Westside Column 28 July 2017

WESTSIDE

Mixing the good and the bad – nothing ugly thankfully – Tipperary jangled our nerves at Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Saturday before eventually easing through to an All Ireland semi-final date with Galway on August 6.

Slick attacking and sloppy defending were notable features of an uneven Tipperary performance in the spanking new Stadium by the Lee.

To borrow Dickens’ line from the famous novel ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.  We cheered twenty-eight points and the smooth efficiency of their execution; we cringed at the defensive gaps that coughed up three goals and might easily have spilled as many more.

It was a mixed-bag performance then that leaves the fans unsure as we head into another showdown with Galway, our third semi-final in a row with the Tribesmen.

The setting was majestic. Cork GAA has built an impressive arena to replace the old ramshackle hovel that endangered life and limb in previous decades. The new Pairc is an imposing structure bringing modernity to a venue that holds many fond memories for followers. If only they could now address the issue of access to the location all would be perfect.

Tipperary escaped from the venue with that Croke Park visa in the pocket, but not before enduring some major wobbles on the way. In both halves we threatened a comprehensive outcome but on each occasion got hauled in, alarmingly so in the second half when the lead dwindled to the minimum with about five minutes remaining.

In the end it took a storming finish from Tipperary to finally ‘nail’ the outcome though even then there was that late goal just to remind us that this was anything but a smooth passage.

Injuries to David McInerney and Aron Shanagher (only one ‘A’ I’m reminded) underlined Tipperary’s billing as hot favourites and in the opening quarter the odds seemed accurately calibrated. Tipp were slicker against wasteful Clare and the gap began to open out, eventually getting to nine-three after the first quarter.

Dominance by our half backs was significant at this juncture, Seamus Kennedy turning the tables on John Conlon, and the forwards were scoring smartly. But the trend would soon alter, Conor McGrath’s disallowed goal a forewarning of what was to come. Referees have copped on to the Cratloe man who has developed a reputation for stealing extra steps.

Soon after though the green flag was waving twice within a minute, full forward, Aaron Cunningham getting both. James Barry was beaten in the lead up to each and wasn’t helped by other defenders ball watching as forwards peeled away for the pass. It was a case of defenders minus basic defender instincts.

It certainly presented an uncomplimentary impression of our inner defence which looked so vulnerable. And it wasn’t even a case of being outpaced as we might have feared; instead both goals came from high balls dropping into that zone and the defence being unable to cope. It was similar for the decisive score against Cork back in May.

Suddenly the game’s complexion had altered dramatically, though in the swings and roundabouts of the action Tipperary weathered the worst of the storm. From there to the interval we outscored Clare by seven-two though the wastefulness of their shooting had to be factored in to get a more accurate overview of the contest.

Again early in the second half it looked like we might close out this contest emphatically eventually going seven-up. The quality of some of the points was a joy to witness, especially the McGraths.

One moment of brilliance might have produced an unforgettable goal. Great hassling back around half back set the move in train. Dan McCormack made the break carrying the ball forward into attack before laying off to ‘Bubbles’. In an instant the ball was pinged thirty metres or so into the fist of Callanan who seemed certain to bulge the netting. Unfortunately the shot flew over, however, and a potential goal of the year was missed.

It was the closest we came to goaling. Otherwise it was to be a point-strewn display.

A Tipperary goal in that third quarter one sensed would probably send the game to an emphatic outcome but in its absence Clare stayed ‘alive’ in the contest despite spilling several scores from short puck-outs.

Gradually the trend turned once again. The impact of substitute, Peter Duggan, was significant, winning a lot of ball off Seamus Kennedy. A succession of soft frees kept the scoreboard ticking for Clare and when Tipperary started building their own tally of wides the margin began to dwindle.

Trends can be difficult to halt and such was certainly the case with Tipperary here. A Conor McGrath point was the high-water mark of Clare’s revival. The margin was now down to the minimum with around five minutes to play. Tipp fans shuffled uneasily at the growing crisis.

However, if we want to take comfort from one aspect of the afternoon then it must surely be the final drive that steadied the ship and steered Tipperary home.

At the peak of the crisis we found the wherewithal to turn the screw one final, decisive time. Callanan won a rare Tipperary free and ‘Bubbles’ pointed to stop the rot, the full forward nursing a wounded elbow. By now we’d reacted to Peter Duggan’s impact switching Paudie Maher across to counteract the threat. A superb catch by Maher and a follow-up free was a rousing moment. The lift was even greater when Brendan Maher stepped up and landed a monster score from the free.

The renewed energy drove Tipp forward in subsequent minutes for further points by Noel McGrath, Steven O’Brien and Jason Forde. It was a rousing encore as the game ticked deeper into added time and reflected well on the resolve of the players at the critical juncture.

