Westside Column 7 May 2021

WESTSIDE

 

It has been a long wait but, finally, hurling is back in our lives. A collective exhaling of relief greets the start of the league this weekend.

For Tipperary, once the initial excitement subsides, there’s the realisation that the draw could hardly have been tougher. There’s no soft easing-in here. Instead, it’s a plunge at the deep end playing away to Limerick, the reigning league, Munster and All-Ireland champs. No wonder you can back Tipperary at odds of 2/1 for Saturday’s game.

It’s great to be back with some live action to reflect on instead of those endless retrospectives. They have their place but there’s nothing to stir the blood quite like the live event – and there’s nothing more energising than a real-time fixture at the LIT Gaelic Grounds.

Context is everything, so some background building is needed here. Limerick have replaced Kilkenny as our arch nemesis. Under John Kiely they’ve become a force of nature, powerful and relentless, building a dynasty that won’t be easily overthrown.

We’ve suffered at their hands. Under Kiely’s watch Limerick have played Tipperary on 9 occasions between Munster league, championship and national league with the score currently standing at six-three to the Shannonsiders. Strip away the insignificant Munster league matches and it’s still a 5-2 imbalance over the past four years.

Beating Tipperary has become a Limerick habit and one they won’t easily lose. Their 2018 championship win over the neighbours was highlighted at the weekend by Shane Dowling as a key watershed in their team’s development.

That was the day we sent out five championship debutants while leaving the likes of Brendan Maher, Seamie Callanan and ‘Bonner’ Maher on the bench. It was a tactic that misfired badly and set the tone for a disastrous Munster campaign in what was the first year of the round robin.

Conversely it was the spark that lit the Limerick fuse, one that burned all the way to Croke Park and that famous All-Ireland breakthrough.

Since that May day in 2018 Limerick have ruled the roost in their clashes with Tipperary. We did have that round robin win at Semple Stadium in 2019 but it carried a major caveat as a shadow fixture ahead of the Munster final where we suffered our heaviest recent defeat to the western neighbours.

Last year was a wash-out from a Tipperary perspective. Unfortunately, it was Limerick who set the tone once more. They came to Semple Stadium on January 25th for the start of the league where they offered Tipperary, as reigning champions, a guard of honour. However, that was the end of their generosity. Despite Tipperary leading by nine at half time the visitors pulled off a major recovery in the second period to win by two. For Tipp it was a lost opportunity.

So, ahead of the resumption of activity on Saturday, Limerick stand tall as hurling’s top dogs. They particularly relish those wins over Tipperary having had to live in the shadow of their neighbours so often in the past. It’s a latter-day dominance that they’ll do everything possible to maintain.

How will the champions have wintered? Very well, one suspects. A combination of a December All-Ireland final and the Covid restrictions meant there was little of the usual razzmatazz that accompanies such wins. The low-key nature of events will have helped the carry over to a new season.

Besides, one of the notable features of this Limerick set-up is the culture it has nurtured. Their appetite seems insatiable, no win is ever enough, and they just drive on to the next competition. It’s a mindset that constantly eludes Tipperary.

Limerick’s line out will be interesting on Saturday. Let’s not forget that last year’s success was achieved despite some heavy injury blows. Losing Richie English and Mike Casey would have unsettled most teams but Limerick turned it to their advantage.

In the enforced rejig Dan Morrissey took over at full back with Barry Nash in the corner, Kyle Hayes at wing and Cian Lynch moving to attack. In the event Messrs English and Casey would be forgiven for feeling their absence went unnoticed. Now as they return the management has an embarrassment of riches to juggle with. One suspects the returnees will have to do something special to earn their recall.

Tipperary’s line out will also be watched with interest. When Liam Sheedy returned to the fold for 2019 he relied heavily on the tried and trusted of previous years rather than rebuilding a new formation. That’s less of an option now in 2021.

However, experimenting by its nature carries heavy risks. It’s always a balancing act. On the one hand you need to win games to build momentum, but at the same time you need to ‘blood’ upcoming players. Lean too much on the side of experimentation and you start losing matches with all the associated deflation that it brings. On the other hand, upcoming players can’t develop without game time. It can be something of a catch 22.

The reactions of the Tipperary players this year will be worth noting. Very few of them could be happy with their input in 2020 where there was a wholesale dropping off in form. Every line of the field was affected so the hope has to be that it was a hangover from the 2019 win and that better service will resume in 2021.

From goalie out, everything is up for review with training form over the past few weeks set to decide selection. Indeed, the goalie himself, Brian Hogan, will face some sharp analysis after his critics grew in number last year. It wasn’t that he did anything terribly amiss but more that he wasn’t making the type of top class saves that we expect from an All-Star ‘keeper. The crucial goal against Galway in the All Ireland quarter-final was typical: it would have taken a very good save to keep it out but that’s what we expect.

Likewise, players in other lines underwhelmed. Ronan Maher was probably the best overall in defence and Michael Breen had impactful days at midfield. Seamie Callanan was ever-willing in attack but overall the cutting edge wasn’t there.

The problem too was that when younger players were introduced, they failed to convince. Now, a year older, there will be renewed focus on that cohort of the panel as well.

An interesting aspect of the games this year will be the application of the new cynical foul rule. Interestingly John Kiely and Limerick opposed the change, as did Tipperary when it came to voting, even though individuals from the county played a leading role in its promotion. How it all pans out now will be instructive.

Remember the rule allows for a penalty award as well as a ten-minute sin-binning, but only if a specified foul is committed and if it’s committed within the 20-meter line or D and if the referee deems that a goal-scoring opportunity was prevented. That’s a lot of ifs, so don’t expect too much from this change.

I think in its present format it’s very flawed. I can well imagine defenders being coached to avoid the specified fouls such as pulling down an opponent or tripping or striking with the hurley. Instead, if a goal is threatened then simply grab the opponent or his hurley and you escape the rigours of this law. Defenders will become more selective in the nature of their fouling.

Besides, the rule leaves too much to the discretion of the referee and if that reads like a vote of no confidence in the officials then so be it. We had more than enough sub-standard performances from referees last year to justify that bias.

Overall, I think this new rule is merely a first step in eliminating cynical play. Initially I can see it having minimal impact before it is eventually adjusted.

Anyway, the waiting game is over, action throws-in this weekend and the public at last will have something new to discuss.

Teams go to the play after a very shortened build up. The consequences of that truncated lead-in will be watched with interest. Will we see a lower standard as players slowly get to the pitch of things over a series of games? Will there be a spike in injuries as players strive for an intensity they haven’t played at in training?

Tipperary’s long-time record against Limerick is strong. They’ve met in 63 previous league games with Tipp holding a 35-21 lead; there were 7 draws. Even since the turn of the century Tipperary’s record is healthy: played 13, won 8, lost 4 and drew one.

One very interesting stat supplied by SOD is that only one of the 63 league games between the counties ended without a goal being scored. That was the 1991/92 final played at Limerick and won by the locals on a score line of 0-14 to 0-13 after we led at half time 0-11 to 0-3. You could write several columns on Limerick comebacks against Tipperary over the years.

The present Limerick side focuses more on big point totals rather than goals though they hit five against us in league and championship last year. There’s no doubt the Shannonsiders have the whip-hand in this rivalry at the moment. Will it be more of the same in 2021?  Saturday evening might tell a lot about what the new season holds. Tune in.

 

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