Westside column – April 28th 2012

A league ship that hit choppy waters on its maiden voyage against Kilkenny last February finally floundered on a rebel rock at semi-final phase. A devastating final ten minutes from Cork torpedoed our league ambitions and – more worryingly – has sown the seeds of doubt ahead of the upcoming championship. Inevitably the result sees a realignment of hurling’s top dogs with Tipperary slipping and Cork soaring.
Elsewhere it was business as usual for Cody and his ‘cats’. Sheer work rate from Clare held the line in the first half but ultimately there was inevitability about the outcome. The final will be intriguing.
The ‘field of dreams’ we like to call Semple Stadium but on Sunday it more resembled a ‘field of nightmares’ for Tipperary hurling as we shipped a seven-point haymaker from the old enemy. The major trauma was confined to the final ten minutes or so but don’t be fooled by that: we laboured throughout this contest as players fore and aft came up short on the first really big day of the hurling season.
There was the exonerating factor of injuries – Curran’s especially – which will shelter the side from some of the more barbed criticism. The full back’s absence had a destabilising effect on that defensive end of the team. Padraic Maher is not a full back. On that second half surge up field you sensed a player craving the expanse of outfield rather than being cooped up on the edge of the ‘square’. His loss to the half back line was immense.
In a sense we had a makeshift defensive unit. David Young, the one-time heir apparent to Declan Fanning, had been dispensed with as a wing back option only to surprisingly return when the team was announced on Thursday night. When he had to be withdrawn yet again on Sunday Shane Maher was the preferred option. It puts John O’Keeffe way down the pecking order – a demotion that’s hardly justified.
The lack of a covering player for full back is a major worry approaching the championship. John Coughlan might have been viewed as the answer but recent evidence has clearly left the management – and the rest of us – unconvinced.
Conor O’Mahony was probably our steadiest defender on Sunday but Thomas Stapleton and Conor O’Brien coped reasonably well too. We’ve come to expect excellence from Michael Cahill every day but this time he fell short of our expectations – too much pushing the ball ahead of him instead of taking possession and then all that fouling that eventually drew a yellow card.
And yet despite our shortcomings we stayed well within range for most of this contest before Cork’s final push proved too much. Cork threatened to get away several times in the first half but on each occasion Tipperary found the answering scores, Pa Bourke excellent from play and frees at this juncture.
Yet one sensed that Cork were the niftier more energetic unit, their movement and pace very impressive, and when the Tipp goals came in the third quarter they came against the trend of play. Brian O’Meara, our best forward, bustled his way in along the end line for the first and Eoin Kelly defiantly drilled home the second against replacement goalie, Anthony Nash.
Yet it was Cork who found inspiration from those scores and each time responded to wrestle the initiative back from Tipperary. A quick puck-out caught us napping after O’Meara’s goal and William Egan had an immediate point. Again after the Kelly goal there was a Pat Horgan free so we got little time to settle and build on the benefits of major scores. (Ironically people have bemoaned our lack of goals throughout the league when we were running up big-point tallies; on Sunday we hit two majors but fell well short – goals are whimsical items, points a truer gauge of supremacy).
Undoubtedly it was the Cork goal that finally breached our hull irreparably. Shane McGrath takes the major blame in this instance after a lazy attempt to clear was blocked and in the follow-up Cork worked the ball to Luke O’Farrell who sent one sizzling past Cummins. The goalie hadn’t a prayer on that one but then he sent the puck-out straight to newly-arrived Conor Lehane who gratefully returned in between the sticks. Am I alone in feeling that a puck-out direct to an unmarked opponent is inexcusable at this level?
The final ten minutes was a virtual rout of Tipperary. Tactically JBM played it very cute holding Sweetnam and Lehane in reserve. Now they arrived to further deflate our sails both scoring with their first touches. The lead stretched though we did have a few scrambled attempts at goal which stayed out. A second Kelly free failed to beat the defensive wall and by the call of time we were thoroughly deflated.
