Westside Column 26 May 2017

WESTSIDE

 

So, now at least we know that the league final wasn’t a bum steer. Instead it was a trailer of what would unfold in Thurles on May 21.

For whatever reason Tipperary hurling has lost its zip and zest and the revisionists will have a field day now reassessing our position in the broader scheme of things. The backdoor beckons in around six weeks time as we begin to doubt the team’s ability to rebound from two damaging defeats.

My friend, Enda McEvoy, probably summed it up neatest (again!) in Monday’s ‘Examiner’ when he said that Galway horsed us into the ground, while Cork ran us into the ground. Different games and different methods but the same depressing outcome for Tipperary as opponents found ways to undermine our credentials.

It’s baffling how a team of such bounce and brio last year has suddenly become so sluggish and slow. We’ve flat-lined for sure. The reasons? Well, you’ll find more speculators on this topic than in any stock exchange.

I’m surprised that Michael Ryan again adverted to the schedule of games as a factor, with hints that club fixtures contributed to the difficulty. He said ‘the bulk of our fellows had two competitive club games’ since the league final a month ago. Actually the bulk of them didn’t. They had one round of county championship matches three weeks ago and then a few had a North Tipp round a week later.

I suspect the hamstring injury, that ‘Bonner’ picked up in that North Tipp game a fortnight ago, is grating a bit, but surely that could have happened as easily in a training session. Of our starting fifteen on Sunday only four were from the North, including goalie Gleeson who is hardly over-worked in that position. Of the other three Michael Breen was easily our best player and Dan McCormack was among the top few we had. The bulk of the team had three weeks without a club match so once again I’m afraid this argument doesn’t stack up.

Elsewhere you’ll find plenty of suggestions that the training methods are wrong or that we’re paying the price for losing the strength and conditioning guy, Lukas, from last year. When you suffer defeat people just grasp at every possible reason and usually hit on something that has no bearing whatsoever on the reality. These players are supremely fit, well conditioned athletes and I suspect any flatness has more to do with psychology than physiology.

Anyway back to the game itself. The world and its mother are raving about another marvellous hurling classic and the entertainment it supplied. And I suppose for neutrals – and Corkonians – it was a fabulous pageant to witness. Fifty six scores over seventy-plus minutes indicates a breathless end-to-end sway as the battle waxed and waned. Closer analysis would suggest that such shoot-outs usually involve some lax defending but for the casual observer it’s all great spectacle.

From a Tipperary perspective there’s no doubt we were second best when it came to work rate and vim and vigour and general application to the job. Cork out-battled and out-ran Tipperary throughout the contest. There were echoes of this in our league match earlier at Pairc Ui Rinn where they dominated the middle third, ran at our defence and exposed our limitations. Given the nature of that game, and the selection we fielded, it was perhaps easy to dismiss its importance but, in hindsight, we probably should have paid more heed.

From early on our rearguard was on the back foot against the pace, movement and inter-changing of the Cork attack. The Mahers at half back were struggling and the full line was having a torrid time. The strain showed as both Barry and O’Keeffe were booked; Barrett was fortunate to avoid a similar sanction.

And yet with a bit more fortune in attack we could have hit two or three first half goals. Noel McGrath had the earliest chance and seemed to take the right option with the boot. They can play football in Loughmore but this time Noel gave it too much elevation as Cork escaped with a point.

Brendan Maher had our second chance and I think Nash got a touch to deflect it over. Nash certainly spoiled the party with our best goal chance when Callanan was through but the goalie bravely put himself in the way. Incidentally in the follow up Callanan was clearly fouled but the referee waved play on and Harnedy came very close from the counter-attack at the other end.

Still we had three goal chances versus Cork’s one as the game stayed nicely poised. ‘Bubbles’ I felt contributed majorly to that half as a winner and selfless provider of possession; his point from play was as neat at you’ll see showing great feet to make room for the shot. Michael Breen too was a man on a mission with three points already lodged to account.

Still parity at half time was probably better than we deserved on the general run of play where so many sectors were struggling. John O’Keeffe was surely lucky to re-emerge for the second half after a nightmare opening. Barrett too had some difficulty early on though he would grow into the contest, while James Barry would have a day to forget.

We surely have to do some reassessing of that full back line as we prepare for the qualifiers. James Barry has never been a ‘natural’ full back; his instinct is always to play a loose covering game and he doesn’t have the tight-marking ruthlessness of a player like, let’s say, J.J. Delaney. It says something about our limited bench resources that the first substitution on that full back line was enforced when Barrett got injured.

Speaking to some people at half time I couldn’t understand their optimism. To me all the signs were that Cork was edging this contest and Tipperary was struggling in so many sectors: both lines of defence scrambling to keep a finger in the dam; midfield second best; attack working off limited portions – though the prospect of goals was a more hopeful sign.

The first goal was going to be a big score and it fell to Cork. Again James Barry’s inability to prevent a player from passing him was critical; Harnedy worked his way in before feeding Shane Kingston. The defence did well to stifle the initial shot but Darren Gleeson won’t relish watching the follow up that bounced, rather softly, past him.

