WESTSIDE COLUMN 2 JUNE 2012

It was a day of fluctuating emotions in the white heat of a Munster championship battle. First came the agony as Limerick’s vim and vigour seemed to bamboozle Tipperary for over fifty minutes; then came the ecstasy of a premier riposte as Tipperary finally found the men and the method to rescue the occasion in dramatic fashion. A real scare then for the Munster champions who have much to ponder now in the month-long lead-in to that semi-final show-down by the Lee. For Limerick the qualifiers beckon but once the initial disappointment subsides they’ll dwell on the many positives from this brave effort.
It may not have been a hurling classic but in many other aspects it had all the colour and drama of a typical Munster championship clash. You had the romance of the underdogs having a pop at the top-dogs; the tension as a swelling lead seemed to signpost a major upset; the puzzlement of the home fans versus the delight of the visitors; then came the drama, the twist in the tale, the fight-back. At the end of it all emotionally-drained fans traipsed from Tom Semple’s field either delighted or dejected depending on your side of the fence.
For Tipperary it was a case of all’s well that ends well on a day of very mixed emotions. Against Cork in the league semi we looked flat (Declan Ryan’s word), without bounce or bubble. For much of this championship encounter the mood was similar. We were still playing league hurling on a day of championship demands.
Little cameos in a game can often capture the prevailing mood. Early in the first half Pa Bourke broke onto a ball about fifty metres out in front of the Old Stand. He was alone in space, the freedom inviting a pot at goal. Instead he headed off on a solo run before turning into heavy traffic and having to off-load. The chance was gone. That particular cameo seemed to sum up much of our faulty play early on. We looked ponderous, slow in thought and deed – in short playing league hurling on a championship day.
By contrast Limerick were well up to speed. They looked sharp and pacey, playing an uninhibited brand of hurling, one that showed scant regard for the betting odds that had this game labelled a mis-match in advance. Their defence was tight and tigerish, midfield was winning a fair deal of ball and the attack looked sprightly. Shane Dowling showed early promise from play and frees and Mulcahy and Tobin appeared to be on jet-fuel.
We were struggling and could be grateful for one incisive moment that threw up a peach of a goal to stall Limerick’s early progress. John O’Brien initiated the move with that over-the-shoulder toss of the sliotar to ‘Buggy’ O’Meara. A neat hurley-pass to Pa Bourke was then followed by a rasping finish to the net. John Allen later identified that goal as a key moment in undoing a lot of Limerick’s early work.
Yet it wasn’t a score that instantly ignited Tipperary’s game. In fact it was Limerick who kicked on and soon Brendan Cummins was plucking one from his own net. The goalie made a superb stop initially from Graham Mulcahy but in the follow-up Michael Cahill’s attempted clearance was half blocked and when the ball was returned to our goal area Mulcahy danced past Padraic Maher and this time gave Cummins no chance. Cahill had a nightmare opening phase not helped by a ridiculous booking for an offence that was scarcely even a foul. Paudie Maher too was finding the height of David Breen an inhibiting factor while at the other end missed frees by Kelly were symptomatic of Tipperary’s overall slackness.
‘Buggy’ O’Meara had done most to fire up our attack with Pa Bourke pitching in too and the odd little neat insert from Noel McGrath. One high catch by John O’Brien deserves special mention; it was an absolute salmon-leap into a forest of hurleys before plunging to earth on the back of Gearoid Ryan.
We got to the interval just a point adrift, which was fortunate enough given the trend of the first half. Limerick had done most of the best hurling, Tipperary fallible and faulty all over. Shane McGrath had arrived early on for an ineffective Woodlock but otherwise the management was holding its fire. The interval offered time to regroup and reignite – or so we hoped.
Yet it was Limerick who re-emerged with fire in their bellies and that third quarter was an absolute horror show from Tipperary. For whatever reason we seemed unable to cast off the lethargy. Limerick were still buzzing and popped over a series of superb points. Dowling, Tobin, Mulcahy and Allis were among the shooters. Tipp seemed in deep trouble now drifting out to a seven point deficit and seeming unable to fire up the engine. The Limerick fans were in full cry beside a muted Tipp brigade.
There was nothing for it only to empty the bench and for once this year Tipp had rich resources sitting pitch side. Eoin Kelly was the first to go after some rough treatment by the Limerick rearguard and an unsympathetic referee – more on that topic anon. ‘Bonner’ Maher arrived in his stead and the fruits of the move were immediately evident as the Lorrha man started haring towards Killinan. Suddenly we had a cutting edge in attack, one that would ultimately unsettle a Limerick defence which heretofore seemed unflappable.
Shortly afterwards Conor O’Brien arrived for Donagh Maher bringing more benefits. What a difference a year makes? Then Callanan came on board for Gearoid Ryan and Shane Bourke for John O’Brien. The cumulative impact was quickly evident. Inevitably there was probably an element of fatigue setting in to the Limerick ranks also after such an energy-sapping effort. That will remain a debated one Shannonside with the background rumblings from Ciaran Carey decrying the physical preparation of the team.
