Westside Column 7 July 2017

WESTSIDE

 

After stumbling over Westmeath the draw has again fallen kindly for Tipperary. The Stadium hosts a double helping on Saturday: Tipp and Dublin for starters; Kilkenny and Waterford supply the main course. Hopefully it will be a festival of the old game.

Actually labeling the Dublin game as the kinder draw might be tempting fate. On the evidence of the Westmeath match the metropolitans have every chance of causing an upset. The bookies list Tipperary as 1/14 hot shots against 9/1 for the Dubs. Those are fantasy figures.

It reminds one of that television ad, which contains the health warning about past performance being no guarantee of future returns. That’s Tipperary at the moment. Those betting odds are definitely based on past – specifically last year’s – performance with present form being conveniently ignored.

Tipp fans at the Stadium on Saturday were left head scratching after watching an abysmal display by their team. Let’s put this in context. Westmeath are a division 2A side, which effectively means a third tier team.  They were beaten by sides like Kildare and Carlow in the recent league and finished in fourth position in that division.

Hurling wise Westmeath inhabit a different universe to Tipperary and yet we suffered throughout this game, leading by just four points at half time and being still a mere three ahead ten minutes into the second period. It was shocking viewing.

The worrying aspect is that nobody seems capable of untangling the mystery that is Tipperary hurling at the moment. For whatever reason so many key players have lost their sparkle and the team as a unit is floundering badly.

I thought in advance of last Saturday’s game that this was a chance for the side to get back on track. They had a healthy break since the Cork game and a match against Westmeath was surely an ideal opportunity to reassert their credentials.

Yet on this evidence the team’s slump in form is continuing. All the early bounce came from a very game Westmeath side that had two points sailing over Mooney’s head within seconds of the throw-in. That was the opening salvo from the visitors against a very sluggish home side.

The first half would have been a car wreck but for Niall O’Meara. He was the one forward who was buzzing and fifteen minutes in a touch of sheer magic set up ‘Bubbles’ for a simple goal finish. We went seven up at that stage but instead of driving on it was the visitors who gradually came more into the game to cut the lead to four by the interval.

We nurtured the hope that the second half with the wind to assist would see Tipperary hit the accelerator and blow this game away. Not a bit of it. Instead we fumbled and fostered our way through another thirty five minutes of drudgery. It was tippy-tappy stuff from Tipperary attempting silly passes, trying to be too clever by far. Inevitably passes went astray, balls were dropped, wrong options taken, a whole menu full of basic juvenile errors.

Underling it all was a simple lack of focus and drive to just go at the opposition. What epitomised it for me was seeing our full forward line withdrawing out forty yards to leave defenders free for the Westmeath puck-outs. Imagine, we’re in the second half just a few points up against Westmeath with the wind at our backs and we’re withdrawing outfield to give them space.

Thankfully someone eventually copped on and we pushed up on their puck-outs which was the prelude to eventually building a modest lead. Wayward shooting delayed advance but at least we were now firmly on top even if the stream of scores was slim enough. A fine save by Darragh Mooney and a point on the counter attack was a big swing moment in the second half and the final quarter eventually petered out. Steven O’Brien showed more get-up-and-go than most when introduced and it was his run that set up John McGrath for our second goal in injury time. By then Niall O’Meara had been stretchered off and the likes of ‘Bonner’, Seamie Callanan and Michael Breen had been replaced.

It was not a pleasant spectacle. Oddly enough some of our newcomers were among the best performers. Donagh Maher was excellent at corner back and Tossy Hamill was rock solid too. But some key men were again off colour. Ronan Maher has hit a puzzling slump in form and others like Noel McGrath, ‘Bonner’, Breen and Callanan were all struggling for any worthwhile impact. Steven O’Brien, Jason Forde and Tom Fox did best of the substitutes introduced and John McGrath took his goal chance well. Overall though this was not a game to lift one’s spirits.

The hope now is that next Saturday will see something entirely different, a power-surge in our hurling that will finally lift this team somewhere nearer to last year’s level. If we produce the same again this time then our season will be over.

On the team front I suspect Darragh Mooney has now replaced Darren Gleeson as number one. There’s likely to be minimal change, if any, in defence. Joe O’Dwyer didn’t really replicate his Cork impression at wing back so that slot might come up for review. There’s an opinion that corner is his best location in any case. Tom Fox and presumably Seamus Kennedy will apply pressure for a half back start.

It was great to see Donagh Maher finally get game time and impress though his fearless style leaves him desperately prone to injury. The medics had to attend him twice on Saturday after heavy knocks. Tossy Hamill isn’t everyone’s choice but I haven’t seen him do anything wrong and he has definitely developed as a player. Mickey Cahill may come into the reckoning for the full back line too; he was warming up at one stage on Saturday.

I would expect Noel McGrath to return to attack for this game and perhaps Michael Breen will be restored to midfield. Jason Forde may come into the reckoning here also. The attack will presumably see the usual suspects in situ with a stern warning from the boss that something much more energetic is needed this time. Steven O’Brien I suspect has moved up the reckoning after Saturday.

Our record against Dublin in the championship is near faultless: ten meetings, eight wins, one loss and one draw. That solitary loss came a century ago in the 1917 All Ireland decider. Are the present generation of Tipperary players going to be the ones to allow the Dubs bridge that gap? There’s one for Michael Ryan to post on the dressing room wall on Saturday.

We’ve met them three times since the qualifiers were introduced, the tightest call coming in the 2011 semi-final when just four points was the end margin. Nine was the margin in a 2007 second round qualifier and the gap was a substantial thirteen points on our last meeting in the 2014 quarter-final at the Stadium. As ever SOD is on the button with the stats.

It’s a nervous one for Tipperary because this team is struggling to unlock whatever glitch is holding them back. The knowledge that this game has the very real possibility of ending our season will surely drive them on. Perhaps one big game will get momentum moving again. Let’s hope the bookies have it right.

Otherwise it’s going to be a bleak year for Tipperary hurling with U21s and minors already out of contention. Other commitments meant that I missed our underage exploits in the past fortnight, a point of regret especially in the case of the minors.

With regard to the U21s I was glad to be spared the sight of Limerick’s emphatic win over Willie Maher’s side. We’re developing a poor record in this code since our last success in 2010 and it has to be an issue of some concern that we’re not bringing players through despite a healthy minor record.

A point was made to me in the past week, which very much echoes my own thinking on events. The evidence of the past decade suggests that you need a healthy quota of senior panelist on your U21 side in order to be successful. Waterford certainly had them last year, as did Limerick the previous season when they won. Clare’s three-in-a-row was similarly backboned by senior personnel as was Tipperary’s side in 2010.

U21s who experience senior training and strength and conditioning will be physically ahead of all others. I’m told we looked distinctly boyish at times beside Limerick in that U21 game so it appears to confirm the pattern.

Elsewhere our minors won the hearts of all followers after two hectic games with Cork, sadly ending in defeat on this Monday evening. Those who saw the drawn game last Thursday were unanimous in their tributes to both teams after what by all accounts was an extraordinary contest. Tipp seemed to have it won a few times but were pulled back and then came up tantalisingly short in the replay at Pairc Ui Rinn. It’s painful but that’s sport. Full credit to the lads as well as Liam Cahill and his management team for a colossal effort. It makes winning on Saturday now even more essential.

 

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