Small margins could decide clash of Munster heavyweights Tipperary and Limerick in Semple showdown


Small margins could decide clash of Munster heavyweights Tipperary and Limerick in Semple showdown

Captain Seamus Callanan will lead Tipperary into battle with Limerick

The only absolute certainty ahead of this weekend’s final rounds of the Munster series is that Waterford are truly down and out – literally. Otherwise there’s still a bit of sorting and sifting to be completed before the one-two-three order is known for definite.

It’s been a strangely unpredictable Munster championship. In advance there was much ado about the expected thrills and spills of a series which seemed finely balanced between the five participants. In the event Waterford and Clare imploded and tight games have been as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth.

The revisionists are having a field day. Suddenly hurling is not the great gift that keeps giving. Even the football folk are finding comfort at hurling’s distress. Waiting for season’s end before making such definitive judgments seems to be too much for some.

Anyway let’s begin with the possible permutations ahead of Sunday’s games.  If Limerick and Cork win then they join Tipperary on six points, which brings score difference into play to decide table positions. 

At present there’s only seven points of a score differential between Tipperary and Limerick but we’re 25 points ahead of Cork. Could the Rebels bridge that gap and nip into the Munster final ahead of us? It’s certainly possible - however unlikely. A big win over Clare and a significant reversal for Tipperary at the Stadium is the requirement for such a scenario.

A more likely outcome is that we make the Munster decider, with key results to decide our final opponents. Beat Limerick and we’ll likely face Cork in the final; lose to Limerick and we’ll probably face a rematch with the Shannonsiders for provincial honours a fortnight later.

For both Tipperary and Limerick then there’s every incentive to go full throttle for this game on Sunday. Why would either side do otherwise? Limerick desperately want to complete the holy trinity of championship, league and Munster titles. Taking a step back is not on their agenda. Likewise with Tipperary. The stage is set then for what should be a furious, headlong collision between two of this year’s championship heavyweights.

It will be Liam Sheedy’s third encounter with Limerick since taking over and very likely it won’t be the last set-to between the sides this year. People will remember the triad of games back in 2007 but it sets me thinking of far-off 1971 when the counties met on four occasions. Limerick won three of those clashes but Tipperary won the crucial one en route to an All-Ireland title.

Limerick had a quality side back then and the rivalry with Tipperary was severe. They met on three occasions in the league of 1970/71. Limerick won all three including an initial league round, a play-off clash for knock-out positions and then the final. They might have met in the old-style Oireachtas as well but Tipperary pulled out of the competition.

Then came the Munster decider between the teams at Killarney and another ferocious tussle in wet conditions. I wasn’t there but can still recall the tension of listening to the radio. In the end John Flanagan hit the precious winner and Tipp went on to take the All-Ireland against Kilkenny, which I was at. In a sense it was like a last fling from the sixties generation because the famine soon set in during the seventies.

Limerick had their revenge in 1973 with that Richie Bennis ‘seventy’ in the Munster final at Thurles – the GAA had yet to go metric. Much as we grieved over that late and controversial score, the passage of time eased the pain and most would now acknowledge the poetic justice of that fine Limerick side getting its All- Ireland.

Since then the rivalry has ebbed and flowed through different generations but with one constant: Tipperary always find Limerick tough to handle. The counties have met in championship games on 69 occasions, with Tipperary holding a 35-24 lead; there have been ten draws between the counties, including the two from 2007. 

More telling, perhaps, the last ten meetings between the counties have been shared out with four wins apiece and two draws. 

Sunday’s clash has a unique background: Limerick go in as reigning All-Ireland champions with Tipperary as favourites to replace them. It’s a strange context in this particular head-to-head. For Sunday’s game Tipperary are marginal favourites, 10/11 against 11/10; 8/1 for a draw looks attractive.

After their first-round blip against Cork, Limerick have since resumed normal service. They looked phenomenal in their utter demolition of Clare on Sunday last. They just bossed and bullied the Banner men all over the park. Forget all this guff about tactics, Limerick were just amazing in the fundamentals of the game. When you win all the individual battles tactics become redundant.

