Westside Column 29 March 2018

WESTSIDE

 

It went from the unthinkable to the thinkable at Croke Park on Sunday last as early difficulties gave way to eventual ease

A smooth win by Tipperary in the end brings Limerick to the Stadium on Saturday evening next for a semi-final that’s high on promise.

A stranger to hurling would have been somewhat puzzled at the start of the game on Sunday. Dublin were 8/1 outsiders while Tipperary were listed at an uninviting 1/14. Yet all the early-game evidence suggested the sky blues were the superior force.

It was a scarily sluggish start by Tipperary. Clearly heads were not in the zone for a league quarter-final. All the bounce and buzz was with Dublin. As a team we spectated for that opening phase, standing off opponents, allowing space and time for the underdogs to grab the initiative.

And to their credit Dublin availed of our lethargy to make hay while the sun shone. They were sharp and inventive, reeling off a string of sweetly-executed points, the sweetest of the lot coming from Fiontan McGibb from the sideline. It was Canning-esque in its delivery.

At nine-one ten minutes into the action this was starting to unnerve us. Eventually we roused ourselves, players started getting to the pace of the game, tackles were now being delivered and at last we started chasing down this contest.

Cian Darcy had our first point from play just over ten minutes into the game – he’d soon add a second – and, like a patient fisherman we started to turn the spool, reeling in the Dubs with growing emphasis. A Jason Forde free on the twenty-second minute had us level, then some delightful individual skill from John McGrath delivered the first goal and by half time we were four-up.

The mini-crisis was over, though by now we’d lost Ronan Maher to a second yellow after he tangled illegally with Ryan O’Dwyer. There was no questioning that second yellow, though Ryan’s theatrical lunge to the ground didn’t go unnoticed either. The first yellow, however, was highly debatable.

I liked Michael Duignan’s tweet on events: “One of the best players on the field sent off because the ref gave him his first yellow for exactly nothing. Great hurling all weekend being played by fabulous players but some of the refereeing very questionable”. Not for the first time Duignan hits it spot on.

Being a man short I’m sure helped sharpen focus for the second period. When you’re a body down you need every hand at the tiller with no slackness tolerated. And in truth the team now had this game under control. The second half developed into a virtual practice match as Tipperary dominated throughout.

The lead began to stretch out, the team now busy and productive all over. John McGrath and Jason Forde led the attack while Paudie continued to tower at half back. The inside defence too was assured, Dublin unable to muster any worthwhile threat. Goalie Hogan was untested.

Michael Breen’s well-taken goal midway through the half settled all doubt. ‘Bubbles’ saw his first bit of league action and eventually got his eye in focus to clip over a few points. All memory of the opening ten minutes had by now faded as the side comfortably eased through the motions for an eleven-point win. By the end we had the luxury of giving subs a run-out on the sacred sod; Paul Maher, Paul Shanahan, Tossy Hamill and Willie Connors all got involved, though mostly too late to show anything positive.

So, after a wobbly start the job is completed. That slow start will give Michael Ryan ample material for his dressing room sermon ahead of the semi-final on Saturday. A repeat showing against a top team would be disastrous.

Team selection for the semi-final will be watched with interest. By now you’d expect minimal experimentation as the stakes are raised and the championship looms ever closer. Inevitably Saturday’s game will be seen as a dress-rehearsal for our May 20 championship visit to the Gaelic Grounds.

The contest for the goalie’s jersey is nearing decision time. Each of the three has had a pair of league games so the management has now to assess the evidence and make a choice. It’s not an easy call, though unlike the general public the management is also using evidence from the training ground. Whoever gets the nod for Saturday may well be the chosen one for the championship.

The league campaign hasn’t thrown up an alternative full back so it looks like James Barry is once again the default option. Alan Flynn has emerged as a very steady corner back and Michael Cahill has made a timely return. Donagh Maher has slipped in the reckoning and it still remains to be seen if Cathal Barrett is going to be restored to the full back line for the championship.

Ronan Maher was building a man of the match display at midfield last Sunday before being dismissed though the consensus appears to favour his return to the half back line beside Paudie. Barry Heffernan was the better of the wing backs on Sunday but again much depends on whether or not Seamus Kennedy gets another spin at midfield where Sunday’s evidence was inconclusive. Brendan Maher was injured for last week so hopefully he’ll be back in harness for Saturday; ditto with Cathal Barrett.

In attack I’d expect Forde, Breen, John McGrath – back to form on Sunday last – and Curran to be starters. ‘Bonner’ should be back too though Noel McGrath looks likely to again miss out with that hand injury. Whether or not Billy McCarthy gets another run remains to be seen; either way he’s made an impact since his promotion. Cian Darcy started well on Sunday but was less visible thereafter. ‘Bubbles’ is obviously a welcome addition now also.

Overall the management has quite a lot to mull over before naming their starting fifteen for Saturday.

Being a dress-rehearsal for the championship opener does give this fixture added weight. Limerick’s graph is rising and we certainly don’t want to give them further encouragement ahead of the Munster championship.

Being exiled in division 1B for the past eight years has meant that we have no recent familiarity with Limerick in the league. Our last league clash with them was back in 2010 when we came home runaway winners from the Gaelic Grounds (2-24 to 0-8). Limerick was self-destructing that year with the ‘strike’ forcing Justin McCarthy to field alternative teams. John Kiely has happier campers this time so there’s no danger of a repeat outcome.

Interestingly Paudie Maher and Brendan Maher are likely to be the only Tipp survivors on Saturday’s team sheet from the side that played eight years ago.

Traditionally we tend to find Limerick awkward opponents. They like playing Tipperary and enjoy nothing better than turning over the neighbours. They’re particularly dangerous when the mercury is rising as it is at present following their promotion from division 1B and their, albeit unusual free-taking win over Clare in the quarter-final.

Historically we’ve played Limerick sixty-one times in the league with our record showing thirty-five wins, nineteen losses and seven draws. The one certainty about Saturday is that there won’t be another draw. You’ll have two lots of extra time and then that free-taking contest if necessary to decide a winner.

Incidentally the last time Limerick beat Tipperary in the league was back in 2007 during the second coming of ‘Babs’ Keating. The game was played at Nenagh and we lost by 3-13 to 0-16. Declan Fanning was a substitute that day and Eoin Kelly was our top scorer on 0-12. That game was played on February 18 and later in the year we had the famous championship trilogy of games, which the Shannonsiders eventually won at the third attempt. It was an unhappy year for Tipperary hurling.

Hopefully things will be better this time. Our last league semi-final clash with Limerick was in 2000, again at Semple Stadium. It was part of a semi-final double header alongside Galway versus Waterford and attracted an attendance of 34,600, which is quite incredible. Nicky English was manager and Michael Ryan was corner back on that team which beat Limerick by 2-18 to 0-17. We lost to Galway in the final.

Anyway, so much for history. This new generation of Limerick hurlers is soundly based on emerging talent following their All Ireland U21 wins of 2015 and 2017. They’re young and enthusiastic and their tails are up following recent events. It’s generally accepted that they’ve more winter preparation behind them than other counties so they won’t lack for staying power on Saturday. The availability of Na Piarsaigh players is a plus for their management too.

It looks set to be a cracking contest. Tipperary is listed as favourites on 2/5 with Limerick available at 9/4. To me it’s a much closer issue that those figures would suggest.  Setting down a marker for May 20 is at least as important as getting to a league decider. Let’s go for it then from the throw-in.

 

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