Westside Column 13 April 2018

WESTSIDE

 

It was a depressingly familiar outcome.

Once again Kilkenny hold the Indian sign on our hurlers. There was no close conclusion this time, however; instead, second half ascendency browbeat Tipperary into submission. And once again we face a process of reconstruction ahead of the championship.

There are weeks when one enjoys doing this column – and then there are times when it’s a chore.  I missed last year’s league final and all the agony and angst that it aroused – this time I must face the unpalatable.

Disappointment, I suppose, is always relative to expectation and in truth I went to Nowlan Park with a sense of trepidation. The betting odds made no sense to me. Of far more relevance was past history. A win would have been momentous – but was unlikely.

The announcement of the team on Friday night did little to lift the mood. It had that air of experimentation that may have been okay during the league rounds but was unwelcome here. Not starting ‘Bubbles’ and Barrett made little sense. When they were eventually brought on board it was too late to turn the tide.

The first half of the action somehow failed to properly ignite. It was a stuttery spell with neither side developing any rhythm and a lot of scores coming from frees. Strangely it took Kilkenny twenty minutes to score from play and you had the sense of a game still waiting for take-off.

The first ripple of animation came with Forde’s goal following trademark vision from John McGrath. Sean Curran followed up with an immediate point and in boxing parlance we’d landed the first major punch.

However, Kilkenny rolled with the blow and remained unperturbed. T.J. Reid, despite being policed by Ronan Maher, was making a significant impact from play and frees as the game continued on its merry way.

In fairness the Tipp lads were working busily at this stage.  The defensive unit was offering a decent shield for Mooney in goal, Brendan Maher was the busier at midfield and there was lots of effort in attack too with Forde and McGrath prominent and McCarthy and Connors putting themselves about also.

We led by two at the break having benefitted from the wind, but you had that sense of a game still to catch fire.

Past experience would have warned Tipperary to watch Kilkenny in the third quarter, yet we were caught sleepwalking on the resumption. An instant goal from Walter Walsh set the second half tone and in truth we never recovered. The locals had upped their intensity and we failed miserably to stay with them.

A ‘Bubbles’ goal chance early on might have gained us renewed impetus but Eoin Murphy saved excellently and as Kilkenny’s grip on proceedings tightened they began to stretch ahead. Reid remained the main scoring source, though a few others also pitched in, while Tipperary relied entirely on Forde frees. The stats would show a single Tipperary point from second half play, which is quite an indictment of our efforts.

There was greater energy and industry in Kilkenny’s play now.  Their defence hunted in squadrons and we faced a virtual second half wipe-out on our own puck-outs. Midfield faded further and the strain started to show on our defence. Barry was in the spotlight again when Walsh twice pointed and eventually the full back was replaced by Donagh Maher with Paudie now tracking the Kilkenny number fourteen.

Conor Fogarty’s goal ended the contest; Forde’s second major from a twenty-meter free was fortuitous, saving some Blue and Gold blushes at the end. In truth we were comprehensively out-played in that second half and you could hardly crib with those who suggest that Kilkenny might have won by much more.

For whatever reason we seem prone to these days when we get heavily out-worked by an opponent – bullied and bossed even – and when that happens all tactical nuances become irrelevant. If the fundamentals aren’t there then nothing else works.

Very few Tipperary players emerged with credits. Flynn, Forde and McGrath were probably the main exceptions. The corner back has been a success story all spring and Forde too has established himself as an inter-county player of rare quality. John McGrath’s impact is nothing new to followers.

It’s an indication of Paudie Maher’s incredibly high standards that if he dips even slightly he’s regarded as having a poor day. He was still heavily involved on Sunday making a lot of plays and putting the clampers on Walsh late in the game (what a catch over Wally’s head!) but still in the general view it won’t rate as a career highlight for one who’s easily our most outstanding individual over many seasons.

Most commentary on Darragh Mooney relates to his puck-outs – he could do nothing on the goals. And yet this growing fixation with puck-outs can often be unfair to the goalies. We hardly won a puck-out in the second half but was that entirely Mooney’s fault? He’ll have to take the blame for some misdirected ones but for most deliveries the fault rested with our inability to win possession at half forward. Besides in many instances the lack of movement gave the goalie little option. Eoin Murphy often sent similar deliveries into his attack but Reid and company were hoovering them up.

James Barry too has been in the spotlight since Sunday. He’s always been a stand-in full back and has done so impressively in the past. At different times, however, his outfield instincts kick in and the penalty is heavy for someone in the last line of defence. It happened in last year’s championship game versus Cork and again on Sunday he got caught the wrong side of his opponent for that Walsh goal. He’s not a natural in the role but we simply don’t have a viable alternative.

The ‘Michael Breen for full back’ lobby has grown louder since Sunday. It’s always there in the background but every now and then it gains oxygen. The Ballina man certainly had impressive days at number three in his underage years but others see faults in his game which would leave him exposed in that role – such as his man-marking ability. In any case it seems most unlikely that the management will make that move at this stage of the season.

Barry Heffernan did reasonably well on Sunday and I note was recognised by Donal O’Grady on his team of the league. After his great display against Limerick Ronan Maher hit lower levels this time while his club mate, Mickey Cahill, did solidly at corner.

Midfield became problematic on Sunday, especially in the second half when Brendan Maher faded after a busy first period. Cathal Barrett worked hard to gain traction in the zone but longer term the consensus would see defence as his most suitable territory. I’m not convinced that Seamus Kennedy will find a home at midfield either and with Barry Heffernan doing well he could lose out on the championship fifteen.

Perhaps the more encouraging aspect is the likely return of the walking wounded who are mostly forwards. All are said to be well on the mend, which is promising ahead of May 20.

I thought Billy McCarthy made a useful contribution on Sunday last, still a developing player whose decision making has to be honed, but one with potential. Willie Connors is a feisty battler though his size is a drawback at this level. Michael Breen had a bad experience on Sunday and Sean Curran may struggle to make a championship fifteen also despite his undoubted willingness to graft.

The case of John O’Dwyer has been a strange one all spring. Initially he was being left out of team sheets back in January, then that injury restricted involvement further, and even when he returned he was given only limited participation. On Sunday he looked rusty and needs to sharpen focus now ahead of the championship.

Ultimately if all personnel return from injury then the attack should be strong; defence and midfield might be more problematic.

So the league has again thrown up more issues that it has resolved. All this guff about levels of experimentation and its value was over-blown. Ultimately we’ll return to known strengths. The emergence of Alan Flynn and the impact of Jason Forde were probably the two stand-out aspects of our league season.

For the management there are surely lessons to be taken also from the league experience.  Experimentation should be limited and measured in both personnel and positioning. Leaving Paudie and Noel McGrath on the bench that day back in February at Nowlan Park represented a lost opportunity. The line-out for Ennis was ill-advised too. Persevering with experiments into the final stages of the league isn’t wise either. You might risk forfeiting earlier games but finals are for winning.

Anyway, with the league over the focus now switches to club action with a full schedule of games planned for next weekend. The management will be nervous as the countdown to May 20 continues.

 

 

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