Table toppers Galway should have the edge in major challenge for Tipp in Salthill

In tennis terms it would be called deuce, in soccer jargon we got a result, while in plain hurling lingo we drew a game that we might have won but could as easily have lost. Parity by the Lee helps neither side in the race for the final. Qualification is still possible, though now very unlikely.

In tennis terms it would be called deuce, in soccer jargon we got a result, while in plain hurling lingo we drew a game that we might have won but could as easily have lost. Parity by the Lee helps neither side in the race for the final. Qualification is still possible, though now very unlikely.

Still there’s no reason to concede just yet as we prepare for the penultimate round in the series. Table toppers Galway will present a major challenge at Pearse Stadium on Sunday. If we could pull off a win there it could all come down to results elsewhere. Amazingly for all its highlighted flaws, the present league structure has kept interest alive for longer than might have been expected.

As a dress rehearsal for May this game drew obvious attention. Yet neither side seemed to approach the job with crusading spirit. The first half especially was anaemic, lifeless fare. It did enliven in the second period, though I’m not sure there was much enlightenment for either management. The neutral result left both sides able to pick the positives but overall this was well below championship intensity.

A pleasant spring day created ideal conditions for a March league round but it was all very cagey, cautious stuff from early on. Tipp got away early with the first three points off Pa Bourke, Noel McGrath and Benny Dunne but Cork soon responded and it was four apiece by the end of the opening quarter. Defences ruled, there were few openings and it was all very boringly uneventful. A Pa Bourke drive for goal off a free was rebuffed.

The second quarter brought no change. Pa Bourke’s frees remained our main source of flags and Cork weren’t getting much from play either. The injury to Paddy Stapleton was an immediate worry for the Tipperary side. He was flattened by the high-jumping Cussen and Paul Curran coming from behind. Inexplicably a free was awarded to Cork, Curran being pointed to by the official, though television coverage that night didn’t show anything illegal. It was one of several strange decisions by Mr. Wadding and The Examiner on Monday deemed his performance ‘very good’. Indeed.

Anyway, thankfully the word on Monday appears to be that the injury to the corner back isn’t as bad as initially feared. Bruised rather than broken, appears to be the verdict on his ribs, which is good news, though still likely to keep the player inactive for a few weeks.

After a dull opening half the tempo did lift on resuming. Cork were out of the traps fast for the restart and had an immediate goal. It was a messy one for Tipp to concede. The initial problem came from Eddie Connolly’s corner (he’d replaced Stapleton) but Cummins did well to stop Cussen’s attempt. In the follow-up, however, Luke O’Farrell somehow squeezed the ball home past Curran and between Cummins and his left post, not the type a goalie likes to miss.

Ignited by that score Cork drove on and points from Cathal Naughton and Cian McCarthy soon had them four up. It was a significant turnaround from one-down at the break and left Tipp facing a test of character.

In fairness they found the best response possible when Brian O’Meara set Benny Dunne away out on the right wing. Benny careered through on a liberal quota of steps before tapping past Cusack in goal. A Pa Bourke ‘65’ followed to level it up again.

It was definitely more entertaining now than the first half, as the issue see-sawed for the remainder of the action. The lead swapped and the sides were level several times until we finally got two ahead nearing the end through points from subs Brian O’Meara and John O’Brien. In the hectic closing minutes John O’Brien collected a second yellow card. In the end a Ben O’Connor free and then one from Gardiner levelled the match. Pa Bourke had hit the post on a ‘65’ and a very late chance fell to Cork but Ben O’Connor likewise hit the woodwork from out near the sideline. The luck balanced out on those late chances and a draw seemed fair enough, everything considered.

I suppose both camps came away happy enough with a share of the points. Defensively we did well with just that one major breach. I’d rate Padraic Maher and Michael Cahill as our best at that end. David Young was again replaced. John O’Keeffe had one of those neutral games where neither he nor his opponent, Tom Kenny, featured much. I suppose for the Clonoulty man that’s a satisfactory outcome; if he can hang in and acclimatise to this level his chances of making the grade improve with every game. Eddie Connolly too did okay, the goal excepted. Paul Curran coped well with high-tower Cussen but looked untypically ponderous near the end when he got caught in possession; it might have cost more than it did.

One of our best on the day was midfielder, Gearoid Ryan, who’s certainly making an impact in the role in recent games. His work rate is huge. Shane McGrath was again replaced. Hid did some useful things but the old zip of ’08 still hasn’t returned.