Very few Tipperary players will escape censure from this experience. We replaced both midfielders. Great expectations rest on the shoulders of Brendan Maher and on this occasion he came up short, not helped by a knock in the first half. James Woodlock for all his undoubted athleticism is short on hurling subtlety. He won plenty of possession on Sunday but too often it was wasted.
Noel McGrath’s reputation wasn’t enhanced by the game either. Cadogan was a star turn for Cork and Noel did little of note before being withdrawn. O’Meara was easily our best forward with Pa doing very well in the first half especially Otherwise we had little threat in the attack: bits and pieces from Gearoid Ryan, less from Shane Bourke and not a lot from O’Brien either.
It’s disappointing. The panel now face five weeks of re-focused preparation ahead of the championship opener versus Limerick. There are tough times ahead. We’ll still be fancied to take the Shannonsiders but you’d have few Tipperary backers at the moment in a Munster semi down Leeside. Cork have clearly outstripped us now in the pecking order so the management faces a tough time in trying to re-invent this team.
From a Cork perspective it’s all going neatly to prescription. It’s extraordinary how JBM has turned matters around in such a short span of time. His present mix of players is surely part of the secret. He’s retained enough of the wily old battlers and blended them with the younger recruits. Their final now with Kilkenny will be fascinating but irrespective of what happens there the power seems to be shifting to Leeside once again in Munster.
That injury to Donal Og Cusack was unfortunate and looks set to deprive them of an on-field leader for the remainder of the season. Mind you in Anthony Nash they seem to have an able replacement – and a big hitter to boot.
Speaking earlier of reinvention Kilkenny just seem to take it as second nature. Players retire or are injured but the juggernaut appears to power ahead irrespective. Their man-of-the-match on Sunday was a newcomer, Cillian Buckley at midfield. They still have Shefflin and Ritchie Hogan and Aidan Fogarty to return from injury. Sunday’s comfortable win was yet another statement of intent.
For Clare it was just too much to handle. Defensively they did fine – Cian Dillon at full back was outstanding – but the attacking end was seriously lacking. One statistic in particular is revealing: their six forwards scored a mere three points from play over the seventy minutes. Conor McGrath had an off-day and that proved very costly – even his free-taking went awry. Clearly they need Darach Honan back in harness to bolster that division and there’s no indication that he’s close to a return just yet.
The Banner did manage to keep things tight in the first half principally through workaholic effort. They hassled and harried and hunted in droves and with an April shower drenching the pitch Kilkenny failed to build their customary momentum. But you always had a sense that it was simply delaying the inevitable and true to form Kilkenny turned the screw in the second period for what was a comfortable win in the end.
As ever Davy had a gripe. They’re out to get us, was the familiar theme as he rounded on the referee over perceived injustices. I don’t know how he gets away with this guff. We were familiar with this during the Loughnane era too where the persecution angle was used as a motivating tool. Davy’s particular gripe this time was the Kilkenny goal. He was right on one thing though: the refereeing was very poor. However, if he thinks it was one-sided he should look at the disallowing of Kilkenny’s first half goal in favour of a ‘penalty’, which was subsequently saved.
There are elements of the Clare approach that I’ve always found distasteful and some of them resurfaced again on Sunday. During the Loughnane era they developed a tactic of questioning every refereeing decision that went against them, even the most blatant of ones. They were at it again this time. And remember in the nineties when an opposition player went down they were in to surround him and harass him in a bid to intimidate. Well, on Sunday when a Kilkenny man went down following a frontal charge you had a Clare opponent pulling him up by the jersey implying he was faking injury. Sounds familiar?
There’s clearly a lot of potential in Clare given their underage prominence of recent years but building a formation to challenge the likes of Kilkenny will take time. Hopefully it will be pursued without the more negative stuff that became a hallmark of the Loughnane years.
Finally I don’t have local fixtures at writing time but I assume the domestic championships will now avail of Tipp’s league exit to advance their programmes. Watch the fixture schedule.

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