Pairc Ui Chaoimh, so often the graveyard for Tipperary hurling hopes, has this year become more of a cradle. Where the U21s went the seniors followed for sure – and the intermediates made it a remarkable treble over the rebels this season. A game of quality and drama climaxed in the tensest of finishes as fourteen-man Tipperary held out for a precious win. A season that began wobbly is beginning to gather momentum and for the moment we dare to dream once more.
There’s no hay saved but Cork are ‘bet’ after a game that has surely added some sparkle to a championship that thus far has been noticeably lacklustre. With over thirty two thousand fans on site it brought the first day of real colour to the championship. Point-strewn and ping-pong in the closeness of the exchanges it careered down to a gripping finish. The nerves were taut, the pulses racing as our defence resisted Cork’s late push for redemption. Over two minutes of added time felt like an eternity and fittingly it was a ‘Bonner’ Maher tackle that killed the final piece of action to prevent a quick Cork transfer to attack. The line ball that followed brought the long whistle and elation for a Tipperary following that had seen the strongest evidence yet that the wagon is back on track.
After that dismal affair in Portlaoise on Saturday it was nice to return to shirt-sleeve weather and a real championship buzz by the Lee. Cork had been smarting from their league defeat and no doubt came to this game wiser and refocused. Adjustments at their defensive end reflected the lessons from the league final and given our poor record at this venue it was always going to be a battle for the visitors. How much of a battle was quickly evident as our defence immediately came under the cosh and early advantage went to the rebels.
After Noel McGrath launched our bid with a typically economic point Cork had marginally the better of what followed in the first half. The margin might have been more substantial if they’d converted a few goal chances, youngsters Sweetnam and Coughlan in turn sending ones sizzling over Cummins’ head when the net might have bulged. Later the goalie’s blushes were saved when a high lob spun off his hand into the net just as the ref’s whistle sounded because of Pat Horgan’s presence in the ‘square’. The ref got it right but it was one that on another day might go against you.
All of this highlighted Cork’s positive approach as they took on the reigning provincial champions. We were struggling at the defensive end but let’s acknowledge the quality of some of the Cork efforts too. Individual scores were top drawer stuff such as a Cronin point when he out-fielded Padraic Maher and an identical effort from Pat Horgan against Conor O’Brien.
In fairness if our defence was under strain so too was Cork’s. The movement and inter-play of the Tipperary forwards was unsettling their rearguard. At times we overdid the passing but more often it yielded scores from such as McGrath, Pa Bourke and O’Meara. Central to it all was the thrusting drives of ‘Bonner’ Maher unfazed by the physicality of Cadogan. Twice ‘Bonner’ cut through, once hitting the side netting and on the other occasion being crowded out but earning a ‘65’. The unerring accuracy of Bourke from ‘dead’ balls was hugely important too.
Then came the roar of the day with the return of the prodigal Lar. It had to happen sometime and in truth the management acted wisely by not dallying when a game was in danger of slipping. Just before the interval we had a chance of goal when Pa Bourke drove low on a free only to see it saved and then come off the post. It was worth a shot but left us two adrift at the break and this game still very much on offer.
The third quarter was eventful and critical to the outcome. A hasty whistle deprived us of a goal when ‘Bonner’ set up John O’Brien but when that green flag was eventually unfurled by the umpire it signalled a score of real beauty. Here surely is a candidate for goal of the year. ‘Bonner’ – who else? – made the salmon-leap and catch before drilling it low towards John O’Brien. Then came the off-load from O’Brien to Corbett, the hand pass to McGrath and the sweetest of finishes. It had excellence written all over it, a real gem of a goal and a critical item in the context of this game.
When Padraic Maher followed up with one of those trademark surges up-field to hit a point that put us three-up we had taken a decisive hold on the game and were set fair to push on and really ‘nail’ this contest. This was the high point of our play but it wouldn’t last; the gods had another twist in store.
John O’Brien’s dismissal came about twelve minutes into the second half. There could be no complaint about the second yellow but I’d certainly have issues with the first one which came before half time. I suspect the referee interpreted it as a trip but when you watch it again it was more of an attempted shoulder where the hip came into play. It was a free for sure but hardly bookable.
Indeed those cards for Padraic Maher and Cathal Naughton before the throw-in were surely an over-reaction too. You regularly have a bit of jostling at the start of a game but unless there’s clear striking referees tend to get on with the match and things settle down. Being on a yellow is a serious disadvantage and referees would need to make sure they’re deserved before dishing them out.
