Westside column – January 14th 2012

After the Christmas hiatus it’s good to be back again and reviewing hurling. All those retrospectives on the departed year begin to grate on the sensitivities, especially since 2011 was mostly one of disappointment for Tipperary hurling. It was good then on Sunday last to be pitch-side at Boherlahan on a spring-like afternoon and watching the county panel dust off the winter cobwebs against the students of Cork University. A lively four-part encounter saw the locals resume on a winning note. There’s another warm-up planned for next Sunday against Coolderry at Cloughjordan and the following Sabbath competitive action kicks off with a Waterford Crystal tie versus LIT, a game that has been brought forward a week from the original fixture.

We hurling folk tend to get edgy during the closed season so it was indeed pleasing to return to ‘live’ action on Sunday last. The mild weather no doubt contributed to the attendance also for this unpublicised challenge game. Assessing how the hurlers wintered and casting a cold eye on the progress of peripheral players are items of interest for the hardcore followers. In general the marginal players looked sharp as you’d expect from guys seeking to make an immediate impression. By contrast a few of the main men looked a tad plumper than when we last saw them so there’s a bit of toning up on the agenda in the lead-in to the new season.

The game was played in four twenty-minute segments which I must concede was a test of endurance by the end. From the management’s perspective I suppose it gave scope to use almost thirty players on a rotational basis. None of the All Ireland team played in the first quarter, which instead featured the more experimental side of the extended panel. Darren Gleeson kept goal for the first two periods before Cummins took over; neither conceded a goal. Being deputy to a long-server like Cummins must be frustrating. Darren Gleeson will be thirty-one this year so time is not on his side.

The starting full back line featured Conor O’Brien, John Coghlan and Carrick’s Gerry Walsh who were fronted on the ‘forty’ by Shane Maher, Thomas Stapleton and Stephen Lillis. There was an all-Drom midfield of James Woodlock and Johnny Ryan. Half forward featured David Collins, Adrian Ryan and Pat Kerwick with John O’Neill, Brian O’Meara and Timmy Hammersley on the full line. It was very much a team of wannabes and in fairness they looked lively.
After missing out last year Shane Maher’s return will be watched with interest. In 2010 he drifted to the lower reaches of the panel as the year unfolded. He’ll be thirty-one next April so making a comeback now is a brave decision. He looked slim and sharp this time, showing typical strength in the air.

Tipp led the students by just a single point at the end of the first quarter, 0-7 to 0-6. A three-point contribution by Templederry’s Adrian Ryan was noteworthy; his striking was among the crispest on show.
For the second quarter then the heavy guns arrived; all bar Darren Gleeson and the full forward line were replaced. The full back line now read Paddy Stapleton, Padraig Maher and Donagh Maher, Shane’s brother whom many rate highly. John O’Keeffe, Conor O’Mahony and Noel McGrath formed the half back line with Shane McGrath and Brendan Maher midfield. Half forward now featured Gearoid Ryan, Eoin Kelly and Patrick Maher. This was a more familiar looking Tipperary team and one might have expected they’d pull ahead of the students. They didn’t. The most significant lodgements to our account were a ‘Bonner’ Maher goal and three John O’Neill points. At the end of the period we now led by two, 1-13 to 0-14, as the students stayed very much in touch.

Brendan Cummins came on for the third quarter but otherwise it was mostly back to the starting experimental formation. John O’Neill now left his mark on the game by tacking on 1-2 to take Tipp six-up by the end of the period, 2-19 to 0-19. In the final twenty-minute segment as the fans began to lose interest Tipperary held the advantage to win by seven, 2-26 to 0-25. Brian O’Meara had the final two flags.

So a useful pipe-opener, though in the scheme of things an event like this is unlikely to make or break reputations. Players like John O’Neill, Adrian Ryan and Shane Maher could feel happiest about the experience but most could point to individual items of merit. James Woodlock looks amazingly fit for the time of year going on a few typical surges. Actually some of the main men looked the stalest on show so there’s a busy month ahead before the start of the league in February.

Incidentally there was a Tipperary presence on the UCC team also with Shane Bourke at corner forward and James Barry at wing back. Shane Bourke is in danger of becoming the one-hit wonder of Tipperary hurling following last year’s league game against Galway. He wasn’t togged out for lastSeptember’s All Ireland and didn’t make a career-changing impression on Sunday either. Next Sunday Tipperary play Leinster club champions, Coolderry, at Cloughjordan as training steps up in pace. Ken Hogan manages Coolderry who are busy preparing for an All Ireland club semi-final date with Gort. Again it should be a useful work-out for the Tipp lads as they prepare for the Waterford Crystal tie with LIT the following week. This game has been brought forward a week and I understand is likely to be played in Dolla since there’s already a club fixture in Nenagh that Sunday.

