Patrick Bonner Maher starts the run that led to the side's third goal against Clare
The dancing metaphor was indeed appropriate, though it was more Vienna Waltz than Siege of Ennis. Once again Tipperary stepped out in style to whirl and twirl their way to yet another emphatic outcome.
We worried in advance about Clare’s potential and for at least twenty minutes those concerns seemed well founded. Into the teeth of the wind Clare were matching us stroke for stroke.
However, Noel McGrath’s goal gave us some breathing space and when Seamie Callanan struck for the second goal five minutes after resuming it seemed to zap this contest of all uncertainty. Thereafter Clare fizzled and faded, as Tipperary powered ahead to win by a baker’s dozen.
It was sweet, smooth and stress-free by the end. The sight of players like Peter Duggan, John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell being substituted summed up the day’s fate. A Tipp-top display had silenced the Banner roar and sent Tipperary skipping merrily on their way to a likely Munster final date.
Pre-match news that James Barry was hit by a stomach bug was concerning. Barry Heffernan deputised at number three, which seemed risky. The Nenagh man is more accustomed to half back so once again we faced the danger of being vulnerable in front of goal.
In the event no vulnerability appeared. Heffernan gave a solid, composed performance, aided by a commanding display by Tipperary outfield.
It bore out the old belief that forwards are only as good as the supply that comes their way. If your midfield and attack is dominating then the opposition forwards are usually operating off crumbs.
One of the hallmarks of Tipperary’s championship year thus far is relentless work rate. “Drones hive not with me”, is a famous line by Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It could easily be Liam Sheedy’s motto. Idlers have no place on his team, tackle-count targets have to be met in each game.
On Sunday the tackling was intense and at times very physical. In the second half Ronan Maher met Cathal Malone with a crunching shoulder that left the Clare man gasping for air. In the first half Shane O’Donnell felt the full force of Paudie Maher; the free against the Tipp man was questionable.
On a day of wind and showers the first half was finely balanced for around twenty minutes. Interestingly Tipperary had their man-marking duties assigned: Cathal Barrett on Shane O’Donnell, Barry Heffernan on John Conlon and, crucially, Brendan Maher on Tony Kelly.
The early skirmishes promised an intriguing tussle, with quality points at either end. Callanan, ‘Bubbles’ and John McGrath were on target for Tipp; Diarmuid Ryan, Podge Collins, David Fitzgerald and Peter Duggan responding for Clare. It was lively, with frantic movement in both attacks and little obvious advantage either way.
The opening goal was the first major breakaway. ‘Bubbles’ and the McGrath brothers were involved in the build-up before Noel poked home from close range.
That score sparked a mini surge by Tipperary. John McGrath (twice), ‘Bonner’ Maher and Noel McGrath followed up with quickfire points with just a Peter Duggan response from a Clare free. In a five-minute spell Tipp hit 1-4 to Clare’s 0-1; the lead was out to seven points.
Annoyingly, Tipperary didn’t push on before the break from that position of strength. Two factors slowed our progress: a string of bad wides (nine in total for the first half) and a succession of carelessly conceded frees that saw Peter Duggan hit five on the trot. It left the margin at six for half time, a modest advantage given the strength of the wind.
Within five minutes of resuming, however, this game spun our way decisively. To begin with, Clare spurned what was probably their best goal chance all day. A lovely little pop-pass from Diarmuid Ryan found Tony Kelly free of Brendan Maher for once and inside the cover. With Barry Heffernan advancing to meet Kelly he had Podge Collins free to his left but opted instead to tap over the point. It was a let-off for Tipperary.
Then within a minute, luck played a part in the game-changer at the other end. The initial free awarded to ‘Bonner’ was soft and Jason Forde’s shot was veering right before it rebounded off the post. Callanan was alert like any good poacher and quickly slammed home the goal.
Seldom has an individual goal had such a draining effect on a game. For whatever reason, it seemed to suck the life from the locals. The margin was now eight points – significant, but not uncatchable with half an hour’s hurling still to play and the wind at their backs. Yet Clare visibly faded for the remainder of the action.
The Clare management wore all-black gear, an ominous colour, presaging the post mortems that I’m sure will occupy their time this week. They’re facing a barrage of criticism for persisting with a sweeper and allowing Paudie Maher mop up endless possession at the heart of the Tipp defence.
Tipperary’s third goal put the seal on this win. ‘Bonner’ collected possession from a sideline and careered through the middle before tapping past the advancing goalie. The kung fu style tackle of the custodian might easily have brought a sterner rebuke than a yellow card.
There was still over a quarter of an hour to play after that score but Clare’s spirit was by now broken beyond repair. Encouragingly from a Tipperary perspective there was no let-up in the effort. You think of Callanan’s long solo run down the right flank near the end of a game that was done and dusted. Others focus on his scoring, including that record-setting 30th goal. For me the grafting and the flicks and blocks that he puts through are equally important.
So, in the end Tipperary’s onward march continues, with a third impressive performance ensuring qualification and, barring an improbable mathematical twist, a place in the Munster final. For Clare it’s all more problematic, with a crucial game against Limerick this Sunday.
The credits roll for Tipperary. Goalie Brian Hogan had the satisfaction of another clean sheet, Seamus Harnedy’s breach the only blemish after three games. The puck-outs had variation and generally worked well. One slight quibble: into the wind the high trajectory was unwise, with the ball being held up and favouring the Clare defence – keep a lower flight path into the elements.
The entire defence was a success story. Brendan and Barrett man-marked to great effect; Paudie was as big an influencer as ever; Ronan too got through an amount of work and Flynn and Heffernan played their parts solidly.
One of the stories of this season so far is the reinvention of Noel McGrath as a midfield commander. He has that combination of intelligent reading and deft touches which has made him one of the players of the championship thus far. Michael Breen didn’t score this time but had significant involvement in the action.
In attack it was John McGrath’s turn this time to collect the man-of-the-match prize after a rich display of marksmanship that yielded six points from open play. ‘Bonner’ had solid claims for the top distinction too after picking 1-2; when his marauding style is coupled with a sharp touch there’s no more dangerous forward in the game.
Seamie hit 1-3 from general play, which was only part of his rich contribution. ‘Bubbles’ only split the posts once this time but was usefully involved in much of the action; Forde was quiet from play but his six frees were an important contribution. Dan McCormack deputised for the injured Niall O’Meara and brought his usual abrasiveness to the contest.
Once again the replacements failed to make a major impact, though some were introduced very late in the action. Jake Morris will be particularly annoyed at those missed chances.
Elsewhere Waterford’s woes are deepening, after being filleted by a Limerick team on the rebound from their Cork defeat. The Sunday Game crew didn’t spare the Deise either. Messrs Cusack and Shefflin gave as stinging an analysis of a team as I’ve heard for some time. For a team that got to the league final some six weeks earlier it’s difficult to explain this decline.
I’ve no doubt Cusack’s fingering of the management as the core cause of the problems will have riled some people down Waterford way. He seems to forget that Waterford had their horror shows with Derek McGrath too – am I allowed mention the 2016 Munster final? One of the issues with Waterford over the years is that when things go awry they go spectacularly awry.
This weekend the big game will be at the Gaelic Grounds, where Clare have their chance at redemption. And what a redemption it would be! A victory would put Limerick out of the championship. I expect some backlash from the Banner but probably not enough to dethrone the champions.
Anyway I’m sure Liam Sheedy will have a watching brief at that one. Plotting the downfall of the champions is the next item on his to-do list. After three games the mood music is upbeat, the team in step to a lively rhythm. Let’s hope the music doesn’t die anytime soon.