Isn’t it amazing how just a few weeks can utterly transform a county’s hurling outlook?

In mid March there was deep despair about our prospects and now a month later we’re anticipating another league final clash with Kilkenny. ‘All’s changed, changed utterly’, to quote those immortal words by Yeats, words which will be very familiar to Leaving Certificate students swotting for June.

It’s certainly an altered landscape. Suddenly the pundits are singing our praises; there’s a tinge of blue and gold on the horizon once again.

The recovery has been incremental, starting with the Dublin game where we did just enough to stumble over the line. Beating Cork in the ‘quarters’ was a definite step up; and now dismissing Clare brings us a few notches further on.

So what has been the catalyst for this turnaround? In the nature of these things it’s not one single item but rather a number of factors coalescing. During our worst moments in the league we seemed to have forgotten the first principle of hurling structure: secure defence. We learned some hard lessons as a consequence with Kilkenny, Clare and Galway riddling us for 12-51 in three matches.

Since then we’ve made defensive security a priority. Having a fuller compliment of players available has helped in this regard – as has better selection choices. Brendan Maher’s deployment at centre back has been one central part of the jig-saw. On Sunday he again filled that ‘pocket’ between the full and half lines to offer added safety for the inside men.  Unlike March 3 in Thurles our inside backs were less likely to face a last-man, one-on-one situation with Conor McGrath and company.

Paudie Maher’s role at full has plugged a gap too; it’s not ideal but in the absence of alternatives it’s the best available. Sunday underlined another aspect also: Conor O’Mahony is a half back, his hard, physical presence in that area is critical. Then you have the ongoing impact of Cathal Barrett and the discovery of James Barry who played like a veteran on Sunday. Even with Paddy Stapleton out injured and Michael Cahill unusually quiet we still looked mostly secure at the back.

Once the defensive issues were addressed we were always going to enhance our prospects because, ironically, even on our worst days in the league rounds we were running up hefty score totals – 6-53 aggregate in our three defeats, giving an average of almost 2-18 per match.

Moving from defence we seem to have discovered a working formation for midfield in Woodlock and Bergin, their contrasting styles giving variety in the area. Then in attack Callanan has stood apart as the key man throughout the league. This time he was supplemented by ‘Bonner’ Maher’s explosive contribution on those two goals and Niall O’Meara’s growing impact as a genuine ‘find’. Even on a day when the others were less prominent we still had Clare under considerable defensive pressure and with slicker finishing could have hit them for two or three more goals.

Through all of this progress the team’s confidence has soared and confidence is critical. With confidence players show for the ball and attack the play – without confidence they hide and gaps appear. The vibe from the team all week was that they were ready for Clare and it showed.

Clare’s opening goal – one of the very few occasions when our defence was wrong-footed – might have unnerved a lesser team, but Tipperary quickly recovered and with Callanan the lead scorer the wind advantage was soon opening a gap on the scoreboard. ‘Bonner’ Maher’s dash and delivery for our first goal was a critical boost. Through hard work and tracking of Clare’s roaming players we were stifling their efforts while the attack was keeping the scoreboard ticking away nicely. A hasty whistle stalled a great goal chance from O’Meara’s feed to Callanan, though on balance we got a few critical refereeing breaks also during the game.

Seven-up at half time was bubbly but hardly intoxicating giving the strength of the wind. Within five minutes of resuming it was back to just three points on Donnellan’s bouncing finish to another goalmouth scramble.

What was most encouraging about our second half display was the refusal to be awed by Clare’s advances. ‘Bonner’s’ second goal was a thing of real beauty. The free award to James Barry was fortunate but Conor O’Mahony wasted no time in dispatching it towards the Lorrha man before the defence could settle. ‘Bonner’s’ tap down into his hand, the run in and the precise finish to the corner was textbook in quality.

As you would expect from All Ireland champions Clare kept coming back with points of real quality but they hit a huge tally of wides also – fourteen over the hour – and that was enough for Tipperary to keep safely ahead of the chase. Niall O’Meara became even more of a menace for Clare as the game advanced and with fresh-legged subs like Shane Bourke and Gearoid Ryan getting on the score sheet the game was decided well before the end. Indeed better finishing from Callanan and later Woodlock could have shut out this contest even more decisively but Clare have a goalie of real quality in Donal Tuohy.

In the end it was a happy day all round for Tipperary. Goalie Gleeson has now established himself as number one; both goals were follow-up items after saves and even on the second score he was unlucky not to keep Donnellan’s bouncing effort out.

Another lesson from Sunday was that Shane Bourke is an impact sub and not a game starter. Gearoid Ryan’s introduction was a positive development too for one who has been plagued by injury.  Michael Breen’s first taste of action was timely as well. Callanan was given the man-of-the-match accolade and few would quibble with that.

And so it’s back to the future and another tilt at Kilkenny, this time thankfully on home turf. It’s a different game and a different challenge but a great one to anticipate. Bring it on.

Speaking of anticipation there’s the second round of the county senior hurling championship this coming weekend with twelve games on the schedule. Clubs with footballers involved in the division 4 final on Saturday at Croker are exempt. Check the list for exact details. Incidentally wouldn’t a league double be sweet.

After the second round of the county hurling series it will be the turn of the divisions to kick off and I note with interest that the West launched its programme with great fanfare last week in Tipperary town. Once again they’re indebted to Tipperary Co-op and Supervalu for sponsorship and had RTE’s Marty Morrissey on board to do the launch. I’m told it was Marty anyway and not Mario Rosenstock!  These are testing times for the West and the senior hurling is crucial to financing all other grades.

Finance is vital too for the Tipperary Supporters’ club and their mission to back our teams in their championship quests. Once again they’re looking for members with the fee unchanged at thirty euro. The benefits of membership include a draw for five pairs of stand tickets for each of Tipperary’s championship games as well as receiving news of Tipp teams by text and of course the Tipperary scarf. Please join and support the cause.

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