The following week there’s mention of a possible charity game between a Tipperary selection and the Munster inter-provincial side, which this year has Liam Sheedy and Eamonn O’Shea on the management team. Munster play Leinster at Nowlan Park on 19 February. This is the GAA’s latest attempt to deliver CPR to the old-style Railway Cup competitions, which have effectively been comatose for many years now. M. Donnelly continues to throw money at the competition and the GAA simply won’t let go.

So there’s plenty of activity being lined up for the Tipperary team ahead of the start of the league in February. A new year inevitably brings new hope and fresh enthusiasm among players and fans alike. After the swings and roundabouts of the past three All Ireland campaigns this is an important one for Tipperary and for Declan Ryan’s management team. It’s generally recognised nowadays that inter-county careers tend to be shorter than in the past due mainly to more demanding training schedules. A third of Tipperary’s starting team last September will be in their thirties in 2012: Brendan Cummins, the father figure will be thirty-seven in May; Paul Curran will be thirty-one in November; John O’Brien celebrated his thirtieth on New Year’s Day, an ideal birthday for a hurler; Eoin Kelly was thirty last week; and Lar Corbett will be thirty-one in March. When a hurler hits the ‘thirtysomething’ zone every season becomes a bonus. These guys have given massive service and obviously retain an almost boyish enthusiasm for the game but the worry for Tipperary is that such a core element of the team are in the autumn of their careers and we don’t have the supplementary material coming through at the bottom end.

We’ve harvested what’s available from the minor crops of ’06 and ’07 and since then we’ve had too many fallow years. In the main Declan Ryan will depend this year once again on the proven men of the past. By contrast Brian Cody seems to have a greater supply of upcoming talent to supplement his team year-on-year, though even Noreside there’s evidence that the underage conveyor belt has been malfunctioning a bit in recent times. So for Tipperary it’s important to get the maximum from the present crew because when Cummins, Kelly, Corbett and co hang up the boots there’s going to be a void that won’t easily be filled. From Declan Ryan’s perspective 2012 is a massive year too. Having lost the title in 2011 nothing but retrieval will suffice this coming season. Given the age profile of the upper third of his side it’s not as if he can build for success in a few years time; it’s now or never, which is the harsh reality facing the manager.

Every managerial career evolves; few achieve instant success. What will be watched keenly this time is how Declan Ryan responds to events last year. As a minor manager Liam Sheedy failed in Munster before reshaping for a winning All Ireland campaign. Again as a senior manager he learned a harsh lesson against Waterford in ’08. Even in 2010 he faced the ire of fans after that collapse in Cork but once more showed himself to be a superb learner. I’ve no doubt Declan will likewise have absorbed the lessons of 2011. Even on Sunday last I thought there was an eagerness in the set-up that wasn’t evident this time last year. They have a longer build up to the league start this year, which should see them better prepared when the competition begins. For the moment I suspect the panel will stay very fluid before it takes definite shape around mid February. Incidentally Seamus Callanan will be unavailable for eight to ten weeks because of an ankle injury which underwent some surgical procedure during the week. .Disappointingly Seamus Hennessy too it seems is unlikely to return to action in the short term. Some suggest he’ll be lucky resume at all this year.

P.S. The famed Harty Cup is down to quarter-final action with a tasty Tipperary derby on the menu for Wednesday week at Dolla where Thurles CBS face Nenagh CBS. The line up for the other ‘quarters’ involves Midleton CBS against DLS Waterford, St. Flannan’s versus Colaiste na Deise and Ardscoil Ris facing Castletroy College. In the Corn Phadraig Clonmel High School travel to Watergrasshill for a quarter-final clash with Hamilton High School, Bandon, also on Wednesday 18. Two days later Doon CBS face St. Augustans Dungarvan at Cashel in another Corn Phadraig quarter-final.

PPS. The Tipperary Supporters club launch their membership 2012 on Thursday 19 January at the Horse and Jockey Hotel, Littleton. The launch will be performed by Declan Ryan and members of the senior panel. In these straitened times all support, I’m sure, will be appreciated.

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