Westside column – March 31st 2012

Given the pre-match defections a draw at Croke Park was a healthy result even if the late, late nature of the equaliser was an item of regret. Despite looking unsettled and struggling for spells of the game Tipperary showed admirable resolve in a tie that pepped up quite a lot in the second half.

Everything now hinges on the final round where Cork, buoyed by their win over Kilkenny, come to town. A win will see us through to the semis and even in defeat we’ll still qualify if the ‘Cats’ manage to maul Galway.
The present league structure has its critics but on the plus side is the fact that fewer games mean a tighter finish. And so the final round next weekend could hardly be better poised. Just two points separate the top four teams with numerous permutations possible depending on results.

Tipperary’s draw in Dublin makes only a marginal difference to our position as we line up against Cork. If we lose and Galway win at Nowlan Park then we’re out of the reckoning and face into a two-month hiatus ahead of the championship opener against Limerick. It’s a scenario we’ll obviously hope to avoid so the target on Sunday is clear. More about that later.

The pre-match announcement in Croke Park that Conor O’Mahony (back strain) and Paul Curran (illness) were out of the reckoning sounded ominous for Tipperary. With a largely experimental attack already on board we now had the central spine of the defence removed so challenging times were surely in store. Before the toss in I’m sure we’d have taken a draw, though by the end that late leveller felt like a theft.

The early exchanges looked ominous enough for the visitors. In a reshuffled defence John Coghlan was in at centre back with Conor O’Brien on the wing and Padraic Maher going full. It had to be unsettling for the team generally and the early evidence showed the Dubs on top. The Dublin defence particularly was in command at this stage but luckily they didn’t drill home advantage in attack. A combination of wides and two timely interventions by Darren Gleeson denied the home side the type of edge that they perhaps deserved.

Tipperary were struggling to stay in tow but in fairness they never let Dublin more than a few points away and on the half hour mark eventually hit the front. A two-point interval lead for Tipperary was perhaps more than we deserved on the trend of play.

Dublin introduced David Treacy for the second half and within ten minutes he had left his imprint on the tie. A short puck-out didn’t reach its target and in the follow up Treacy beat Gleeson for the Dubs’ first goal. That strike was sandwiched between a pair of points by the Dubliner, all coming within eight minutes of the restart. That’s what you call an impact sub.

The immediate victim of Treacy’s impact was John Coghlan who was replaced by David Young with Padraic Maher going to number six and Michael Cahill to number three. The moves had a stabilising effect on the Tipperary defence and with John O’Brien in attack now in place of Shane Bourke we began to claw our way back into this contest.

The intensity of the game increased and the Tipperary forwards, Brian O’Meara especially, began to find the range. John O’Neill drew a few fouls too for important scores, one suspiciously close to the penalty zone. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the tie was the manner in which Tipperary grafted during this phase of the match. John O’Brien increased our options in attack and with ‘Buggy’ hitting four second-half points from play we got on top as the clock counted down.

In the final five minutes particularly Tipperary seemed to have securely ‘nailed’ the tie. Points from O’Meara either side of scores from John O’Brien and Shane McGrath took us from one-down to three-up as the game moved into added time. Timmy Hammersley missed a golden opportunity to close it all out and that became a very costly miss when Liam Rushe did that snatch and grab three minutes into additional time. The defence will be disappointed to have given Rushe the opening after a copious number of steps were taken by the forward en route to goal.

Overall there was general satisfaction with Tipperary’s performance given the circumstances. The attack took some time to get to the pace of the game but eventually we got to grips with the Dublin challenge and were unlucky to be caught at the end. Michael Cahill and Padraic Maher were undoubtedly the stars of the defensive effort. Brendan Maher was best at midfield while ‘Buggy’ took top honours in attack. Noel McGrath pitched in with a few typical scores while both John O’Brien and Shane McGrath played roles in our second half improvement.

Given the list of injuries the management has had to delve deep into the reserves for this league campaign and will no doubt have learned a few things along the way. Principally they’ll have learned that there’s no deep well of material available and ultimately we’ll be relying on the tried and trusted men of previous campaigns. Of the newer talent just two are likely to push for starting places come championship time. ‘Buggy’ O’Meara is a work in progress – and the progress has been steady and consistent this spring, a fact graphically underlined by his five-point, man-of-the-match input against Dublin. At the other end Donagh Maher too is developing nicely. For both the acid test will be when championship intensity arrives.