In attack Benny Dunne gets top ranking, his goal a crucial item as well as a brace of points. He’s quite an enigma and certainly divides the followers. He’ll be 31 this year and would have been viewed by many as an impact sub rather than a 70-minute man. However, if he keeps playing like this he’ll push for a starting role.

Elsewhere in attack Noel McGrath took a few typical points but I’m not the only one to sense he looks tired. Patrick Maher’s first half against Offaly was his best input so far this season; on Sunday he wasn’t an influence. Likewise Pa Bourke, who hit the frees well early on but then missed a few critical ones. Shane Bourke too was replaced. Lar Corbett had little influence but at least his presence on the team is evidence of progress as he works his way back to match fitness.

Of the replacements it was good to see John O’Brien back in action. Brian O’Meara did somewhat better this time than on previous introductions; he scored a point and gave the pass that sent Benny Dunne away for the goal.

Overall it was a satisfactory day for Tipperary but I wouldn’t rate it any higher than that. Cork too took positives from the experience. Late replacement, James Nagle at wing back looked promising as did Cian McCarthy and Luke O’Farrell in attack. Pa Cronin was strong at midfield. Yet somehow I suspect when the crunch comes they’ll still be relying on familiar names.

Before leaving the game I was interested to read Tony Considine’s comments on Eoin Cadogan in the incident that led to John O’Brien’s dismissal. He was critical of the antics of the Cork man who stayed down long enough for the referee’s attention to be brought to the incident. Yes indeed. Paul Galvin isn’t always wrong either.

Heading into Sunday’s game then Tipperary still have a slim chance of making the final. Obviously to qualify we need firstly to get full points from the Galway and Wexford games that we’ve still to play. That would leave us on nine points, so we’d still need assistance from other results. Essentially we’d need Galway or Kilkenny, as well as Dublin to lose remaining matches. That will hardly happen in the case of Kilkenny because they have Offaly at home in the final match, even if they lose to Dublin next week. Galway have to visit Waterford for their final game, which could be a tricky one, especially if the Deise are still in the chase at that stage. Remember also that Waterford and Cork are on the same points as Tipperary entering the final two rounds so there’s still quite a lot to be sorted.

At the end of it all I suspect we’ll have a Kilkenny v. Galway final.

Of immediate interest for Tipperary then is Sunday’s clash at Salthill, the first engagement between the teams since last year’s All Ireland quarter-final. In the corresponding league fixture at the Stadium last year we had the proverbial game of two halves, Galway rampant in the first half and Tipp turning the screw in the second. We were fortunate to be only four down at half time but eventually won by nine (2-17 to 0-14), Galway managing just a single point in the second period.

The previous year we were in Salthill and came home winners by two, 1-17 to 1-15. In 2008 we had good fortune against the Tribesmen also. We pulled off a very creditable draw at Salthill and later had their measure in the league final at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. In fact we haven’t lost a league outing to Galway since 2007 when we came up short by four points at Pearse Stadium, 0-26 to 3-13.

Given the fact that we still have hopes, albeit slim, of making the final we’ll surely push strongly for a win here. That means fielding a team of best strength, although those injuries are an obvious detraction. The options in defence seem limited enough. Presumably Eddie Connolly will now start in place of Paddy Stapleton at corner back. What else could we try? Bring Padraic Maher back to the full line? Surely not? Will the half line stay the same as last Sunday? Probably, unless there’s a desire to get Conor O’Mahony involved.

Midfield too looks likely to be again manned by Gearoid Ryan and Shane McGrath. In attack one hears of concern that Noel McGrath is getting too much action through college, club and county and is showing the effects. The desire to rest him has to be balanced against the need to have a ‘cut’ at Galway. Benny Dunne, Patrick Maher, Pa Bourke and Lar Corbett all seem likely to find a place for Sunday. Shane Bourke may well lose out this time, with perhaps John O’Brien or Brian O’Meara taking his place. Such speculation may be redundant of course before the ink is dry but sure we can only play the guessing game in advance.

Anyway it’s another big test for the team as the build-up to the championship continues. Galway too have been without a number of players, including Joe Canning, Damien Hayes and Shane Kavanagh. Besides they have yet to draft in elements of the Clarinbridge side, so John McIntyre is going well thus far given the limitations. The league, one suspects, is more important to Galway, the reigning champions, at this stage and they are in pole position as leaders so that may just tilt the balance their way on Sunday.

P.S. In response to an e-mailer, I clearly wasn’t aware of the Brendan Maher injury when writing last week, otherwise it would have been included. Was this ironic in a week when I was praising PR systems in the county? Of course, but no system is perfect.