Westside Column 2 June 2018

WESTSIDE

 

Seldom has a draw felt more like a win.

It was a day of swirling emotions for Tipperary followers as first half gloom gave way to second half glee. It will be remembered as the day of the great comeback – and hopefully a tipping point in our championship season.

What an extraordinary day of twists and turns! The old game continues to mesmerize fans with its endless capacity for drama and spectacle. The sudden-death element may be gone from the Munster series but you’d never have known watching this priceless pageant in Tom Semple’s field.

Where to begin? Perhaps the team announcement on Friday night is as good a starting point as any. The fall-out from the Limerick defeat kept Tipperary in the limelight all week with the management shipping much flak.  Michael Ryan did a very wise U-turn on his media ban but there was still much apprehension in the county ahead of the team announcement for the visit of Cork.

Ultimately it was no surprise that the changes were wholesale. I suppose it was a case of needs must. The experiment had backfired spectacularly and it was back to known and familiar strengths.

And yet we winced and cringed as the first half unfolded. We’d hoped for a swashbuckling response from this revamped Tipperary side but instead it was more of what we’d seen against Limerick. Once again the team looked ponderous and off the pace as Cork set an immediate tempo.

Crisp and pacey, the rebels were pulling us apart.  Our inside defence was immediately in the firing line – Cahill having a nightmare –  but it wasn’t lost on followers either that much of the trouble was emanating from further out. We could get little traction at midfield or half forward so the Cork defence had time and space to fire perfect deliveries into the attack.

The likes of Harnedy, Kearney, Horgan and Kingston reaped a rich harvest on the back of this outfield dominance by their colleagues. The movement and positioning, as much as the pace, of the Cork attack, seemed to be so problematic for the home side.

Time and again the Cork half backs planted perfect ball into the corners to forwards who had stolen yards on their markers. This is a game plan that needs precision; it requires synchronization between defence and attack, something Cork have perfected.

Approaching the quarter-hour mark we looked to be in dismal disarray with the scoreboard reading seven-nil. Our best chance at retaliation had come when John McGrath fed ‘Bonner’ but the latter’s shot was brilliantly saved by Nash. Earlier ‘Bonner’ missed a simple chance of a point. The only note of relief came with Cork’s mounting wides total.

For a brief spell then in that first half Tipperary showed cause. It came from a moment of sheer brilliance from Jason Forde. In the lead-up ‘Bonner’ made some progress but Billy McCarthy’s effort was easily blocked down. In the follow-up McCarthy poked the ball ahead to Forde who showed ballet feet to slip a defender and then unleash an unstoppable shot to the corner of the net.

It was our first flag coming over thirteen minutes into the play and was immediately followed up by a Brendan Maher point after he’d blown an opponent aside in the lead-up. This was more like it from Tipp; this we hoped marked a turning point, an awakening after a sleepy start.

Sadly we were mistaken. Cork soon reasserted themselves and normal service resumed for the Leesiders. In so many areas of the pitch we couldn’t get close, our frustration shown when Paudie Maher came with a late attempted hit on Kearney, which drew a yellow card – Cahill had previously been booked for a neck-high tackle on Harnedy.

Cork continued to mix points and wides and then Shane Kingston stole in for their goal, Mickey Cahill looking particularly poor in his effort to get across and cover. The half time whistle was a relief, Tipp nine-down and looking woeful. Incredibly our inside defence had remained intact despite the battering; ultimately it would survive the day.

The half time chat was funereal. Tipperary hurling was in crisis, an experiment hadn’t worked the previous week and now the tried and trusted were also floundering. One could only imagine the morbid mood of the dressing room. ‘Bubbles’ replaced ‘Bonner’, which hardly seemed a recipe for redemption at the time.

Andy yet what unfolded in the second half re-wrote the script of this day. It would remind us once again that in the heat of great hurling battles it is the collective will of teams that matters most. You can rabbit on forever about tactics and the like but ultimately it comes down to things like spirit and willpower and dander and raw courage to win games.

Tipperary adjustments did help – such as sending Ronan Maher to midfield and Brendan to half back – but ultimately it was attitude that turned this game. Noel McGrath spoke later of the role that pride played in the recovery.

