WESTSIDE COLUMN 7 SEPTEMBER 2012.

 

 

For a county that has been convulsed in recent weeks by the fall-out from the Kilkenny defeat last Saturday’s All Ireland intermediate win came as a blessed respite. A runaway lead of twelve points at the interval shrivelled alarmingly on the turnover and eventually we were left clinging nervously to a two-point remnant of that half-time advantage. It was relief more than joy at the end to see Eddie Connolly accept the trophy following a win that goes some way to restoring battered pride. The minors can continue the rehabilitation process this Sunday though it would be unwise to underestimate the Dubs.

Meanwhile the formal departure of Declan Ryan’s management cabinet at the weekend clears the decks for the succession stakes. The hunt is one for a replacement.

Given the events of recent weeks we surely craved the tonic of an All Ireland success last Saturday as the ‘cats’ came to town chasing silverware. Yet we came so dangerously close to another heartbreak. A galloping first half had Tipperary embellishing the occasion firing home three goals and going a dozen clear, albeit with the backing of a stiff wind. There was bound to be some Kilkenny ‘kick’ in the second period but we hardly anticipated such a sea-change that had us cringing in the seats at the prospect of being turned-over from such a position of strength. In the end we did enough to get over the line – just about – but it was all very wobbly with James Logue riding to the rescue on a few occasions.

It was all so different in the first half. Mind you we did start slowly and were four-one down in the opening minutes but then we found the groove. The opening goal was the spark that ignited it all, Joe Gallagher feeding Michael Heffernan for a smashing finish. Eventually Michael Gleeson set up David Butler for the second and great hooking and blocking by the forwards paved the way for Kieran Morris to smack home the third. A steady flow of points too underlined our advantage and with little retort from Kilkenny we eventually got to twelve-up by the break. Interestingly our full forward line trio helped themselves to 1-2 apiece, a scenario that eventually saw the Kilkenny full back withdrawn.

However, that dream display of the opening half quickly turned to nightmare as the match resumed. Had we lost I think the management would have taken a heavy hit on this one. After dominating the first half we suddenly went into defensive mode for the second. Kieran Morris was brought out as an extra midfielder and we seemed to sit back and invite Kilkenny on. It’s an invitation the ‘cats’ tend to accept. Immediately we were on the back foot as the Noresiders powered forward. The points started to stream over James Logue’s head, six without reply, and then the goal when a lob from outfield went all the way, the goalie unwisely advancing to tangle with a defender and forward.

It was an unsettling turnaround. Where was all the slick hurling of the first half gone? The extra midfielder wasn’t working, our attack, so potent in the first half was now out-numbered and out-played. We were floundering all over. A Kilkenny ‘65’ brought the lead back to just two points and it was almost midway through the second period when Michael Heffernan hit our first score of the half, a superb point into the wind from out near the sideline.

Another Heffernan point took us four-up once again but then Kilkenny reeled off three in a row to cut the margin to a single flag. We can surely be grateful for questionable decision making by Kilkenny in this critical final phase of the game. When a point down and with wind and momentum behind them they were awarded a ‘penalty’ with about seven minutes still left to play. The prudent choice would be to tap the point and level the game which would be another turning of the screw on Tipperary. Instead they went for broke, Logue saved the shot and the rebound was put wide. That let-off pumped oxygen into Tipperary lungs.

A Kieran Morris free took the lead back to two and then another superb point from substitute Padraig O’Dwyer made it a safer three. We only scored four points in the second half but each one was worth infinitely more than its nominal value.

There was one final heart-shudder when Kilkenny were awarded a twenty metre free right at the end. This time they had no option but to go for goal and once more Logue came to the rescue tipping the shot over. From goal attempts off two frees and one penalty Kilkenny got a mere one point return; on such outcomes games swing.

Tipperary survived to celebrate our first success in the grade since 2000. If we’d lost this one from a position of a twelve-point lead I shudder to think of the recriminations. In fairness to Michael Ryan and his aides bringing Michael Heffernan outfield in the second half crisis helped matters as did substitutes like Paudie O’Dwyer and Cathal Dillon, though many questioned the removal of David Butler.

Anyway all’s well that ends well. We have one All Ireland trophy on the sideboard and hopefully the minors can add another on Sunday. Given the changed format of this selection it’s seen very much as a development squad for the senior panel though I don’t think there will be too many promotions even after winning an All Ireland. James Logue will take some blame for the Kilkenny goal but he certainly atoned for that with a string of vital saves. He’s well placed to join the senior panel especially if Brendan Cummins were to step aside. Otherwise it’s difficult to see who else might win favour. Players like Eddie Connolly (very solid in this game), Michael Gleeson and Michael Heffernan have been around the senior panel but I’m not sure they’ve furthered their claims for promotion. Heffernan had a central role in this win and has all the skills of the game though lack of heft is seen as a major negative for a senior game that’s increasingly physical.

