Westside column – March 17th 2012

A hard-earned win at the Stadium gets the hurling league back on track for Tipperary. A battling performance saw the issue see-saw this way and that before the home side finally ‘nailed’ the outcome with a closing brace of points. Relief all round then was the dominant emotion after the team survived a right stiff examination by Galway’s young guns. Next up is a visit from pointless Waterford. An injury-hit Deise side stood toe-to-toe with Kilkenny in the first half last Sunday before eventually wilting in the second period. Their dire need of points should ensure another vigorous challenge for Tipperary this Sabbath.

All’s well that ends will, I suppose, though we certainly had our tense moments in this encounter before eventually claiming the spoils at the proverbial ‘death’. The game was already in added time when newly-arrived substitute, Johnny Ryan, split the posts with his first touch to nudge Tipp clear. Then came a big hit from Noel McGrath who pointed from within his own territory after Donagh Maher won the free. It was a rousing end to a game of endless fluctuation.
Galway, buoyed by their big win over Dublin in the opener, came in feisty form. As they lined up for the toss-in Conor O’Mahony’s opponent threw an immediate dig at the centre back. Somehow if I was to pick a Tipp defender to test in this way it wouldn’t be the Newport man. Inevitably that greeting card was returned with interest but that little cameo set the opening tone. Galway were on a mission – and were shortly four-up.

An opening point was quickly followed by a stunning goal, full forward, James Regan, flashing one over Cummins’ left shoulder, the goalie for once static. There was a real zip in Galway’s play at this stage and it took Tipperary some time to come to terms. Gradually, however, the ship did steady, Brendan Maher a major influence on events at midfield. Two points from Maher following the opener from John O’Neill set Tipp moving and when ‘Buggy’ O’Meara raised the next flag the sides were level. They would be level on five more occasions in this half and an incredible eight further occasions in the second period.

It had been an eventual opening phase to the play. After the initial breach of his line Brendan Cummins stood firm to keep out another effort from corner forward, Bernard Burke. At the other end James Skehill denied O’Meara after Pa Bourke supplied possession. It was that type of end-to-end stuff on an ideal day for hurling, though the pitch has often looked in better nick. Point for point the teams traded scores until Tipp’s first major break arrived near the half hour. Credit Brian O’Meara here with sheer bustling persistence as he broke in from the right corner to eventually feed Pa Bourke for the whipped-in goal. Tipperary were now at two-up but typical of the pattern we couldn’t hold advantage and Galway had the next three scores to edge in front once more by the interval.

Eoin Kelly arrived for the second half in place of Shane McGrath but he lasted a matter of seconds. After a hard-won free he went down clutching the hamstring; he was replaced by Timmy Hammersley. It stayed very tight for the second half but significantly we only fell into arrears on one occasion; mostly it was Galway playing catch-up. Our second goal came early in the half and was as crisp a strike as you’ll see, Noel McGrath firing in after being fed by Pa Bourke. We were four-up now but frustratingly we once again couldn’t hold advantage. Within four minutes Damien Hayes had flashed a low angled one across Cummins and the sides were level once more.

It became a grim battle to the end now. Back we went three-up but once more Galway found the necessary response with Niall Burke hitting the frees that levelled it once again before their full forward, James Regan, edged them ahead. What followed was a point-swapping exercise with Tipperary unable to pull away and the issue dangling on a knife-edge with time almost up. A draw looked a likely outcome before substitute Johnny Ryan made a memorable entry to hit the lead point and then that long free from Noel McGrath.

Galway could feel unlucky to come away empty handed though in Tipperary’s favour they spent most of the second half ahead. I found it a frustrating game to watch because so often Tipperary seemed to have the initiative but as quickly they let it go. Some reports gave the game rave reviews but I think Jackie Cahill got it more accurate with the term ‘error-ridden’. As a spectacle it was definitely exciting but not of the quality some would suggest.
Encouragingly from a Tipperary perspective the lessons of Nowlan Park seem to have exercised minds. There was a definite switch of tactic here with a greater emphasis on linking up with colleagues rather than the booming delivery into attack. The targeted puck-out was a feature also though too many of them didn’t hit their target. Brendan Cummins is the biggest hitter in the game as evidenced by his record in the Cooley Mountains but accuracy is a real problem area for him.

