Westside Column 3 February 2018

WESTSIDE

 

In division 1A of the hurling league there are no free lunches. Nothing comes soft in this environment, you scrap for every morsel; a rite of passage has to be earned.

‘Away’ games are especially tricky. Teams view home fixtures as ‘must win’ events in front of their local following. Win your home dates and knock-out qualification if likely to follow. Lose, and the hill ahead becomes that bit steeper.

And so Clare went home content on Sunday evening after seeing off an experimental Tipperary in the opening salvo of the 2018 league.

A glance at the published line-outs on Friday night hinted strongly at the likely outcome of this clash. Clare went for known strength; Tipperary opted for experimentation in personnel and positioning. It was a gamble that backfired.

Balancing the twin requirements to try new options and yet win games is a delicate task and on this occasion Tipperary got it wrong. Just six of the starting fifteen from last August lined-up on Sunday at Cusack Park. It proved too few with malfunctions in many quarters against a more bubbly Clare formation.

It was a grey day and a grey outcome for Tipperary. The clouds spat light rain at times and in truth the fare on offer was often colourless too. It was competitive, for sure, but the hurling was of moderate standard.

Tipperary’s forward failure was a key topic in after match debate. The stats tell the tale. Apart from Noel McGrath’s rich harvest of five points there was little else to cheer in that department. Sean Curran’s second half point was the only other flag from open play in that sector. The Clare goalie, Donal Tuohy, was untroubled all afternoon.

In fairness it wasn’t ideal for the forwards who got little inviting ball to latch onto; instead they had to graft in conditions that always favour the back men.

There was much focus on debutant, Ger Browne, who made major waves in pre-season friendlies. He tried gamely to chase down possession and made one spectacular second half catch before having his shot deflected away. It was a frustrating day but overall assessments will be kind to one on a learning curve at this challenging level. He’ll have plenty of other days to leave his mark.

Incidentally I’m not convinced about his positioning at corner forward. As a minor and U21 his best contributions came from midfield and his hurling style seems more suited to the outfield spaces rather than being cooped up in the corner.

 

Assessments will be less generous to Jason Forde who has been a panelist since 2013 and has yet to deliver on the precocious potential of his underage days. On Sunday he delivered ten points from frees but was virtually anonymous in general play. Regularly we expect him to explode onto the scene but just as often we’re disappointed. Perhaps we have more faith in Jason’s talent than he has himself.

‘Bonner’ is a worry too. He stuck the toe of the hurley in the ground on the first ball that came his way and thereafter he had minimal impact before eventually being replaced by Dan McCormack. Not too many would agree with the management’s decision to position him at corner forward but while his touch is so off it probably doesn’t matter where you put him.

Conor Kenny was also replaced after a mostly unproductive game. Sean Curran was busier that several of the forwards but it was Noel McGrath who really stood apart in that zone. Michael Breen injected some badly needed energy to that attack when introduced but it wasn’t enough to save the day.

I’d question the management too on the lack of movement in that forward line. Most forward lines are now very fluid with players regularly alternating positions to keep defenders baffled. On Sunday we mostly stuck to positions.

There was better news to report from midfield where I felt Cathal Barrett and Ronan Maher won the day against a highly rated Clare pair. They’re something of an odd couple on the team with neither being seen as midfield material before now. In fairness to the management this is one move that thus far is paying dividends.

Defensively we had a mixed bag of impressions. Alan Flynn caught everyone’s attention with a right smart display at corner back, nipping in decisively, looking cool and confident on the ball and essentially never putting a foot wrong. Donagh Maher though had a more troubled day, giving away silly fouls including a critical one at the end which put Clare two up and effectively closed the door on any late Tipperary salvation. Tossy Hamill had a rare old wrestle with Peter Duggan and came out winner in that duel. He doesn’t lack for physical strength.

At half back Paudie Maher does what Paudie Maher does almost every day. He’s so consistent that commentators don’t even mention his deeds anymore – it’s what’s expected. Whether he’s a centre back, however, remains a live issue. The wing definitely seems to suit his play better.

For Tom Fox it was a disappointing debut at wing. He has all the talents, a really classy hurler, but hitting the intensity levels for this pitch is the issue. He’ll have other days. Incidentally, what was the logic of replacing him after the clock ticked into injury time at the end of the opening period? Could they not have waited for the privacy of the dressing room? Being ruthless is one thing – being insensitive is another.

For Seamus Kennedy too it was a disappointing day at the office, eventually being replaced by Brendan Maher.

Finally goalie, Paul Maher, was also making his debut and came away mostly undamaged by the experience. It wasn’t a day where big questions were asked. There was one fumble in the first half but mostly he did the routine business efficiently and could hardly be expected to stop David Reidy’s pot-shot at the end.

Overall it was a day when Clare had far more bounce to their play and probably should have won more comfortably. They certainly missed the chances to put a bigger gap between the sides at half time and I’m sure they’ll be disappointed too not to have eased home more comfortably when five up early in the second half.

We struggled against Clare’s pace and off-the-ball movement all afternoon. It’s a familiar tactic now where a player comes out with possession and immediately has runners available to take the pass. It requires a heavy work rate to counteract.

For Tipperary some old familiar weaknesses were evident too, such as a failure to win primary possession, especially at half forward. It was quite stark at one stage in the first half as we lost several puck-outs before opting to go short.

And that old conundrum of not finishing out games strongly was part of the script too. We got the lead back to a point but it was Clare who had all the energy in the final moments of the action. A fine ensemble move from defence led to Donagh Maher’s foul to put them two up and then came John Conlon’ lay-off to Reidy for the clinching goal.

It will be interesting to see the fall-out now in terms of team selection for Waterford’s visit to the Stadium on Saturday night. The Deise also lost at the weekend so the pressure has now ratcheted up considerably for both teams, neither of whom will wish to be propping up the table after just two rounds. Winning this league may not be an imperative for either but avoiding relegation surely is.

I’d expect significant adjustment to the team with a strengthening of most sectors. James Barry is an obvious one to be considered for defence and the likes of Brendan Maher, Dan McCormack, Michael Breen and John McGrath could likely play a more prominent role too. I’d expect less experimenting this time given the requirements of the game.

Traditionally our record against Waterford is very strong: the teams have met in the league on 45 occasions with Tipperary holding a 33-9 lead; there were three draws. In more recent times the last ten meetings show Tipperary holding a 6-3 lead, with one draw from 2010.

Tipp won handily enough last year at Walsh Park but when Waterford came to the Stadium in 2016 they stole a dramatic late winner with Austin Gleeson hitting a monster free right at the ‘death’. Arguably Semple Stadium suits their style of play more than Walsh Park so Tipperary will need to be wary. The stakes will be high on Saturday with the loser heading into awkward territory.

 

 

 

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