Through his underage years James Barry was seen as a very bright prospect though he hasn’t quite fulfilled the potential. He reads the game well but it’s the man-marking element of his play that’s seen as lacking. Getting tighter on opponents and doing the blocking and hooking is not his forte and after a useful first half on Saturday that looseness in his play was exposed in the second period.

Interestingly the Kilkenny team is drawn from intermediate and junior clubs, a scenario that existed in Tipperary until last year. It would appear to give us an obvious advantage though there are some who will point out that many of our senior sides wouldn’t survive against Kilkenny’s intermediate teams. In any case there is an argument for having a consistent system throughout the country.

For the moment we’ll congratulate Michael Ryan and his charges for playing their part in lifting the gloom of recent weeks, though we could have done without the second half torture.

One down and one to go the focus now switches to our minor quest for glory next Sunday when Willie Maher’s side takes on the Dubs. We go in as strong favourites having sailed through Munster before dispatching Galway with some style in the semi. The Dubs, however, have been making underage waves in recent years and are very much a side to be respected even if they did ride their luck against Clare in the semi-final. A team that reaches the final without playing its best is one to be wary of.

It’s five years since we completed that minor double in 2007 so a return to the top now would indeed be timely. With due respect to the intermediates, the minor grade is seen as the crucial indicator of future prospects. It’s no surprise that Sunday’s senior opponents have been the dominant underage powers in recent decades and of course our present senior side is well primed with minor stars from the ’06 and ’07 wins. A minor famine inevitably has a follow-on down the line at senior.

Thus far this minor team has drawn many compliments for the quality of its hurling. They put on an exhibition against Waterford in Munster and even if they stuttered a bit in the second half against Clare in the provincial final there was more to admire against Galway in the All Ireland semi. It’s easy to see where the favourites tag comes from.

A form line drawn through Clare is another reason why Tipperary are so hotly fancied in this one. In the Munster final Tipp were well on top of Clare in the first half and eventually won by four though the second half was quite a tight affair, played in wet, difficult conditions. Compare that then with the general perception that Clare were robbed by a late Dublin goal in the semi-final and you can see the basis for the judgments. However, there is another view out there that Clare improved significantly between the Munster final and the All Ireland semi so perhaps we need to be wary with the comparisons.

Anyway it’s been an impressive campaign thus far by this minor side so hopefully they’ll deliver on Sunday. Good luck to them.

The senior game promises to be an intriguing affair too with, I suspect, much neutral support for Galway. The background of that extraordinary Leinster final is yet another fascinating aspect to this clash with Galway seeking a repeat recipe and Kilkenny no doubt plotting to spike their plans. Can Galway repeat the deed or, with the element of surprise now gone will normal service resume for Kilkenny? The bookies certainly seem to think so with the ‘cats’ hotly fancied.

I’m really relishing the prospect of this one because I feel the Tribesmen are well set up to have a go. That Leinster final win is one source of their confidence but I think the semi-final against Cork was hugely important as a follow-up. They won that game more handsomely than the score line shows and the match offered confirmation that Galway had arrived as championship prospects.

It will be fascinating to see how the sides set themselves up this time. Who will be detailed to track Damien Hayes as he drifts outfield? Who’ll square up to Joe Canning? Indeed how will the Galway defence organise the head-to-heads with Shefflin and company? Tactically it’s going to be fascinating. It’s a long time since anyone got it right two days running against Kilkenny so it will be intriguing to see how Galway cope this time.

After all the years of disappointment I think neutrals will be happy to see that Galway under Anthony Cunningham have finally found the formula.  The popular view is that lightning won’t strike twice for them, that Cody will have found the method to counteract their Leinster final play. Perhaps, though I think they’re much better placed to take on the ‘cats’ than we were and I’m expecting a really tight one even if I can’t quite convince myself that Galway can do it. Either way we’ll enjoy the collision.

Finally the weekend announcement that Declan Ryan and his colleagues were stepping aside has cleared the way for County Board to chase down a successor. It’s a difficult task and yet one that’s vital to the future wellbeing of the team. At least the focus is now forwards instead of backwards so expect speculation to dominate our hurling lives for the next few weeks.

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