Westside Column 25 May 2018

WESTSIDE

 

For Tipperary it was a dismal introduction to the new hurling format – an abject display that puts the team under immediate stress.

As per the new structure, there’s no time to lick wounds and soothe the hurt. Cork roll into town on Sunday for episode two, buoyed by their win over Clare.

These are troubling times for Tipperary hurling. The team malfunctioned, the manager has gone silent and the public is left bewildered. Unless there’s a dramatic turnaround it could well be a short summer season.

Our troubles began on Friday night with the team announcement. An immediate text popped up on my mobile from a man who knows a few things about the game: “Can’t see that team winning”, he wrote. I responded, “Terrible team. What are they at?”

I had been mildly critical of selections throughout the league series, but there was always the counter argument that the league was for experimentation, for trying new options, shuffling players around and discovering your best formation.

But this was different. This was championship. You put on your best suit for championship because this is what everything is geared towards.

Think about it. We had eight league games, plus challenge matches, in-house games and a training schedule running since deep winter. Everything was focused on preparing for May 20 and the start of this newfangled round robin series. It was all geared towards having our best team ready for the visit to Limerick.

Yet we headed Shannonside with a line-out that featured a new goalie, new full back, new midfield pair. A third of the team was making its championship bow. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Tipperary was in the throes of transition. Of course injuries had played a role, especially the losses of Barrett and Cahill, but you looked at the bench and saw that it was well staffed with All Ireland winners like Brendan Maher, ‘Bonner’, Callanan, Breen and Barry.

By any yardstick the selected team represented a massive gamble by management, one that backfired spectacularly.

Liam Sheedy is a well respected but mild-mannered analyst who never goes heavy on the criticism – especially not against his former colleagues. Yet he felt the need on ‘The Sunday Game’ to point to the shortcomings of the selection: “I thought five (debutants) was a step too far when you had the likes of Brendan Maher, ‘Bonner’ Maher and Seamus Callanan and so much artillery on the sideline”.

The selected team and its experimental nature set the tone for this game. It was a tone of uncertainty and doubt, which seeped into the overall team performance. For championship you want the team to be, above all, without hesitancy, driving into the play, giving it everything you’ve got.

Instead we got a very stale performance in a game that was very un-championship like. There were times when it looked more like one of those tournaments to mark the opening of a local pitch.

The word intensity is probably over-used nowadays by sports journalists but it still captures that rawer element of championship matches where teams go at each other with a ferocity that is not found in other competitions. It was a quality mostly lacking at the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday.

There was an exception in the lead-up to Tipperary’s first goal. That little flurry of tackles and blocks was more like traditional Munster championship hurling. The adrenaline was finally pumping.  Eventually Billy McCarthy drove the ball goal-wards where John McGrath’s one-handed swipe crashed the ‘sliotar’ off the base of the post; Dan McCormack dispatched the rebound with venom.

However, it was an isolated cameo. Soon the match returned to its pedestrian pace. For those of us who watched the Cork/Clare game afterwards the contrast was striking. Here was a game of real intensity by two teams who were truly up for the challenge.

That first Tipperary goal gave us traction in the match which our overall play hardly deserved. The early evidence in defence showed Donagh Maher in trouble, getting drawn into fouls which eventually brought a yellow card. Strangely Seamus Hickey escaped a similar sanction at the other end for his repeat offending on Jason Forde.

Forde’s frees kept Tipperary in the contest, much to the annoyance of some Limerick fans. Otherwise Limerick was doing the smarter hurling.  Graham Mulcahy was a particular menace in attack hitting four first-half points – a significant tally in the context of a low-scoring half.

Seamus Kennedy and Alan Flynn were surviving okay at full back but our half line was far from dominant. Willie Connors had some early plays but we were getting little enough from midfield at this stage and the attack was making minimal progress.

Limerick came closest to a major breach when Gearoid Hegarty diverted a speculative lob goal-wards; Brian Hogan made an athletic intervention to bat it away. Limerick wides kept their tally down and a few characteristic solo efforts from the McGrath brothers kept ours ticking over.

Individual incidents can often be telling of a team’s mood. Late in that first half Ronan Maher got possession around midfield on the Mackey Stand side of the pitch. A point seemed well within his compass but instead he sent an aimless ball towards the right corner flag. We seemed obsessed with balls into that corner where the returns were slight.

