Westside Column 18 May 2018

WESTSIDE

 

The system may be new but the rivalry is ancient.

The counties first met back in 1895. At the time Queen Victoria was still on the Throne in England, Grover Cleveland was President of the United States and Frank Dineen was President of the GAA. More importantly – much more importantly! – Tipperary and Limerick met in the Munster Championship for the first time.

Thus began a rivalry that has since been ever present. Cork may have been our greatest rivals over the decades but Limerick come a close second. We’ve met on 68 occasions, winning 35 of the clashes, losing 23 and drawing 10.

That drawn total of 10 is significant because we lost five of the replays, won just four of them and drew the remaining one as part of the trilogy of games back in 2007. This time, with the round robin system in place, there won’t be a replay in the event of a draw.

It’s a rivalry that’s always intense and felt most acutely by those living in the border zone where passions can easily be whipped up.

On a personal level I spent my professional life in an environment where there was always a strong Tipp/Limerick mix. There was always a lot of good natured ribbing going on, though without the toxic element that can sometimes enter such banter.

Former colleague, Paddy Kelly, a fine Limerick player of the seventies and eighties, would often tease that he never lost a championship game to Tipperary during his career – which was true. Just to dilute the impact I’d usually reply that nobody else lost to Tipperary either during those dark years of the so-called famine.

My oldest memories of Tipperary and Limerick go back to the early seventies. I wasn’t in Killarney for the famous 1971 Munster final on that day of rain, ‘dry balls’ and John Flanagan’s priceless winner. I recall the unbearable tension while listening to the radio commentary and having to leave the house only to return later to be told the good news.

I got to the All Ireland alright where we out-gunned Kilkenny in a high-scoring affair. It would be our last hurrah for almost two decades.

In 1973 Limerick got their revenge in the Munster final through that controversial Ritchie Bennis ‘seventy’. I sat despondently in the Old Stand as the white flag went up and a Tipperary defender belly-poked the umpire. Hawkeye was still in the realm of science fiction and there wasn’t even video footage to provoke repercussions. That was a quality Limerick side, one which deservedly won its All Ireland.

Anyway that’s all part of the historical narrative. The rivalry has gone through its share of swings and roundabouts in the intervening years. The ‘Babsian’ years enjoyed supremacy over the Shannonsiders with a quartet of wins between 1988 and 1991. Limerick retaliated in the mid nineties before Tipperary took control again; then the noughties were mixed and the present decade has had its variations also with Limerick pulling off wins in 2013 and 2014 before Tipp hit back in ’15 and ’16.

The sides head to the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday from very different perspectives. The present Tipperary side is well established whereas Limerick is very much a work under construction. U21 wins in 2015 and 2017 fuel the optimism Shannonside and it would be silly to dismiss the value of those achievements in terms of confidence and morale.  Theirs is a young, emerging side, full of the swagger that underage success breeds.

The league too will have bolstered their optimism. Getting out of division 1B was a major breakthrough and our extra-time win in the league semi-final won’t have dampened enthusiasm too much down Treatyside. They’ll be gunning for this game and Tipperary better be prepared.

As always a championship opener brings an element of uncertainty, an edginess if you will, because regardless of the quality of the preparation there’s a sense that you won’t really know your whereabouts until the ball throws in on Sunday.

For Tipperary there are other aspects too feeding into the nervousness. The league final defeat was a let-down and the next few weeks will ultimately decide just how damaging that reversal was. For the moment I’m prepared to minimize its significance but that view will be tested in this round robin series.

Injuries are a part of the discussion that can’t be ignored either. We suffered a heavy toll in the spring, especially at the attacking end and even if all are now deemed fully recovered there’s still the issue of match-fitness.

Predicting Tipperary line-outs has been a perilous occupation so far this season but nonetheless that won’t prevent us from speculating. By league’s end Darragh Mooney had claimed the number one spot and one assumes nothing has altered in the meantime. One aspect of his game that could be useful is his long puck. He regularly hits four or five points from out the country for Eire Og, which is a major bonus to any team. Eoin Murphy is doing the same for Kilkenny.

There’s huge speculation around our inside defence. Alan Flynn will be there and probably James Barry also with no alternative full backs emerging. Mickey Cahill is battling a hamstring injury, so Donagh Maher comes into the frame as well as Cathal Barrett with a general expectation that the Holycross man will return to the rearguard if fit – he too has hamstring issues.

The Maher brothers will surely police the ‘forty’ but there’s competition for the remaining spot. Barry Heffernan is the man in possession from the league series but Seamus Kennedy and Joe O’Dwyer are in contention also.

At midfield Brenan Maher needs an accomplice. There’s some speculation that it might be Noel McGrath or Dan McCormack but others see Michael Breen as the likely partner.

The attack was badly depleted during the league and with everyone recovered there will surely be a return to known strengths this time. How about a full line of Callanan, Forde and John McGrath? And perhaps Dan McCormack, ‘Bonner’ Maher and Noel McGrath on the half line? Where does that leave ‘Bubbles’? Sean Curran was a league regular and Niall O’Meara is also back from injury.

Any way you size it up there are major options at that attacking end and the management may decide to hold some powder dry until this tie comes down to the home strait.

For Limerick too it will be instructive to see which line-out carries their hopes. They played the league without the Na Piarsaigh players but have since been reinforced by their return. In the league they had Seamus Hickey and Declan Hannon forming the defensive spine with the likes of Richie English and Diarmuid Byrnes playing important roles. Cian Lynch was midfield with Kyle Hayes and Seamus Flanagan anchoring the attack. The Morrisseys of Ahane are of Cashel descent and Aaron Gillane was impressive during the league series. Then you add in players like Dowling, Casey, Lynch, Breen and company from the county champions and it all adds up to quite a sturdy formation.

They’ll be tough. John Kiely, former student, colleague and then boss of mine, will have them well primed for the job. He’s one of their own, home bred, has worn the jersey, and knows the Limerick psyche. You could say a quintessential Limerick man, full of passionate intensity but not lacking in organizational nuance and resourcefulness either. All the necessary background preparation will have been ticked off in advance, alongside highly rated coach, Paul Kinnerk.

It’s a fascinating one to anticipate. On the Limerick side one senses some fretting about the potential of the Tipperary attack. With all the big guns back in harness it does look powerful, assuming they hit form. On the other hand Limerick will have noted our defensive vulnerabilities and will see potential here if they can create space and run at our backs. Will they employ a sweeper to cover the defensive end or go man-on-man? Or simply have designated midfielders or half forwards falling back as events require?

Above all else I expect it will be a typical Tipp/Limerick clash. Traditionally we’ve often found their energy and zeal difficult to tame. Strong Tipperary sides have often found mediocre Limerick ones awkward – and this Limerick formation is talented if unproven at this level.

Given the new structure it will be crucial to get off to a winning start. In past years if you made a losing start you had the fall-back of a few handy qualifier rounds to get you refocused for the serious end of the championship. This time there’s no such leeway. Lose on Sunday and we face a huge challenge seven days later against Cork. This Munster series is a breath-taking sprint; if you’re off the pace it could be over before you realise it.

Way back in 1895 that first ever clash was played at Kilmallock where Tipperary won by 7-8 to 0-2. There will be no repeat this time. We struggled to edge them out in the league semi-final last March. I expect a similar battle this time and if the outcome is the same it will be a happy day.

P.S. Good luck also to Tommy Dunne and his minor lads who open proceedings at the Gaelic Grounds. And to the Tipp footballers who should have too much for Waterford on Saturday evening. Wouldn’t a weekend treble be sweet?

 

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