An instant pull across Ronan Maher’s leg in the second-half throw-in gave Forde the free and the point which kick-started the recovery. The full forward’s free-taking has been an immense asset all year. Tipperary now looked busier, players getting to the action more readily, hooking, blocking, harrying. The dander was definitely up. The brothers McGrath tacked on points, Forde hit two more frees, one a monster from his own half after Paudie made a typical catch. Tipperary hit five on the trot. This was more like tradition – Cork rattled, Tipp eating into the lead, game on.

It would develop into a mighty second-half struggle. All over the field now Tipperary was in a different mood. Let’s be honest, Cork’s game dipped – they could hardly sustain the first half tempo – but Tipperary came up several gears. No longer could the rebels execute the easy delivery or find the colleague so handily with a pass. Tipp players were now getting into their faces. Terms of engagement had changed.

If you wanted proof of how play at one end of the pitch affects the other end then this was it. In the first half our defence was tortured due to the perfect supply from Cork’s half backs particularly; now our defence was getting on top because the supply was more laboured.

All over Tipp players were working slavishly to close down the opposition. Paudie was now more influential and Ronan upped his game at midfield beside an improving McCarthy. Brendan helped to further tie up that defence while in attack the McGraths were imperious.

The comeback was on. Briefly Cork stymied the flow to push the lead back out to six. Goalie Hogan went airborne to pluck one from the clouds to deny Darragh Fitzgibbon what would have been a rousing point. Forde drove a ‘65’ before John McGrath did marvelous work to keep the ball in play in the lead up to a ‘Bubbles’ point. McGrath junior hit two on the bounce and suddenly the sides were level. This was a comeback of massive proportions.

But it wasn’t all one-way. Cork’s mettle was tested and they found the response, Harnedy and then Kingston on the double put them three up again with just about as many minutes left.  It looked like it was going to be one of those days where Tipperary were gallant in defeat.

But again there was more to come. ‘Bubbles’ brought a save of the ages from Nash; Forde pointed the ‘65’. Another attack and John McGrath from the sharpest of angles cut the margin to the minimum. This was edge-of-the-seat fare as two minutes of added time was called. Another attack and Cork defender, Sean O’Donoghue, dithered, allowing substitute, Jake Morris, to angle over the leveler.

Hawkeye added more tension as an umpire showed no faith in his eyesight and the referee called time almost immediately, happy to embrace the parity and a share of the spoils.

Tipperary credits will be mostly concentrated on that incredible second half, though some, like Noel McGrath, were winners all day. Goalie Hogan come out with enhanced reputation looking cool and efficient. The inside defence was truly tortured in the first half, Cahill especially, but steadied the ship in the second period. The half line too stood up manfully in that second spell at a time when McCarthy and Ronan Maher got the best return from midfield.

In attack John McGrath got the TV man of the match award for an incredible second half mainly. I’d have given it to brother Noel for his game-long input even when all around were struggling. Forde’s goal and free-taking were huge in the context of the game; he had a useful hand too in the second goal. Dan McCormack for his typical battling deserves mention. ‘Bubbles’ hit one point and brought that great save from Nash but there’s surely much more in him if he can get into the proper groove mentally and physically.

I’ve left Seamie Callanan until last but not because his part was insignificant. He’s on a comeback from serious injury and has done very little hurling this year but I felt his attitude and work ethic was phenomenal on Sunday. I’ve no doubt if he continues injury-free his input will blossom over the summer.

There’s no space left to do much anticipating of the Waterford game on Sunday at the Gaelic Grounds. Injuries and suspension have left the Deise in a precarious position so Tipperary should be well placed to drive on. The problem is whether that second half from Tipperary on Sunday was a sting from a dying wasp (as some would like to believe!) or a real turning point in our season. Time will tell.

Meanwhile I watched a recording of ‘The Sunday Game’ on Monday. Loughnane in order to bolster his preferred thesis of Tipperary as a spent force stated that four of our defenders are over thirty and we have no U21s. Extraordinary that a well-paid RTE analyst could get his facts so spectacularly wrong – and no one corrected him. Shefflin acted as his echo and it was left to Cyril Farrell to make the best contribution.

Finally there’s a recurring theme emerging in Brian Gavin’s ‘Examiner’ pieces. It suggests that Cork are purer than pure, a referee’s dream. He was at it again this week: “… when Cork are involved you know half the battle as a referee is gone”. Does that suggest you only referee one side? Maybe he thinks it’s still the ‘Cork Examiner’ he’s pandering to! Either way it’s an outrageous suggestion and one that could well influence his refereeing colleagues. Someone should have a word.

 

 

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