Former referee, Brian Gavin, has become the latest commentator on events with his ‘Examiner’ articles and he suggested that John McGrath should have seen red on his incident with Sean Finn. It would have been harsh on the forward who was being dragged by the defender. Incidentally the head-high foul on Jason Forde in the lead-up to that incident went entirely unpunished, something Mr. Gavin failed to comment on.

Anyway the half time bell came with Tipp the marginal leaders though the better hurling was clearly coming from Limerick. We needed to up the ante significantly and introducing reinforcements was one route to encourage improvement. Sadly it didn’t happen at half time.

The second half brought no appreciable change to Tipperary’s game. Donagh Maher fouled again and this time the management finally decided the risk was too great; Sean O’Brien replaced him and the Newport man himself was almost immediately booked.

Eventually Brendan Maher came in for Willie Connors but our hurling remained insipid. The striking was poor and the marking at times very slack. The longer this continued the more Limerick’s confidence lifted.

Our wobbliness in defence has been well noted but the attack actually declined as the game advanced, hitting a mere two points from second-half play. Dan McCormack was an exception though that wide he hit was pitiful at this level of hurling.

Gradually Limerick inched ahead before Forde’s goal brought us back on terms. Once again Billy McCarthy was the supplier of the ball that Forde latched onto before finishing from close range. McCarthy hit a purple patch midway through the half but we were getting only snippets of input from the McGraths and even less from ‘Bubbles’. High ball into attack was yielding little return as a harder-working Limerick easily mopped up the breaks.

There was only one way this tie was heading and the arrivals of Callanan and ‘Bonner’ were too late to halt the trend. A late and heavy hit on Brendan Maher went unpunished in another poor refereeing call. By now we seemed clueless in attack as Limerick hit the front through points from the likes of Diarmuid Byrnes, Gearoid Hegarty and Cian Lynch. Their star was on the rise, their confidence up and we had little response. John McGrath might have drawn a free (penalty?) on one attack and ‘Bonner’ had a late opportunity that would have been of consolation value only.

Ultimately the clincher came from substitute, Barry Murphy. Barry Heffernan was poor under a high lob and the forward had free passage on goal before batting past Hogan. The goalie might have advanced to make it more difficult but the primary blame falls on the defence.

In the end there was no disputing the outcome; Limerick were sharper, more energetic in general play against a hugely disappointing, dispirited-looking Tipperary. You can waffle on all you like about this tactic or that but in the end it comes down to the collective will of the teams and in that regard Tipperary was a poor second.

It’s as bad as any reversal of recent years. Few players came out of the game with credits. I’d exempt Dan McCormack for showing typical combativeness even if his options and execution at times were faulty. Billy McCarthy deserves mention too for a significant input. He wouldn’t have been my choice for a substitution late in the game.

Otherwise our attack depends too much on fitful contributions from the likes of the McGraths and ‘Bubbles’ – classy in their way but not dominant enough in the game. I was disappointed with Jason Forde’s second half input; he did well on the goal and on free-taking but Hickey’s fouling seemed to wear him down as the match progressed.

Serious issues surround the capacity of players like Donagh Maher, Barry Heffernan, Willie Connors and Sean Curran for this level of hurling.  It wasn’t a great day for the Sarsfields’ Mahers either, though Ronan improved in the second half. Seamus Kennedy was a qualified success at full back, winning some and losing some, while Brian Hogan justified his call up to the number one spot.

The subs were too late to alter an established pattern – Brendan Maher did best of those called upon.

I have no idea what prompted Michael Ryan’s media ban, which to me is self-defeating.  Much better if he came out and put his hands up with a mea culpa for managerial mistakes and a promise to do much better next time. That would have been gracious and have drawn plaudits for its honesty.

What does the ban achieve, apart from adverse publicity? The ironic aspect is that he’s very capable in those media events. He’s articulate, tactful, diplomatic and protective of the players. This wasn’t a good move by the manager.

Next up Cork. Amazingly we’re still favourites to beat them. The footballers too are slight favourites. Actually on last week’s evidence we might have a better chance of winning the football. In which case I might even turn heretic! Seriously though we wish them both well.

All I can say to the hurlers is you’ve heard the criticism now let’s see your response. Over to you.

 

 

 

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