For once the bookies got it spectacularly wrong. Limerick belied the odds with a thoroughly defiant second half. Forward failure features prominently in our post-mortems.

The hurling order faces realignment: Munster is thrown wide open while our perception of our whereabouts needs some revision as we prepare for the scenic route via the qualifiers.

In the meantime it’s back to the bread-and-butter business of club action next weekend with a clutter of fixtures vying for attention. The eight divisional semi-finals will be obvious focuses.

The weather was glorious but the hurling outcome was galling. Disappointment is always relative to expectations, which makes this a particularly hurtful reversal. We approached the game in buoyant mood, all the pundits writing Tipp up and Limerick down, so that there could only be one outcome. Perhaps Jamesie O’Connor was the only one to offer cautionary words, seeing this as a slippery banana skin for Tipperary.

I’m sure Eamon O’Shea and colleagues repeatedly cautioned the players against any presumption, but unfortunately hurlers aren’t insulated from the real world. They read papers, listen to radio and watch TV – not to mention the modern fixation with web-based social media. Everywhere the players would have had the view reinforced that Limerick were second tier and couldn’t possible bring down a top-flight side.

And we played as if believing that hype. As a county we can’t cope with favouritism. From the earliest interactions on Sunday it was clear that Tipperary’s intensity level was a notch below Limerick’s. We were still playing league hurling taking time on the ball trying to toss it around to colleagues while Limerick were blowing up a storm of passion hurling. And the problem is that when you start off in that mood is almost impossible to readjust mid-stream.

A flawed, fumbly sort of game then from Tipperary with errors aplenty – missed passes, block-downs, fouling a line-ball, a puck-out straight to touch etc. and etc. Most critically of all we blew three or four goal chances in the first half when seeds of doubt could have been planted in the Limerick psyche. Callanan was far too gentle on the best chance after being set up by ‘Bonner’s’ little flick across goal. The same player did brilliantly later to work his way in along the end line but then miscued what should have been a tap-in.

We seemed determined to make a hero of Nickie Quaid when Pa Bourke once more failed to beat him on a clear chance. There’s not enough devil in our attacking play; it’s all scientific, light-touch hurling, lacking a hard edge. What a pity Eoin Kelly wasn’t around for some of those first half chances because he’d stitch them – and therein the chosen selection comes under scrutiny.

Kelly had a busy league series and most people would see him as a valuable starter. Okay he’d be beaten in some individual one-on-ones but if a chance arose near goal we haven’t a better finisher. A full line of Bourke, Callanan and McGrath looked a bit tame and each missed opportunity was like oxygen to the lungs of the Limerick men. Those Limerick defenders grew in confidence as the action progressed and by the end they were lords of all they surveyed.

In fairness to the management I suppose it should be pointed out that their options were limited by circumstances. Corbett’s inability to start removed a central component and then the late withdrawal of Jason Forde was further unsettling. Ultimately it was in the second half that our forward failings really came home to roost.

In the meantime we escaped the first half without too much collateral damage. Being three down was insignificant, a point underlined by the early action of the second half. John O’Dwyer’s entry for Shane Bourke was truly sensational when he posted 1-3 in rapid-fire salvos that suddenly titled the game Tipp’s way. This was as dramatic a championship debut as one can remember. Sadly in the overall assessment of the game, however, it stands apart as a flash item of brilliance in the midst of a sea of troubles.

We went four-up on the goal and then conceded a frustrating score when a defender was blocked down far too easily. At four-up it was time to drive on, add a few more scores and rattle Limerick’s composure even further. Instead we handed the initiative right back and we would never again regain it.

The remainder of the game was torturous viewing for Tipp fans. Our defence continued to resist heroically but at the other end it was as if the Limerick backs began to sense our discomfort. Increasingly we were posting ‘Hail Mary’ clearances into the forwards and our lack of ball winners became very pronounced. Limerick’s defence grew in stature, Richie McCarthy, eventually named as man-of-the-match, started to lord it on the edge of the ‘square’. Centre, Wayne McNamara, too became more influential and as a unit they started closing out every Tipp approach. By the end our forward line was utterly cowed by the superior force that was Limerick and the longer this game went on the bigger the likely margin of victory.

Limerick were now on that adrenaline surge. They had impact subs to call upon, principally Shane Dowling, whose influence was immediately felt. Heavy hits on the likes of Kelly and Shane McGrath underlined Limerick’s bullish mood. The injury to Brendan Maher further dented our prospects and in the end we could only watch disconsolately as Dowling drove a huge free between the sticks and Declan Hannon added to final nail with a point from the sideline.