A final point before leaving that Padraic Maher incident: Pa Cronin was the third-man in and did most to exacerbate the situation with his jostle on the Tipperary man but yet escaped sanction. Where’s the consistency there?
Anyway the sending off of John O’Brien suddenly broke our momentum and with over twenty minutes to go you sensed that this was going to be some battle. And the manner in which the team responded to the challenge in that final quarter was one of the most pleasing aspects of the day.
Our defence was still under strain, especially the inside line, but the half line grew in authority where Padraic Maher improved on his first half and Tom Stapleton wasn’t found wanting either. A mini surge by Cork yielded three points to tie up the game with about fifteen minutes still to run. It was worrying times for Tipp now with the attack having to work over-time to counteract the extra defender though Corbett had clearly brought a new dimension to that division and soon Shane Bourke would arrive to good effect too.
A Pa Bourke free put us back in front and then great hassling by Shane Bourke paved the way for Cadogan to mishit a clearance and Pa split the posts once again. Jamie Coughlan got one back for Cork before Pa did the donkey work to set up Noel McGrath for another flag. This was delightful stuff from Tipperary responding to the demands of the occasion. Once more Noel McGrath ghosted away from markers and popped another flag before a Bourke free put us four-up with about seven to play.
Those final minutes were heart-stopping. By now Shane McGrath was a huge influence at midfield where Woodlock had come on for Brendan Maher and then Eoin Kelly was in for Pa Bourke. I assume these moves were more to inject fresh legs rather than being an indictment of the substituted players. Pat Horgan frees eventually brought the lead back to just one into injury time. Some frantic defending was keeping Cork out as well it must be said as missed opportunities by the Cork attack. The lack of advantage rule cost us earlier but now the application of the rule worked to our benefit at times where Cork attackers were given advantage before being dispossessed.
In the end we survived for a win that will rank right up there among the best of the past. Any day you defy the weight of history at Pairc Ui Chaoimh while a man short deserves the highest praise. There’s no doubt the strength of the bench was once more a critical factor. We now have serious firepower to call upon especially at the attacking end of operations and our two championship outings to date have certainly reinstated Tipperary as the best (only?) challengers to Kilkenny’s supremacy.
However, there are negatives from Sunday that can’t be sidestepped either. Defence has become problematic where in particular Michael Cahill’s slump in form is a major worry. Over a succession of games now he’s struggling to regain the poise of the past. In fact our entire full back line was at breaking point for much of the first half especially and a major aspect of Cork’s disappointment is the fact that they didn’t take full advantage. Kilkenny would be less tolerant.
Against that Thomas Stapleton had his most satisfying game on Sunday which will go some way to answering the critics in his regard. He was clearly targeted by Cork but stood up manfully to the challenge to secure that slot for the moment. What’s most worrying about the defence is the lack of options on the bench. Conor O’Brien settled in better in the second half but corner is hardly his natural position. If Paddy Stapleton got back to fitness it would create some options but otherwise we’re very limited in this zone.
On the more optimistic side Shane McGrath’s return to top form is a major plus for the side. I was somewhat surprised when Brendan Maher was replaced though presumably it was to inject fresh pep to that area for those energy-sapping final moments.
The most positive element of the lot however centres on our attack. Lar is back and I assume will be a starter the next day with, perhaps, Gearoid Ryan losing out. Lar brings an expansive dimension to our forward play which will be so vital as the summer unfolds. Then you have the real engine of that attack in ‘Bonner’ Maher, so fearless and combative. Pa Bourke deserves great credit too on Sunday, excellent with the frees and contributing majorly from general play also. If ‘Bonner’ is the work horse in attack, Noel McGrath is the dressage horse, elegant but deadly when he pulls the trigger.
Elsewhere John O’Brien had one of those days that he’ll need to file away in the not-to-be-repeated shelf. Brian O’Meara was threatening to have a major impact when that ankle injury finished his day; there will be a nervous wait now for the results of medical tests. Shane Bourke shares in the glory of the day too; he didn’t score but he made scores and like so many others brought a huge work rate to that attack which was a feature of their play. In all of this Seamus Callanan is the forgotten man, unused this time but likely to be needed on future occasions. Incidentally I understand the panel may face some pruning now as we prepare for the Munster final.
So a great day and a great win. Of course in the eyes of some, and given Saturday’s outcome at Portlaoise, all of this is simply playing for the silver medal. Indeed. Let’s keep hammering that message.
Next weekend it’s back to the club championship and key knock-out games in several areas. Check the list for details.

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