Of course people will put an asterisk beside that result, given the feebleness of Clare’s resistance, though the same could be said about our win in Ennis. The problem with Clare is that they play this very formalised, choreographed style of running and passing which requires great precision. When opponents close it down, as both Tipp and Limerick did, there’s no fall-back option and man-for-man they just struggle.

As ever there will be huge interest hereabouts in the fifteen who’ll line up next Sunday. I’d expect minimal change from the Clare game. James Barry returns from illness and you’d expect that he’ll resume at full back to the exclusion of Barry Heffernan. Niall O’Meara too is fully recovered, so it will be interesting to see if he’s recalled at the expense of Dan McCormack, who deputised for him the last day. Those are probably the two decisions the management will mull over the most.

Perhaps even more important than the one-to-fifteen will be the individual match-ups. It’s no secret that this Tipperary management carefully analyses each opposition and sets its team up accordingly. Aaron Gillane, for example, is a key man in the Limerick forward line so it will be interesting to see which Tipperary defender is given the job of policing him. Ronan Maher was tasked with that assignment in the league encounter earlier in the season.

Limerick play a high-intensity, mobile and very physical game, which is pretty similar to the way Tipperary played in their three rounds thus far. What’s going to be fascinating then is how things pan out when two teams playing at a similar pitch collide. It could come down to small margins.

Clare missed two goal chances early on Sunday last and it cost them dearly. Tipperary have been ultra clinical so far in the championship but against weaker opponents than they’ll face this time. That Limerick defence is well anchored by the half back line, where Declan Hannon patrols the middle and Diarmuid Byrnes can be a point-scorer from long distance. Work rate will again be key, as will reducing the free count.

Midfield too will be fascinating, with artists of the game like Cian Lynch and Noel McGrath in opposition.

While we might worry about the threat of players like Aaron Gillane, Limerick will focus on the menace presented by our attack. They’ll be keen to get their match-ups right too, which adds to the fascination of this contest.

Whatever about the let-down of earlier games in the Munster series, this clash definitely has all the ingredients of a classic. Two heavyweights go to war and by four o’clock on Sunday we should know more about the power balance in the province. Incidentally, whether we face Cork or Limerick in a likely Munster final we’ll be away from home for the fixture; those home-and-away arrangements that pre-dated the round robin system are still valid for finals.

In the second Munster game it will be a massive shock if Clare can upstage Cork at Ennis.

In Leinster matters are heating up nicely too. That clash of Galway and Kilkenny was easily the best of the championship so far. You had great scores, marvellous individual deeds and swaying fortunes all dished up on a platform of savage intensity. Galway looked to be home and hosed but the Cody factor just keeps on delivering. 

For Galway it was a massive result to dig out a win in the Kilkenny den. From past and painful experience we know just how difficult it is to survive in that venue. It’s also a result that throws that province wide open, with all bar Carlow still in the hunt.

Kilkenny can rightly feel aggrieved with the failure to allow adequate injury time at the end. They had the momentum and I’ve no doubt would have mined a draw, at least, if the game went on for another minute or two.

There’s been much comment too on the red cards, with calls for a football-style black card to be introduced in a bid to eliminate cynical fouling. Judged on this game alone you could certainly construct a valid case but I’m not so sure it was representative; is hurling in general  that blighted by cynicism? Then again I’m just a hurling snob who would say that, wouldn’t I?

This  week’s games in Leinster will be intriguing. I’d fancy Kilkenny and Galway to prevail but I wouldn’t put my house on the double – there’s enough homelessness in the country.

Finally, it was a disappointing end to the season for the footballers, who had to travel North and came up three points short against Down. And no, I don’t take any pleasure in a Tipperary team being eliminated.

Liam Kearns’ departure gave it all the sense of an end of an era, one that had its highlight year in 2016 and the All-Ireland semi-final appearance. 

I would have taken issue here and there with some of the manager’s utterances but there’s no doubt he progressed Tipperary football significantly during his term in charge. He won’t be easily replaced.