Anyway it’s a precious win that puts the campaign back in the groove. It was Tipperary’s ninth success from the past eleven league clashes with Galway. For Tipperary fans there were a lot of new-look names on the Galway side as well as a sprinkling of the more recognisable. Their full forward line chipped in with 2-7 from play, Damien Hayes topping the list on 1-3. Full forward James Regan hit 1-2 with centre forward, Niall Burke, impressive on the frees. It’s a reinvigorated Galway side and with Joe Canning back on board they’ll be useful.

From a Tipperary perspective I thought our midfield was our strongest line. Brendan Maher stepped up significantly from his Nowlan Park form and James Woodlock is hitting a real purple patch at the moment. On Sunday they gave us a firm footing in that zone. Defensively you could praise individual performances but a more critical eye will point to the concession of 2-18. Michael Cahill did a lot of positive hurling but was caught for important scores too. Conor O’Mahony and Padraic Maher were strong on the half line but Paul Curran is struggling a bit with his form at full at the moment. Donagh Maher again showed why he’s viewed as a bright prospect while John O’Keeffe did okay.
I think ultimately a lot of our difficulties will centre on the attack where effectively we’re hurling at the moment without most of the formation that contested three All Irelands. Corbett is gone (for the present anyway), ‘Bonner’ Maher and Callanan are injured and Kelly is playing a substitute role. On Sunday Gearoid Ryan cried off also so Noel McGrath was the only attacking survivor from last September. Given such a new-look forward formation it’s inevitable there will be difficulties.

Individually you could find items to praise about most of the forwards on Sunday but you could just as easily focus on the negatives. Noel McGrath’s 1-3 was a significant contribution from centre forward. Shane McGrath cried off at half time after an undistinguished first half; one wonders if he’s unfit for midfield has he got a future at half forward? Pa Bourke scored the first goal, set up the second and hit six points, five from frees – not a bad input from a player who at times frustrates fans.

On the inside line ‘Buggy’ O’Meara continues to work slavishly and with some success. John O’Neill scored a few neat points and one little cameo from the second half stands out: he raced across to the New Stand side to chase down and block a defender; it lifted team and fans alike. Shane Bourke, fresh from his Fitzgibbon exploits, didn’t hit the highs of last year at Salthill but he did chip in with a few points. He needs more game time now to see can he develop at this level. Overall that forward division is the most unsettled section of the team so the return of injured players will be welcome.Next up it’s Waterford at the Stadium on Sunday for another must-win fixture if qualification for the knock-outs is to remain firmly on course. It’s a Waterford that is already fighting relegation after defeats to Cork and Kilkenny; another reversal will put them in the red zone so expect a big push on Sunday from our Southern neighbours.

Last week, while they lost well in the end it was certainly a different contest in the opening half. There was only a point in it at half time but Kilkenny did pull away in the second period albeit against a home team badly hit by injuries. Already without John Mullane and Eoin Kelly they lost corner back Noel Connors and full forward Shane Walsh before the game. There was praise for a very youthful full forward line of Martin O’Neill, Gavin O’Brien and the more familiar Maurice Shanahan. The ageless Tony Browne was back in action for his 22nd season and did well it seems hitting a few points from half back. Our recent record against Waterford is very healthy. Our last league defeat to the county was back in 2007 when they edged a quarter-final tie by a single point at Nowlan Park. The following year we reversed that result at the same Kilkenny venue on our way to eventual league success against Galway. 2009 brought another league win, this time at Walsh Park while in 2010 we drew with Davy Fitzgerald’s side at Semple Stadium.

This will be our third year in succession to face Waterford at the Stadium. Last year we met them under lights in early March and came away with a five-point win after an eventful game. Waterford were reduced to thirteen as first Shane O’Sullivan and then goalie, Clinton Hennessy, saw red. Noel McGrath scored seven points from play. This time the Deise have a new manager in Michael Ryan and because of injuries have obviously been forced into promoting some younger talent. Points are now critical for them so I expect that to be reflected in their approach.

Given our two remaining games, away to Dublin and at home to Cork, a win here is essential for Tipperary. We’ve struggled against Dublin in recent years and with Cork in flying form at the moment the final rounds of this series look challenging. With three teams progressing to the knock-outs there is some room for manoeuvre but not a lot.

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