Whatever the source of the power shift Tipperary suddenly found a footing in this game. Limerick wilted. The points began to roll to the delight of the home supporters. Noel McGrath, Pa Bourke, Shane McGrath and a sweet one from John O’Brien were all part of a steady point sequence that shrank the Limerick lead. But the major lodgement that really turned this tie was the goal. ‘Bonner’s’ charge towards goal floundered in a huddle of desperate defenders but somehow the ball emerged from the ruck for ‘Buggy’ to deftly flick home a precious score. Incredibly Tipperary were now in the lead and what remained was simply the encore. A Bourke free was followed by a rousing point from Conor O’Brien. Callanan, deprived of a goal earlier, now got on the score sheet and Shane Bourke wrapped it all up with only a solitary Shane Dowling response from Limerick.
Limerick’s mentors have taken the flak for moves during the crisis – especially the withdrawal of Downes – though these things are often irreversible anyway when the trend goes against you. By contrast Declan Ryan and colleagues are enjoying the plaudits for moves that paid a rich dividend. The withdrawal of Eoin Kelly in particular is now seen as brave – it might have been otherwise if we needed a ‘penalty’ taker late in the day to save the match. These things are fickle with often the thinnest of lines separating fame from shame.
So in the end Tipperary escaped to victory. That final quarter, however, will hardly camouflage what went before. For far too long Tipperary looked pedestrian. Defensively, for example, we’re some way short of the finished article. Apart from the outstanding Conor O’Mahony I’m not sure any other starting defender could be fully happy with his display and that right flank in particular needs urgent addressing. Thomas Stapleton looks strong going forward, hitting a great point early on, but Conor Allis exposed another facet of his game with one streaking run in the second half. By now I’ve come round to the view that the only solution is the placing of Brendan Maher at number five. It would do much to shield the corner where Donagh Maher or Paddy Stapleton could then do a job. It’s a bullet I hope the management bites.
We learned a few other nuggets on Sunday too. Teams are discovering how to cope with Padraic Maher by matching size with size. David Breen did a very effective stifling job on Sunday so don’t be surprised if the likes of Pa Cronin squares up to Maher in the Munster semi. And Conor O’Brien has emerged as a strong contender for a start the next day. He’s a utility player who can slot in almost anywhere including midfield where he operates for his club.
In other areas we have to hope that the likes of Michael Cahill and Gearoid Ryan and even Paul Curran can step up in form for future challenges. On the more positive side Shane McGrath’s return to excellence is a welcome boost and in attack we have real options now where ‘Bonner’ must start the next day and Callanan and Shane Bourke are pushing for recognition too. Then there’s Lar. So you balance the plus and minus factors and there’s real potential here if a few items can be ironed out. Hopefully that final quarter will be the spark that now ignites an exciting summer for the blue and gold.
For Limerick there’s much to be positive about too. They went in as rank outsiders and gave it a mighty lash with a precocious team. Insert Seamus Hickey and a full fit Declan Hannon into the mix and the potential multiplies. The likes of Tobin and Mulcahy have lightning pace with the potential to embarrass any defence if given the right ball and Shane Dowling looks like a quality player. They’ll agonise over this tendency to fade out in the final quarter as evidenced against Clare in the league decider and now again in the championship. I suspect it has more to do with inexperience than fitness levels or maybe it’s something self-destructive in the Limerick gene pool – remember that fateful All Ireland against Offaly.
Anyway what’s important from their perspective now is to maintain stability and allow this crop of players develop and mature. What they certainly don’t need is more sniping from within. They’ll be awkward opponents in the qualifiers.
Last Sunday’s referee, Barry Kelly, has drawn fire over a number of decisions and non-decisions in what was a bad day for the official. The failure to award Eoin Kelly a free after three blatant, even bookable fouls near goal was inexplicable. And what about Donal O’Grady’s lame attempt to suggest that he might have been allowing advantage. Allowing advantage presupposes that the player is in a position to take advantage instead of lying prone after being brought to the ground. Incidentally wasn’t that ‘Sunday Game’ programme quite a vapid attempt to analyse the game? RTE is paying these pundits quite a lot, it seems; they should start earning it.
Apart from the Kelly incident my other crib about the referee on Sunday was the ‘bottling’ of big decisions. A Limerick defender was yellow carded early in the first half, albeit very harshly. The same player then administered a so-called professional foul on Noel McGrath later in the half when the Tipp man was through on goal. It should by rule have earned a second yellow and with it dismissal. Likewise in the second half the ref seemed to be opening his little book following a foul on ‘Bonner’ Maher but suddenly put it away again presumably because once more it would have meant a second yellow.
Anyway there are certain things we’ve come to expect over the years. I note on a Monday paper an interview with Sean Boylan who rated Barry Kelly as the best referee around. Indeed and indeed again.
P.S. I know I seem to be on a rant about refs at the moment but was it my imagination or did that Sligo official do us no favours in the football game. Very generous to Kerry I thought.

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