In other areas there was surprise on Saturday when John Coghlan was given the number six jersey, a surprise that proved well founded when he had to be withdrawn early in the second half. As an U21 he was very highly rated by Tommy Dunne and colleagues but on different occasions now he has come up short at senior level. Interestingly Shane Maher was ignored in Saturday’s reshuffle.

The number five jersey is proving a problematic one for the management too with nobody laying a convincing claim to possession. Thomas Stapleton was certainly unconvincing in the role on Saturday. I’ve heard several people suggest Shane McGrath as an option for that pesky wing back slot though obviously the management is not of that mind. In any case with James Woodlock being replaced on Saturday and McGrath making a strong impression when introduced you could yet be returning to a Brendan Maher-Shane McGrath midfield partnership.

Obviously before we get near the championship the forward division will need a major revamp. Gearoid Ryan was back from injury on Saturday but clearly not back to his best. We badly need ‘Bonner’ Maher, Seamie Callanan and Eoin Kelly on board too because Saturday’s formation looked distinctly lightweight. ‘Buggy’ is obviously providing an extra dimension with his heft and physicality but he needs Kelly and co around him.

Both sides to the goalie debate will have found material in Saturday’s game. The first half saves and a series of accurate short puck-outs will be cited by the Gleeson camp while the Cummins advocates will highlight the puck-outs that went astray as well as a query or two about the shots that beat Gleeson. Would Cummins have blocked either or both of the goals? Un-provable of course so the debate goes on.

It will be interesting to see which goalie the management opts for next Sunday. For the defence Paul Curran is expected to be recovered but Conor O’Mahony is more doubtful. In that case we’d expect Padraic Maher to play at number six and then you have the difficulty of finding two wingers. Brendan Maher should be midfield with either James Woodlock or Shane McGrath as his partner.

The attack needs strengthening but I’m not sure what’s available to that end. Seamus Callanan is back hurling but I presume unlikely to be fit to return by Sunday; Patrick Maher is still some weeks off a return. Hopefully Eoin Kelly is closer to match fitness.

Tipp/Cork games always have a unique flavour whether in league or championship so we’ll look forward to Sunday’s clash with interest. Even though they’re at the top of the league table at the moment Cork could still miss out on the semis if they lose to Tipperary and if Galway beat Kilkenny. In that scenario Cork, Kilkenny and Galway would all finish on six points which would mean that score difference would decide on who progresses. Incidentally if just two teams tie on points then the result of the head-to-head between those sides will be the deciding factor.

From Tipperary’s perspective there are a number of possibilities riding on Sunday’s outcome. A win will put us through to the semis and clearly that’s the preferred option. If we lose and if Galway beat Kilkenny then we miss out on the semis. If we draw and if Galway win it becomes tricky again because then Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway all finish on six points, which again means we’re back to score difference and ours is poor. Anyway our fate is in our own hands so let’s go for it, though inevitably we’ll be keeping a close ear to proceedings at Nowlan Park too.

I’ve been waiting for news on the re-fixing of that relegation tie between Borrisokane and Ballybacon but as I close out this column on Sunday night there’s still no word from a county CCC meeting. There’s some suggestion that it may be fixed for next Saturday but I’ve also heard some background rumblings that the South side will not play on that date. As we head into April two divisions still have their championships stalled because of this ongoing mess. We await developments and inevitably there will be some.

Finally, and on a sad note, the ink was scarcely dry on last week’s column when I heard of the passing of James Holohan, Kilsheelan. I had heard that James wasn’t well but the finality of his death announcement still came as a jolt. I knew James principally from the ‘Yearbook’ on which committee he served for many years.

In many ways James was your prototype GAA stalwart, the type that every club needs for survival. Genuine and decent he simply had a passion for the games and the association and worked away in a most unassuming manner. I used to get occasional emails from him on different items of information and always valued his friendship. I last met James at a ‘Yearbook’ meeting before Christmas. Sadly he’ll feature in the obituary section of the annual next winter. Peaceful rest to his kind soul and my sympathies to the bereaved.

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