Anxious moments on the sideline for Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy
They say a week is a long time in politics because of how rapidly fortunes can change. Seventy minutes can be even longer in hurling.
And so a year that was sailing along swimmingly for Tipperary has suddenly hit choppy waters. Whether the turbulence will ultimately sink the Premier ship has still to be seen. For the moment all we know for certain is that the vessel is holed beneath the waterline and in urgent need of repair.
Okay enough of the metaphors, maybe prose is more apt that poetry in the circumstances. By any standard this was a comedown day for Tipperary hurling, a day when illusions were shattered and reality bit. Limerick didn’t just beat Tipperary in a Munster final, they made us look second rate; a day when the final whistle was a blessed relief for the blue and gold brigade.
Leaving Certificate students this year studied Yeats so many of them will be familiar with the quote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. It’s one of those much-used quotes depicting Yeats’s apocalyptic vision of the future from his standpoint early in the twentieth century. Chinua Achebe made the first half of the quote the title of a famous novel.
For Tipperary on Sunday things pretty much fell asunder too and the centre certainly didn’t hold. By the end team Tipperary, so devastating in the round robin series, lay broken and Liam Sheedy now faces a major job of reconstruction.
To begin with context needs to be established because so many of the pundits were willing to ignore some basic facts in advance of the game. Limerick was bound to be a different animal on Sunday from what we saw a fortnight earlier in Thurles. They were back full strength for starters and look at the improvement that players like Gearoid Hegarty, Declan Hannon and Cian Lynch brought to their overall game plan.
Add in a home venue, a hugely partisan local crowd and a burning desire not to bow again to Tipperary, especially in a Munster final. Against all that then you had Tipperary’s heavy losses in ‘Bonner’ and Barrett and it was obvious that this game would present an entirely different conundrum than two weeks earlier.
In the circumstances defeat for Tipperary wasn’t an unlikely outcome but it is the manner of the reversal that will have stung most. A narrow defeat in a rip-roaring contest would have been one thing; a capitulation of this scale was quite another.
The day’s fate was well signposted in the first half. As early as the third minute Cian Lynch sliced through the Tipp defence to bring a great save from Brian Hogan. The goalie even got down bravely to deny Kyle Hayes on the rebound. It was double defiance by the ‘keeper.
Already Limerick were moving smarter than Tipperary, their work rate several notches above that of a fortnight earlier. By comparison Tipp looked sluggish with no noticeable method to their play.
And yet after a quarter of an hour we were handed an unexpected fillip when Callanan took a quickly-taken free and drove through unchecked before flashing one past Quaid in goal. It was an individual moment of opportunism which gave a false read to the scoreboard at that juncture. Tipp led 1-6 to 0-4.
One of the hallmarks of this generation of Limerick hurlers is composure. When they fall behind they don’t do panic but instead stick with the system. Again there was no evidence of concern here.
By now it was clear that Tipperary was struggling in several sectors. We were getting little from midfield and the attack was winning less, albeit on a poor supply. Energy levels seemed to be below Limerick’s and it was no surprise that the locals would eventually take a two point lead to the break. It would have been more but for another great stop by Hogan to deny Hegarty.
Brendan Maher was doing a great man-marking job on Gillane and he was unfortunate to slip at a crucial turn in the lead up to Limerick’s first goal. For once it gave Gillane the space to feed across the goalmouth where the inrushing Casey flicked home. A lack of awareness of the threat from at least one Tipp defender was worrying.
After playing with a significant wind in that opening half the signs were ominous for Tipperary on resuming. And it soon became evident that this game was headed one direction only.
Once again John McGrath’s goal was an isolated individual item which saved our blushes more than signaling a change of pattern. There was an inexorable aspect to Limerick’s play now, strong in the tackle, full of running, driving at Tipp on every opportunity. The pattern was very similar to the league clash last February where we did okay early before eventually being overwhelmed. Once again Hogan stood in the gap to deny Kyle Hayes but eventually he’d be beaten once more after Barry’s carelessness allowed Casey flick the ball away.
By that stage Callanan had been denied by a foot block from Nickie Quaid but the overwhelming trend of the game was one-way. A poor effort from Tipperary was fading fast and one feared a demoralizing drubbing. Thankfully it stayed at a dozen but nobody was under any illusion – this was a pasting.
For once it was easy – very easy – to pinpoint the credits on the Tipperary side. Goalie Brian Hogan was outstanding. He conceded a goal in the league game last February at this venue which seemed for a while to have cost him his place. This time it was a happy return for him with a string of eye-catching saved that prevented even more damage.
Brendan Maher too towered above all others on his special assignment. He really is the complete package, a supreme combination of warrior and hurler. The problem of course was that his presence was missed at half back where he was a key player all through the round robin games. You rob Peter to pay Paul.
Ronan Maher was another to stand apart in this game with his best display of the year so far. After that I thought the likes of Sean O’Brien and Seamus Kennedy (first half especially) took less of the blame than others. Paudie Maher had one of his least effective games and James Barry had the proverbial nightmare at full back.
Midfield didn’t function like in previous games, both eventually substituted. The attack too misfired except for the odd individual item. Dan McCormack did well early on and Callanan could easily have hit a hat trick of goals with a bit of luck.
Jerome Cahill was an interesting introduction for ‘Bubbles’ and he was probably the pick of the substitutions. However, the poverty of the bench remains an ongoing worry, one given added emphasis on Sunday when replacements were called for.
A worry for Tipperary is the highlighting of individual items involving both ‘Bubbles’ and Ronan Maher. I don’t think there’s any danger of further action in the case of ‘Bubbles’ because the referee booked him, which is usually considered the end of the matter.
The case of Ronan Maher might be different. Michael Duignan was keen to highlight the incident, as are others, so the authorities might feel obliged to take action. I think Duignan’s assessment was very severe. Ronan flicked the ball away and his momentum carried him into Peter Casey. If there was no ball involved and it was a straight frontal tackle then the story would be different.
Interestingly all the commentators seem to have been blindsided on the frontal tackle that left Paudie Maher prone on the sideline shortly before the Ronan incident. Not even a free awarded there and Brian Gavin and others seem to have a blind spot on that one.
Anyway the game was a sharp awakening for Tipperary who may, in the longer term, benefit from a dose of reality. Form can’t ever be assumed and our resources are very limited. Having Barrett back is essential to steadying up that inside defence and releasing Brendan Maher for half back duties. Otherwise it’s a matter of reigniting the engine and hoping the damage inflicted on Sunday isn’t terminal.
That Yeats poem referenced earlier is titled ‘The Second Coming’. Getting a second wind is now the task for this Tipperary unit which will have to shake off the dust of Sunday and hopefully get back to what we’d seen in the round robin series. Ironically defeat has probably given us the easier route to an All Ireland final if we can master Dublin, assuming they beat Laois on Sunday, and then Wexford in a semi-final. Mind you I wouldn’t assume victory in either case.
Anyway, like 2010 we’re heading in the backdoor to the knock-out stages of the championship and hoping for a similar outcome. Should we get to the final it will be no surprise if Limerick again stand in our way. Wouldn’t it be sweet revenge to turn them over in those circumstances? At least we can still dream.