Westside column – March 10th 2012

After the reversal against Kilkenny the previous week Tipperary’s hurlers got back on the wagon last Sunday with a welcome win over Clare in the Waterford Crystal. A first Crystal trophy since ’08 came courtesy of a lively opening and a strong finish. It’s a result that should set the proper mood music for the visit of Galway on Sunday next for round two of the Allianz league.

Elsewhere Borrisokane were last week relegated in the boardroom though I doubt if that’s the end of that particular saga.

I wasn’t in Sixmilebridge last Sunday so there’s no point in feigning first-hand knowledge of the event. It reminds me of the story from some years ago about a certain journalist who got ‘detained’ in some hostelry or other on his way to a match in Thurles. From the comfort of the bar he got all the relevant details from a local scribe who was present at the match and proceeded to file his report. And you know what? The provincial journalist later admitted that it was a far superior report to his own version. Fiction can often be more believable than fact.
Anyway in my absence from Sixmilebridge the team secured the first silverware of the season with that six-point win over Davy Fitz and his men. On paper both sides looked depleted and from reports the Tipp management had to call on some reinforcements to seal the outcome in the final quarter after the locals rallied strongly. In the circumstances it allowed both managers to take positives from the event.

Tipperary it seems had the better start and with ‘Buggy’ O’Meara rattling in a goal they led by five at the break. The Clare rally in the second half, however, was threatening enough for Declan Ryan to toss Eoin Kelly, Shane McGrath and John O’Brien into the action. In the end Tipperary supplied the encore winning comfortably by six against a Clare side that ran up a huge tally of wides.
I suspect the Tipperary management was relieved on Sunday evening. Losing to high-powered Kilkenny in the league is one thing; being tamed by Clare in a Crystal final the following Sabbath is another matter entirely. Besides winning generates its own momentum so getting back quickly into the groove was important for all concerned.
From reports on the Clare game it appears that ‘Buggy’ O’Meara was in robust form, which is encouraging news. He floundered somewhat against Kilkenny but had plenty of company in that role on a day of very poor supply to our forwards. I note also that James Woodlock is credited with five points, which is impressive shooting from midfield. John O’Neill raised three flags before being substituted.

Anyway there’s little breathing space now as Anthony Cunningham brings his Galway side to the Stadium next Sunday for episode two of the current league series. It’s a four-game sprint series now to April 1 with games on every weekend. Following Galway we have Waterford at home, then Dublin away and the series rounds off at the Stadium with Cork on April Fools Day. Thereafter, hopefully, we’ll have the knock-outs because otherwise it’s a long two-month wait for the championship opener.
While we floundered against Kilkenny in the opener Galway put away Dublin at Salthill with something to spare. It’s a Galway side with quite an injection of U21 talent. The new manager has obviously decided that the failed men of previous campaigns need supplementing. In a county not lacking underage success they have plenty of new blood to try out. The loss of Joe Canning to injury is an obvious downside at this stage however..

For Tipperary the game offers an immediate opportunity to rebound from the Kilkenny defeat. I’m sure the Nowlan Park experience will have been digested in great detail by the management who seemed genuinely stung by the evidence before their eyes. For the past three years the Kilkenny game has been a tone setter for the rest of the season so this time we can only hope that the pattern won’t be repeated.
There were a few aspects of the Kilkenny match that left followers particularly uneasy. There was an experimental aspect to the Tipperary side that day but it was the form of some of the more established men that left fans worried. Padraic Maher had an untypical off-day – Fitzgibbon Cup involvement has probably done him no favours. Behind him Curran and, to a lesser extent, Cahill struggled to assert themselves also, as did Brendan Maher at midfield. John O’Brien too was at odds with his stick and Gearoid Ryan didn’t have much influence either. It’s difficult to load too much blame on the others when these core players are labouring so badly.
But perhaps an even bigger issue facing the management after Nowlan Park centres on the tactical approach of the team. It is by now well established that Kilkenny are untouchable in the air. They have nurtured a brand of player who is physically strong and adept at plucking possession from the clouds. Delivering aerial ball to our forwards therefore was utterly futile. Surely this was learned in last year’s All Ireland final and indeed the semi-final too. Yet we persisted. It has left some fans wondering if the present management has the tactical savvy of their predecessors.