But just to remind us that this had been a troublesome engagement for Tipperary Clare scrambled a push-over goal in the final piece of action. Earlier we’d survived scary moments in front of the posts with full forward Cunningham hitting the side netting on one occasion and Donagh Maher and Tossy Hamill making important stops on other attacks.

In the end we got through by three, which was a fair reflection of a game that could easily have slipped from our grasp.

Traipsing from the ground afterwards the mood among the Tipp fans was subdued. This was not one to get carried away with. We’d again shown attacking flair, but defensive frailty would be a topical theme in after-match analysis.

We’re certainly living off the brilliance of our attack. The McGraths and Callanan led the show. It was great to see Noel in such fine fettle again after being left off for the Dublin tie; John too was back to last year’s impact. Callanan likewise was a constant threat before taking a second-half knock to the elbow; thankfully the word appears to be positive on that score with no major damage done.

Dan McCormack too was heavily involved in the action as was ‘Bonner’ though his option taking at times needs to be more considered – there’s a time for headlong charging and a time for being less predictable. ‘Bubbles’ too made his contribution before giving way to Niall O’Meara.  Steven O’Brien and Jason Forde added points which vindicated their introductions.

Our greatest strength is that attack. While they continue to rack up such score totals then we have a chance against any opposition. It’s the sheer slickness of the striking that must be a nightmare for defences.

We effectively had no midfield on Saturday last. I can’t recall Brendan Maher touching the ball in the first half and Michael Breen’s first contact was twenty five minutes in when he pointed. They were mostly anonymous in the second half too, though Brendan Maher had that massive free as a redeeming input.

People will argue that midfield gets bypassed in much modern hurling with its tactical focus but the Clare pair still had a greater input. Taking Tony Kelly off after a spell at half forward was a strange decision.

However, it’s when you come to our defence that the biggest points of debate emerge. Our half line did well in general even allowing for Seamus Kennedy’s second half difficulties on Peter Duggan.

The full line, however, Donagh Maher excepted, is undeniably the weakest link on this team at present. For whatever reason, James Barry’s form has dipped alarmingly and that’s probably the single biggest problem. His confidence seems to have evaporated and what last year would have been routine plays are now fumbles. The uncertainty then spreads with Tossy Hamill struggling to find traction and the entire infrastructure of that line then cracks.

In fairness they battled hard in the second half to keep their finger in the dam but against Galway that line will be a major worry. I’ve heard varying opinions on goalie, Darragh Mooney, though when a forward gets in one-on-one with the ‘keeper then there’s not a lot the number one can do.

Worryingly we ended up on Saturday with a new formation from one to four which is always going to be challenging with such a lack of experience. Newport’s Sean O’Brien was catapulted into the team after a relatively short spell on the panel. He has an All Ireland minor medal from ’07 and an U21 from ’10 but his elevation to this level has been very sudden and in fairness he did nothing wrong when introduced on Saturday.

What’s the solution to our defensive ills?  Without a return to form by James Barry it’s difficult to see what can be done. Perhaps restoring Barry to full might help because he definitely seems less comfortable in the corner. Donagh Maher obviously has earned his stripes at corner after a fine performance and one wonders why Mickey Cahill wasn’t deployed on Saturday. In all of this, of course, the management is reading signals from training, something the rest of us don’t have the benefit of. The horror of horrors for Tipperary is that we might have to contemplate a sweeper as a shield for that inside line, which to many will read like sacrilege.

In all of this Cathal Barrett is the shadow in the background. He lined out for Holycross on Sunday last in the Cahill Cup against Drom/Inch and reportedly starred. For Michael Ryan, unfortunately, this is going to be an issue that will continue to feature in public discourse, especially given the difficulties we have in that full back line.

No more than the selection of any player the constitution of the panel and team is the prerogative of the management and we have to accept their judgment on these matters. Unlike others they are best informed and make their decision accordingly.  For the moment Cathal Barrett is off the panel and I’ve heard no suggestion of an imminent return.

I would have preferred to draw Cork in the semi-final. It would have given an extra week for preparation and I’m sure the players would relish another crack at the rebels to atone for the last day. Galway are familiar semi-final rivals and damn difficult ones too. It will be the first game this year where we go into as outsiders, however marginal, which won’t be any harm.

On the other side Waterford kicked on from their win over Kilkenny to add the Wexford scalp, which means there will be no Leinster team in the semis. The Deise, I’m sure, no more than ourselves, will relish another stab at the rebels and feel well capable of overturning the Munster semi-final outcome.

In the meantime Tipperary have two weeks of intense preparation for the latest episode in the modern day rivalry with Galway. It promises to be a massive occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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