won’t be a boring year.

For Tipperary hurling, which is the primary focus of this column, it promises to be a significant year too. We have a talented generation of hurlers carrying our dreams but the ghost of underachievement shadows their progress. Two All Irelands in seven years was a decent enough delivery but it can’t hide the lurking sense that it should have been a richer harvest.

2017 was a let-down. With the old enemy, Kilkenny, on the slide it should have cleared the decks for a smooth succession but up popped Galway to spike our hopes. A follow-up win has proved elusive for Tipperary once again and the present team stands now at a critical juncture.

The minor classes of ’06 and ’07, which gave us such a rich crop of players, is now edging ever closer to the ‘thirtysomething’ age bracket. Time is not on their side and they deserve to leave behind a greater legacy than a mere two All Irelands.

In advance of the season’s start the bookies have Tipperary listed as second favourites for 2018, just marginally behind Galway and well ahead of all others. The Tribesmen are listed at 9/4 with Tipperary on 11/4. Obviously those digits reflect last year’s tightness and there’s every reason to believe that the Tipp/Galway rivalry will again be the big story next summer, hopefully one with a different outcome.

Interestingly, and for those with a superstitious disposition, Tipperary has won three of its twenty-seven All Ireland titles in years ending in the digit 8. The last was sixty years ago back in 1958 when Tony Wall was captain. They beat Limerick in the first round, Waterford in the Munster final, Kilkenny in the All Ireland semi and Galway in the final. Any chance of an exact reprise in 2018? Well, we have another Sarsfields captain this time in Paudie Maher, we again face Limerick in the first round and it will be no surprise if Kilkenny and Galway are in the way at the latter stages.

One hundred and ten years ago, in 1908, it was another Thurles captain, Tom Semple, who led the side to All Ireland glory. They beat Dublin in a replayed final at Athy. Ten years earlier, 1898, it was the turn of Tobberadora, led by Mikey Maher, to tame the ‘Cats’ at Jones’s Road. Again they’d beaten Galway in the semi in what was a last hurrah for that great Tobberadora side.

It will be interesting to see if any historical parallels emerge this coming season. Incidentally years ending in the digit 3 are the only ones where Tipperary failed to win an All Ireland title in the past.

For the present team this year offers a chance for atonement and at this juncture I’m quietly confident that the turnaround can be achieved. One can see parallels with 1991 when the team rebounded impressively after stumbling badly the previous year when going in as champions.

A panel of forty is in heavy preparation at the moment but in reality one expects minimal change to last year’s line-out once championship time comes around. One area that will be closely monitored is that of goalie, following the retirement of Darren Gleeson. Darragh Mooney was ‘keeper last Saturday against Dublin and reportedly did best of the goalies from recent friendly games. For the moment then it’s advantage Mooney.

An interesting outfield combination was that of Cathal Barrett and Ronan Maher at midfield. It certainly has novelty though whether either is a viable option longer term for ‘Lar na Pairce’ I’m not so sure. We certainly weren’t fully happy with midfield last year so perhaps the management is tossing around options. Personally, though, I’d be surprised if either was numbered eight or nine in the summer.

It was good to hear of Jason Forde showing sharp form in attack last week as was the news that Noel McGrath orchestrated matters impressively from centre forward.

Less pleasing was to hear of Niall O’Meara being hospitalised after a heavy knock left him bloodied. He has been the most unlucky Tipperary player of the lot in recent years with a series of concussions and other knocks hampering his progress.

I missed that Dublin game and I’m not so sure I’ll make the long trip to Lorrha either next weekend when they play Galway champions, Liam Mellows, in their final game before the start of the league. We’ll see.

Overall the general vibe from the Tipp camp thus far is very positive. There’s certainly competition for places with many of the fringe players getting a chance to show their form during this ‘friendly’ season. Incidentally the Dublin game, I’m told, was anything but friendly.

Once the league kicks off on January 28 with Tipperary visiting Ennis the scope for experimentation will be very limited. A heavy season lies ahead.

The demands all of this puts on players is a topical issue at the moment, one that was given significant oxygen at the weekend by that Kieran Bergin interview in ‘The Irish Daily Star’. Feisty and forthright the Killenaule man didn’t spare the ash. Pull hard and pull low used to be an old war cry and Kieran certainly wasn’t holding back in his chat with Karl O’Kane.

It certainly feeds into a narrative that is gathering momentum countrywide. You regularly hear voices nowadays raising concerns about the level of commitment being demanded of county panels in an amateur sport. However, whether it’s wise to let rip in such a strident manner as Kieran Bergin did is quite another matter.

The Killenaule man was well recognised within the Tipp set-up as something of a free-spirited maverick, one who was unwilling to be confined by rigid stipulations. By his own admission in the interview he had plenty of run-ins with the management and perhaps this was his way of letting off steam now that he’s outside the fold.

Having to put your life on hold, being treated like a child, giving up drink for an entire year, having to beg for expenses and being patronized by managerial comments were all part of the narrative which had Kieran riled up and raging.

I’ve no doubt in all of this there’s another side that could be put by the management and County Board which would present quite a different, even contradictory picture, though I suspect the outburst will be met by official silence –  the silence of disapproval.

In all of this there may well be a valid point about the pressures and demands of county involvement but unfortunately for Kieran the interview reads more like a bitter outburst from one who feels aggrieved about how he was treated. His immediate switch to the football panel adds credence to this impression and blaming local journalist, Jackie Cahill, for that particular maneuver sounds downright silly.

Anyway nobody is forced onto a county panel, it’s a personal choice, and if you don’t like the heat then leave the kitchen.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that a new Director General of the GAA will shortly be appointed to replace the retiring Pauric Duffy; applications close on Wednesday this week. It’s interesting to see two Tipperary men, Liam Sheedy and Ger Ryan, being referenced in the media as possible contenders. Just being mentioned in this context reflects the high regard in which both are held within the Association. I wonder will either pursue what is a very challenging job?

Finally, it’s a sad week for hurling manager, Michael Ryan, with the passing of his father, Tommy, at the weekend. In interview last year he spoke of the central role his father played in fostering his passion for the game. We tender our deepest sympathies to the family.

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