However, there were positives from the Kilkenny game such as the bold impression made by Donagh Maher at corner back. His brother Shane grew in stature too as that game unfolded. Then there was the impact of Noel McGrath at centre forward and the scoring touch of Shane Bourke when he came on near the end. Counter all that with frustration at Pa Bourke’s inability to inject more urgency into his game and David Young’s static form at midfield and overall you have plusses and minuses with the latter in the majority.
There is little doubt that Kilkenny targeted the Tipperary game as a ‘must win’ event. Why shouldn’t they since Tipperary have offered the only realistic opposition to them in recent years? And so if you want a crumb of comfort from a fortnight ago it is perhaps the fact that Cody put all his cards on the table that day. He went for maximum thrust and had his players moving at almost championship pitch. It will be interesting to see if they sustain that impression in future games.

Anyway enough about the Kilkenny game, so let’s look ahead to Galway on Sunday. Actually we’ve an excellent recent record against the Tribesmen. We haven’t lost a league game to Galway since ’07 at Salthill. In the ’08 series we met them twice, drawing the regular round at Salthill and then beating them in the final at Limerick. It was our last league final win.
In ’09 Pearse Stadium, Salthill, was once again a happy hunting ground for Tipperary when we came through narrowly in a tempestuous game. Paul Curran was yellow carded (a sending off under the experimental rules of the time) and Shane McGrath was later suspended arising out of the same sideline incident. Later in the game Eamonn Buckley was red carded. Through it all Tipperary brought home a narrow win with Brendan Maher making a last second interception to deny Galway a late winner. Seamus Callanan scored eleven points in the win.
In 2010 Galway came to the Stadium and again lost out after a game of the proverbial two halves. We trailed by four at the interval and were lucky to be so close. The second half brought a quite remarkable transformation, however. Galway managed just a single point in that second half as Tipp surged ahead to a nine-point win. John McIntyre was left bewildered by Galway’s second half collapse. It was a brittleness that has dogged Galway sides over the years.
Last year we were back in Salthill where Tipperary put on a stunning display to leave Galway bemused yet again. It ended 4-23 to 1-14, an eighteen point rout by the visitors. Shane Bourke was the man of the moment putting on a spectacular solo exhibition to score 3-4 and win man-of-the-match.

Speaking of the same Shane Bourke leads on nicely to next Sunday and the possibility of the Bracken’s man playing a role for Tipperary. He and James Barry, Upperchurch, represented Tipperary on UCC’s Fitzgibbon win at the weekend where they just managed to pip fellow Corkonians, CIT, in a thrilling final. The pair maintains a fine Tipperary tradition with the Cork college over the decades.
Given his role with UCC and his form when introduced a fortnight ago against Kilkenny one might expect Bourke to be part of the attack on Sunday. Otherwise the management face a difficult decision in striking an attacking balance between trialists and regulars. ‘Buggy’ O’Meara looks set for more action in an area which is still without ‘Bonner’ Maher and Seamus Callanan. Noel McGrath, Gearoid Ryan and John O’Brien would give the formation a familiar look. Adrian Ryan, John O’Neill, Pa Bourke and Timmy Hammersley are others seeing exposure and of course the old head, Kelly, is there either as a starter or rescuer if things go awry.
I’m not sure how serious the injury to Brendan Maher is; if available I’d expect him to be midfield with Shane McGrath, James Woodlock and David Young also in the mix for a starting slot.
Paul Curran appears to have pulled a hamstring at Nowlan Park so his availability will also be an issue ahead of Sunday’s tie. John Coghlan filled the number three jersey last week. Given recent form Donagh Maher looks likely to be on view once again, either at corner or wing. His brother Shane vies for a place at wing. Then you have the likes of Padraic Maher, Conor O’Mahony and Michael Cahill as likely starters. John O’Keeffe comes back into contention after his Fitzgibbon duties with LIT, as does Paddy Stapleton.

I expect the management to opt for major strength for this one. Having lost the opener to Kilkenny the scope for further slippage is minimal. This league series is more of a sprint than a marathon, so the next four weeks are critical. Joe Canning’s loss to Galway is major so on known form we’d hope (expect?) to take the points on Sunday. Let’s hope so.

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