Tipperary's Alan Flynn takes on Limerick's Seamus Flanagan during the Munster senior hurling final. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
In sport, as in other aspects of life, history has a way of repeating itself.
Forty years ago, on June 7 1981 Tipperary played Limerick in the Munster semi-final at Thurles. The famine was still raging but hopes were growing that underage success would eventually turn the tide.
At half-time in the game those hopes seemed well founded. Tipperary led 2-10 to 0-3, albeit having played with the wind. When John Grogan added another point on resuming the gap was a massive fourteen points.
What happened thereafter had echoes on Sunday at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Joe McKenna rattled in three goals, Tipperary collapsed and were lucky to emerge with a draw. It was a mere stay of execution, however, because the replay at the Gaelic Grounds went heavily Limerick’s way.
It’s strange how the trauma of that day sticks in the memory. I can still vividly recall a half-time conversation and the consensus that a championship win was finally on the way. But the unthinkable happened as it did last Sunday.
In the intervening years we’ve had other collapses too against Limerick, such as the 1992 league final when Tipp led 0-11 to 0-3 at half time but eventually lost 0-14 to 0-13. The 1996 Munster final was another agonising one. A 1-11 to 0-4 interval lead was swallowed up in a wave of second half Limerick points. It went to a replay and goals beat Tipp this time.
You’ll understand then why I wasn’t getting over excited at half- time last Sunday. Memory has a way of keeping things in check.
Unfortunately, however, the Tipp camp appeared to get sucked into a celebratory mood as the teams traipsed off at half-time. The buzz of a first half exhibition just seemed too much to resist. Whether consciously or sub consciously, the likelihood of a Limerick kickback seemed to get lost in the moment and when it eventually happened, we were utterly unprepared.
Limerick seemed strangely stand-offish in that opening half. Tipperary were the ones with the go-ahead drive, hurtling into every collision, turning over possession and sweeping up the breaks.
There were some wides to consider, nine before the interval, but they seemed at the time almost an incidental consequence of our dominance.
This was more than any of us dreamed of in advance. The defence was compact and controlling. Outfield we had movement and stickwork to open space and create the chances. Forde was on fire and Limerick were on the back foot.
The goals were delightful items, both of similar origin. Long, raking deliveries deep into attack saw forwards avail of the breaking ball. First Morris sniped through to beat Quaid and then Bubbles found a similar opening to flash home another. Both finishes were thoroughly emphatic.
Limerick’s response was untypical of the present generation. Cian Lynch alone stood out as a maker and creator of openings but most of his colleagues were strangely subdued.
A tame mis-hit by Hegarty on a routine chance seemed to epitomise the mood. The normal movement and rhythm of their hurling was being upset by Tipperary’s drive.
Half-time came with the lead in double digits and everything seemed good in the world. There was a minor let-off when Barry Hogan failed to hold onto a hanging lob but Flanagan was deemed to be in the square and no damage was done. A credit balance of ten in the bank was rich pickings from a fruitful half hour of classy Tipperary hurling.
In retrospect the half-time mood was unhelpful. Liam Sheedy’s delight with his team’s performance was entirely understandable but this was a time to re-engage rather than rejoice. The job was half done and only the most naïve could have expected that the reigning champions would remain in submissive mode. There was going to be a backlash and it was imperative to be braced for the shock.
Sadly, we weren’t. Seldom has a game featured two such divergent halves. It was like two different matches spliced together but bearing little resemblance to each other. Such welcome and unwelcome things at once it was difficult to reconcile, if I may borrow from the bard.
Mrs Kiely’s son put his finger on it afterwards. There was no major tactical change of note, it was more a case of getting the Limerick players to attack the game. And attack they did.
Now it was Tipperary’s turn to stand off as Limerick powered into the collisions. The turnaround was stunning in its completeness. It was Limerick now who were driving onto the breaks, Limerick with the surer touch, Limerick stringing together the passes and ultimately Limerick finding the scores.
The Aaron Gillane incident with Cathal Barrett came early in the half and was to be a major talking point afterwards. It’s utterly baffling how a linesman and referee could both miss what was patently obvious to most others. A yellow card suggests they knew something of what happened but surely in these circumstances it was either red or nothing.
In the lead-up to the game Liam Sheedy highlighted what he saw as the different refereeing standards being applied to Cathal Barrett as opposed to others. Events here will have added considerable substance to his claim.
The corner back must be reflecting ruefully on his red card last year against Galway following an inexplicable first yellow. Against Clare in the previous game, he was again shown a ridiculously harsh yellow.
How do you square those against what happened on Sunday?
That refereeing blunder was compounded later in the half when Seamus Flanagan escaped the ultimate sanction after a very dangerous tackle on Paudie Maher.
There was much talk last year about Limerick’s roughhouse style, which clearly wasn’t being punished. Yet nothing appears to have changed.
I think there is a broader narrative here which is feeding into this situation.
Some weeks back when you had all this hullabaloo about rules and refereeing Derek McGrath spoke on TV about the type of hurling he wanted to see.
He wanted to see passion and aggression and so forth, which is okay, but he also wanted to see savagery in the game. That surely is a word that has no place in any sporting context.
Furthermore, the ex-Waterford manager wanted to see Limerick playing on the edge. There’s no surprise that Jackie Tyrrell sings off the same hymn sheet.
Would a red card for Gillane have had a match-altering impact? It’s impossible to tell.
You could certainly build a viable case around the advantage of Tipperary having an extra defender but I’m not convinced it would have altered the trend in this case, where the impetus had shifted so dramatically.
Limerick were a transformed team in that second half and I think a flagging Tipperary would have come up short no matter what the numerical odds. Others will disagree.
It was painful second half viewing for Tipperary, the sort of impression which will be difficult to dispel in the build up to an All-Ireland quarter-final the weekend after next.
The team was totally overrun, with no zone able to hold the line. Whether puckouts were long or short we couldn’t win them, our movements were now ponderous and Limerick were singing to an entirely more upbeat tune.
The first goal was ominous. Brendan Maher was caught in possession as we tried to work the ball out of defence and Gillane peeled away to take the pass.
Barry Hogan made an outstanding save but he was helpless when the rebound fell to Flanagan.
Players getting onto breaks is a sure sign of which side is dominating. Kyle Hayes’ marathon run for the second was even more damning, with nobody able to lay a glove on him.
Mark Kehoe’s superb late goal saved some blushes because this was a second half mauling for Tipperary.
The slowness in introducing substitutes in those tropical conditions will be a point of criticism for the management. We were certainly out of puff, out of legs as that game wore on.
I suppose this debate around the younger players boils down to whether or not you reckon we have the upcoming material to replace the older element.
On available evidence the management doesn’t appear to think so but now they may be forced to revisit the issue. The problem is that unlike 2010, for example, there’s little time or opportunity to regroup and reshape.
In the meantime, this weekend’s second round qualifiers will be watched with interest.
Cork and Clare’s fixture should be the highlight, with the Rebels slightly fancied. Galway will be favourites to see off Waterford. Can anyone see off Limerick? On Sunday’s second half evidence it’s unlikely, but the old game never ceases to surprise.
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