Westside Column 31 May 2019

WESTSIDE

 

Round three of the Munster series on Sunday next takes us past the Walls of Limerick and on to the Siege of Ennis – hopefully the dancing metaphor will fit the occasion.

Tipperary travel in upbeat mood following resounding wins over Cork and Waterford. However, that mood is likely to be tested in the tight confines of Cusack Park where the Banner roar will compete with the chants of Tipp! Tipp! The bookies rate it close to evens, which is a pretty accurate assessment when all elements are factored in.

Championship visits to Ennis have been rare – Tipperary victories there even rarer. In fact the record shows just a solitary win for the blue and gold in the Clare capital and that from far off 1912. Bridging a gap of 107 years then won’t be easy though we’ve seldom been better placed to face such a test.

The last championship meeting of the counties in Ennis was back in 1986 – and it’s not a happy memory. While other games have faded into the mists of time this one sticks out for its sheer misery. Remember the context: the early eighties had brought renewed hope with minor and U21 successes creating a rich pool of emerging talent. The near miss of 1984 suggested a breakthrough was imminent. Then came 1986 and a major regression, as it seemed at the time.

I remember meeting Nicky English outside Cusack Park after the game and he was utterly distraught. He couldn’t wait to get away to the States for the summer such was his despair at the turn of events.

For English there was the double heartbreak of having missed the game with a punctured lung following an injudicious punch in a West Tipp club game. He suffered a lot of injuries in those years when talented forwards were often targeted – and seldom protected. It was also the era before head gear became mandatory.

That game was seen as a real low point for the county because Clare were no world beaters at the time. Tony Wall, an iconic name from this county’s golden era, had come on board to train/coach the side. But things didn’t work out. He probably took an unfair share of the blame in the aftermath. The team went into the match with a long list of injuries and led the way early on before the locals got on a roll, helped by a very questionable refereeing call that led to a Clare goal. Tipperary lost by 2-10 to 1-11.

In a sense it was our darkest hour before the dawn because twelve months later ‘Babs’ was in charge and the entire landscape had changed utterly.

Anyway we face into Sunday’s game in far more buoyant mood than 33 years ago. After cruising past Cork and Waterford Tipperary are being written up as a side with serious championship potential, which always makes me nervous. The attack in particular has drawn attention with its fluid movement and crisp score taking. Hitting 4-58 in just two games is remarkable shooting. Clare, no doubt, will have watched the videos and worked on counteracting this firepower.

It’s amazing how quickly the Tipperary team has settled into a particular structure and style after such an unpromising league campaign. Team selection has been central to it all with the management making a number of key decisions that have paid rich dividends. James Barry was identified as the best option for full back; Cathal Barrett restored to where he does best at corner back; Brendan Maher deployed at half back; Noel McGrath developed as a midfield maestro beside Michael Breen; Jason Forde given the free taking duties in a forward line where the tried and trusted were again shown faith.

Of course underlining it all is Sheedy’s ability to get players playing to their potential. They look fitter than other years, more driven to work overtime, prepared to graft and grind for every ball. O’Shea’s influence is seen in attack where the skills of ‘Bubbles’ and company are again finding expression.

Thus far it has all worked a treat though these two remaining games will surely ask sterner questions than those posed by either Cork or Waterford. The last day we worried about putting two performances back to back; now we chase a hat-trick.

I’d expect minimal change when the team is announced on Friday night. Worries about Brendan Maher have faded and he again looks set to complete that formidable all-Maher half back line. Alan Flynn was seen as a tactical choice for the Waterford game and I presume he’ll again get the nod to face a Banner side where pace and movement is a key element.

Midfield will surely see McGrath and Breen again line up. In attack Niall O’Meara comes back into the reckoning after that back spasm he sustained in the Cork match. His inclusion would see Dan McCormack revert to the subs’ bench, which could well be the only change from the last game.

There was general satisfaction with the impact made by the replacements against Waterford though I still see this as an area that could be found wanting as the championship unfolds. We have been putting out our best fifteen and by implication that means the stand-by talent is less potent. In previous games we had the luxury of introducing lads to a contest that was effectively over; what happens if we’re chasing the game in the final quarter and impact subs are required?

What of Clare? I think they’re a formidable side who on their day have the potential to take out any team in this championship. Let’s refresh our memories. They were All Ireland winners with a very young side as recently as 2013 and even though they haven’t quite kicked on since then they have been close. Last year they were the only side to beat Limerick in the championship and did it with eleven points to spare (0-26 to 0-15) in the final round at Ennis. They were far too hot for Wexford in the All Ireland quarter-final and only lost by a single point to Galway in the replayed All Ireland semi-final. It was a game they could, perhaps should, have won.

Of course we can’t forget their win at Semple Stadium last year so they’ll feel well capable of matching Tipperary. Their big players are Tony Kelly, Peter Duggan, Shane O’Donnell and John Conlon. Getting the match-ups will be important for Tipperary. Tony Kelly will likely be listed for centre forward but he won’t play there. He has the potential to be a match winner so tracking his movement will be a job for someone. Keeping tabs on Shane O’Donnell will also be important and both Conlon and Duggan are big, powerful ball winners as well as scorers.

Of course Clare will worry about their match-ups also in a bid to blunt that Tipperary attacking edge.  I suspect they’ll play a sweeper which could make this game very tactical. Clare favour the short game, working the ball out from defence with short passes and runners available off the shoulder. To counteract it the opposition has to work extra hard with those runners being tracked.

It’s all a fascinating prospect to anticipate. The home venue will matter for Clare so I’ve no doubt this will be Tipperary’s toughest game so far in the championship. Historically our record against Clare is very strong: the counties have met on 52 previous occasions with Tipperary on 36 wins, Clare on 12 and there were four draws. We’ve won eight of our last ten meetings with the Banner but all of that offers no guarantee for Sunday.

Elsewhere I’d expect Limerick to get their championship bid back on track, though facing into Walsh Park won’t be simple. Limerick’s defeat to Cork will have stung down Shannonside. I suspect there were raised voices at training since then so you would expect something much more forceful this time. Another stumble would put them in serious jeopardy but I don’t think it will happen.

In Leinster last weekend’s draw between Galway and Wexford has left the Tribesmen with some tricky games ahead. With just three points they now travel to Nowlan Park and Parnell Park for what are two very awkward assignments. Without Joe Canning they look rudderless.

Last Sunday’s game was poor, albeit redeemed by an exciting finish where either side could have snatched the spoils. Davy was in the wars again before being banished to the stand. He was hard done by, according to Brendan Cummins. I disagree. Surely this spectacle of managers or mentors encroaching onto the pitch and confronting match officials should be considered utterly unacceptable behavior.

Anyway Wexford are at home for their final two games against Carlow and Kilkenny. They should beat Carlow and might need something from the Kilkenny game to progress. With two wins already in the bag Kilkenny are in pole position but there’s still a lot to play for in this province.

 

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