Three was the end margin but there was no disguising the rich merit of Limerick’s success. It had been a thoroughly frustrating day for Tipperary, a fact highlighted by one little cameo near the end. Brave defending denied Limerick a score with Padraig Maher carrying off a particularly gutsy block-down. However, in the follow-up Maher lunged recklessly into an opponent conceding a free and getting booked. In his frustration he could be seen roaring downfield in the general direction of the Tipperary forwards. The forwards had failed the defence offering no relief as that second half progressed.

When it comes to assessing Tipperary displays most of the credits rest at the defensive end where perhaps Michael Cahill stood apart as the individual best making those telling bursts outfield. But as a unit that defence and goalie stood up admirably, Curran refusing to be baffled by Hannon’s roving and Kieran Bergin endorsing his league final impressions with another forceful performance. O’Mahony and Maher too were strong.

Our midfield was a bit more brittle. Brendan Maher did best, though somewhat below the form of the league final while Shane McGrath struggled for impact. In attack John O’Brien, scorer of three points, was one of our best with individual items from ‘Bonner’ and others but overall the texture of this unit was ragged – by the end it had become utterly threadbare.

All of which leaves Eamon O’Shea with major puzzles to solve ahead of the qualifiers in early July. He probably feels that the defence is secure enough though it may yet be necessary to move Kieran Bergin to midfield if Shane McGrath’s form doesn’t improve. However, it’s the attack which will keep him awake in the nights ahead. Lar Corbett’s return to health will offer more scope and we’re left wondering how Jason Forde would have coped in this environment; he’ll surely get his chance in upcoming games.

Principally, though, the management needs to address our inability to win primary possession – not to mention a deficit in work rate when not on the ball. How many uninhibited clearances came from the Limerick backs in the second half especially? Too many forwards seemed to be gone awol.

I have sympathy for O’Shea in the sense that he doesn’t have rugged forwards at his disposal so he has to plan tactically with that in mind. Still he can surely demand a far more vigorous effort from all players in future engagements. Defence begins with the corner forwards and if you want proof of that then watch how Limerick’s attackers worked on Sunday.

Getting the mindset right too will be a priority. We’re a giddy lot in Tipperary. Contrast that with the dead-eyed determination of Kilkenny irrespective of how much success they’ve enjoyed.

A popular theme now in the wake (appropriate term!) of this defeat is that Tipperary are back where they started from in 2010. I’m not so sure. This is a very deflating result and it will take a lot of repair work to mend the damage. The side has a break now until July 6 so there’s space at least to reassess and refocus. Then it will be the less glorious route of qualifiers with the added prospect of facing the likes of Galway and Kilkenny before September. Suddenly our summer looks a lot less promising.

For Limerick by contrast the summer looks a lot sunnier now. They’ll fancy their chances against either Cork or Clare in the final and after that anything is possible. For a county that has suffered more than its share of heartache in the past nobody will begrudge them this breakthrough.

In the meantime it’s back to local business and a veritable tsunami of club games this coming weekend. (Actually having to face the qualifiers puts added pressure on club fixtures because there will be fewer weekends available now). The divisional semi-finals will be the main highlight though those preliminary round games in the county series will also be watched with interest.

The West has its semis split between Saturday and Sunday with Clonoulty and Cappawhite in action on the Sabbath at Cashel (3.30) while Eire Og and Kickhams face off the previous evening at Cappawhite (7.30). The general expectation will be for another Clonoulty\Eire Og final unless Kickhams or Cappawhite can do a ‘Limerick’ on the odds.

The South likewise has its semis divided according to the most recent fixture I’ve seen. Swans play Ballingarry at Clonmel on Saturday (7pm) with Killenaule and Mullinahone at the same venue twenty four hours later. I was impressed by Killenaule recently and will be interested to see how they fare against the reigning champions.

The Mid has a double bill of semis at Holycross on Sunday. Loughmore and Drom will be fancied to see off Moycarkey and Upperchurch in the respective games. Up North it’s also a double decker on Sunday at Nenagh where Silvermines play Borrisoleigh and Kildangan tackle Toomevara. Otherwise you’ll have to consult the fixture list to get details of the county open draw series of eight games where the losers will drop to the O’Riain Cup.

P.S. A useful win by the intermediates on Sunday, especially given the requirement to select an entirely new side from last year. Ex-senior, Timmy Hammersley, led the point-scoring in a twenty to fifteen win. Another ex-senior, Darragh Egan, made a few important stops near the end. It was very light relief for what followed in the senior event.


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