If you want to look at positives from Tipperary then the reaction to this setback was encouraging. Barrett was now zipping onto ball as of old before falling so awkwardly on his knee and having to retire. Hopefully the damage is less than feared.

We stayed in the contest, point-for-point, and then a moment of magic brought the blue and gold fans to their feet. Callanan won possession out on the right side and a beautifully weighted pass found John McGrath for once released from the vice-grip of Colm Spillane. The younger McGrath rarely misses from there.

With fifteen minutes to play we were suddenly in the lead but instantly Lehane retaliated to level matters again. Arguably it was the point of the game from the Old Stand side and coming after he’d missed a few previous chances. Undeniably it was a gripping contest now with the issue swaying this way and that though I always felt Cork looked the more energized side, hunting in packs, full of running, more inventive. Tipperary’s forward power alone, even off limited supply, was keep them in the contest, even as our half forwards were conceding primary possession.

So many games are won in the final five to ten minutes and this one was no different. With just over five minutes remaining a Brendan Maher point put us back in the lead and the game was still there in the balance, available for whichever side had the knowhow for the final sprint.

Once again it was Lehane, the scourge of the Mahers, who tied matters up. The relentless flow of scores was breathtaking. Paudie Maher was now centre back with Ronan on the wing; Alan Flynn had replaced Barrett and Joe O’Dwyer was a hugely impressive substitute for Seamus Kennedy.

Down the home straight now and Lehane put over a ‘65’ after O’Keeffe had flicked away from Harnedy. Cork was one-up again with four minutes-plus to play and then the clincher came with their second goal. Again James Barry will wince at any review of the score. Showing outfield instinct he lunged forward at a lobbing ball, mistimed and it broke through for substitute, Michael Cahalane, who had only goalie Gleeson to beat.

At four-up in the thirty-fourth minute there was no comeback for Tipperary. Points from Dan McCormack and Michael Breen did offer some prospect of late dramatics but fittingly it was substitute, Luke O’Farrell, and again Harnedy who polished it all off for the rebels. It truth they were deserving winners and will probably wonder why the margin wasn’t more comfortable.

So Tipperary’s Munster title has been relinquished and suddenly our prospects of holding the main prize have also lessened. After the optimism of last winter this is sobering stuff where once more the curse of retention is proving a barrier. Something in our DNA makes us soft champions, always vulnerable on the second year, it seems.

The fall-out from this defeat will be interesting. Only Barrett at the defensive end was working towards known capability and now there’s the nervous wait to hear about the extent of the knee knock – please God let’s not hear that word ligament. James Barry’s role has to come under scrutiny, though when you look for options the choices are stark. Mickey Cahill, fit or unfit, was struggling and John O’Keeffe certainly hasn’t solved that corner. In fairness to the Clonoulty man he’s probably a more natural half back. The return of Donagh Maher might help, though he’s still unproven. Tossy Hamill is also in the mix and surprisingly wasn’t called upon on Sunday.

On the positive side Joe O’Dwyer on his introduction at wing back was hugely impressive, which will pile pressure on Seamus Kennedy who began well in the opening quarter but then faded. Paudie Maher had his best spell in the second quarter but overall neither of the Maher brothers will enjoy recalling this game. Pace is an ongoing issue with our half backs and it shows most when the team is under strain.

At midfield Brendan Maher had two points but otherwise minimal impact. Sean Curran is an honest, earnest campaigner but I’m not sure he has enough for this level. A bad second half wide convinced the selectors to introduce Niall O’Meara who did well.

I’m delighted for Michael Breen whose form dipped at the end of last season but he now seems to have weathered that storm; his six points was an amazing haul. Dan McCormack hit three points and worked as beaverishly as ever; Noel McGrath also hit three but was in and out of it; John McGrath met a tough opponent in Colm Spillane but still managed to take his couple of chances; ‘Bubbles’ had a fine first half, somewhat less involved in the second; Callanan despite limited supply and tight marking hit two from play, was fouled for one of his frees and faultless on all attempts as well as setting up the goal for John McGrath – not a bad input any day.

A few final points on Tipperary: in the second half especially we lost our own puck-outs heavily, with the likes of half backs Mark Ellis and Mark Coleman catching cleanly on many occasions. The only puck-outs we could win were short ones to the corner backs, so this age old problem of not being able to win our own possession, especially at half forward, hasn’t gone away you know.

Also the amount of space we afforded the Cork attack was incredible. The basic principle of defending is that you mark the opposing forwards yet so often we were standoffish. At this level any forward will punish you if you’re paces away. In the last two games we’ve conceded 5-48; even in the brilliance of last year’s All Ireland we spilled 2-20. It needs urgent addressing.

As for Cork this was a massive boost. Their young guns like Meade and Kingston and Coleman and Fitzgibbon have slotted in well. There might be still some issues around their defence but confidence and momentum will make them difficult opponents now.

P.S. The failure of Jason Forde’s appeal does the GAA authorities no credit. His one-match ban was a shameful sanction on essentially a fake charge relating to a melee that never happened. I understand why the County Board didn’t go to the DRA but there’s still a part of me that says when a wrong is done you fight it to the end.

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