A new competitive season kicked off on Sunday with Tipperary dishing out a lesson to the students of LIT. A facile win at a very wet Nenagh sets up a crystal quarter-final next weekend against Kerry.

Yes indeed, the new season is up and running and it’s great to be back and spectating even if these games are borderline meaningless. I sense impatience in Tipperary after the long lay-off stretching all the way back to July 6 and that fretful day at Nowlan Park.  It’s been a long hiatus but the clock has turned and here we are on the threshold of a new dawn.

The winter message from the management seems to be that there’ll be plenty of hurling action and a hunger to win everything in sight. Indeed I was mildly surprised at the vigour of Tipperary’s effort on Sunday given that this was merely a Waterford Crystal game in mid January. One little cameo in the first half saw Brendan Maher blow an opponent away without ceremony. It was a type of intensity that you tend to associate with mid-summer championship.

Tipperary’s line out was a mixture of the familiar and the new. Darren Gleeson was untested in goal; he’s in pole position to step into that vacancy though I imagine nothing is automatic – he’ll have to show he deserves it.  Cathal Barrett enhanced his rating with a very tidy performance at corner back beside an impressive Paddy Stapleton at full and Kilruane’s Jack Peters in the left corner.

We had a heavy duty half back line on show with Padraig Maher impressive in the middle and Shane McGrath and Brendan Maher likewise in fine fettle on the wings.  The placing of McGrath at wing back was noteworthy. His midfield career seemed to run aground last year so this might be a last chance to re-invent his inter-county role.

It was interesting to see young Ronan Maher get play time at midfield. He’s one of our most promising upcoming talents and coped well with the occasion beside James Woodlock.

The forwards had plenty of ball and ran up a huge total against very mediocre opposition. Probably the stand out contribution was John O’Dwyer’s dozen points, all bar three from frees and a ‘65’. On a sodden day his free taking was impeccable. Shane Bourke banged in our opening goal and Seamus Callanan hit the second from a ‘penalty’ after full forward, Denis Maher, was grounded. David Collins and Conor Kenny were either side of Callanan on the half line and pitched in with a pair of points apiece.

Noel McGrath and Lar Corbett came on for Callanan and Bourke at half time and there was a great cheer when Larry sank our third goal near the end.

All of this is in the context of a runaway win against poor opposition on a rain-sodden pitch.  They now head off to Kerry next weekend for the quarter-final.  That Kerry match will have an added dimension in the fact that the kingdom has a Tipperary management team in place, including a goalkeeping coach, would you believe.  Indeed.

On a week when the new season officially kick-started it’s probably an opportune time to cast a cold eye on the year ahead and reflect on the challenges that Eamon O’Shea and colleagues face if this Tipperary team is to return to the top instead of being forever remembered as the one-hit wonder of 2010.

Amazingly the bookies have Tipperary listed as second favourites for the 2014 championship just behind Kilkenny. It’s as if 2013 never happened. I suspect that both bookies and pundits alike are a tad unsure at this stage as to what the New Year holds for hurling. Was 2013 an aberration or did we witness the emergence of a new order? Expect the odds to fluctuate as the spring unfolds and the new season starts to reveal its colour.

The challenges facing Eamon O’Shea and his team are major. One title per decade has been our lot since the early 1960s and there’s no convincing evidence that we’re about to buck that trend.  Part of the difficulty seems to be that we can’t handle victory. For whatever reason success intoxicates Tipperary and then there’s an inevitable hangover afterwards.

So what should be the focus for Eamon O’Shea heading into 2014? To start with the class of 2010 is a bit jaded so replenishment is needed. There’s a worrying statistic that must be faced. In Nowlan Park last June we began with twelve of the starting fifteen from the 2010 All Ireland whereas Kilkenny had just six. One of Brian Cody’s tactics has been to constantly refresh the team while Tipperary kept trying to revisit past glories.

Of course finding the players to reshape the team is the problem and therein lies the challenge for O’Shea. On present evidence he has certainly cast a wide net in the hunt for reinforcements.

There are big calls to be made by the manager too.  We’ve had just one retirement since last year, which has surprised many onlookers.  Jimmy Barry Murphy, the gentleman Jim of Cork hurling, didn’t lack steel when it came to telling a player like John Gardner to sling his hook.  Some are wondering if O’Shea has the same ruthless streak.

Some chiding of players for their behaviour off-field might be in order to. There are exemplary characters on the team but there are others high on ego who need to be brought to heel. That could prove an even more difficult task than selecting players.

Eamon O’Shea will be well aware of the importance of 2014. He holds a treasured place in the hearts of Tipperary followers but fans can be fickle – and remorseless. Remember how the late Paidi O’Shea castigated Kerry followers as a rare breed of animal and Davy’s dad in Clare felt the need to rebuke the fans who poured vitriol on his son during the year. Kerry and Clare haven’t a monopoly on such types and Eamon O’Shea can expect to feel the heat if 2014 continues the pattern of recent seasons.

It’s going to be tough but I think O’Shea and colleagues have set out their stall and all we can do is wish them well in their endeavours.

P.S. There was a minute’s silence at last Sunday’s game for Jack Kennedy, Nenagh, who passed away at the weekend. His son Philip captained Tipperary to successive All Ireland U21 wins in 1980 and ’81. The Christmas period also claimed another stalwart of the association in Tom Collum of J.K. Bracken’s.  He did fantastic work as organiser of Munster colleges games. I’ll miss the regular phone calls with updates on the Harty as well as the friendly welcome to games at Templemore. May they both rest in peace.




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