Craig Morgan, Kilruane MacDonaghs has nailed down a place in the Tipperary senior hurlers’ defence this season. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
The Munster hurling championship is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when we thought things might peter out for the final round robin games it suddenly reignites, with the stage now set for another weekend of intrigue. Cork’s rallying win over Waterford has reopened the realm of possibilities.
Oh, the glorious unpredictability of sport! If matters ran to expectation last weekend it would all be done, dusted and delivered by now. Instead, the only certainty is that Clare and Limerick are through to a re-match in the Munster final, with the third qualifying slot still up for grabs.
Cork’s win at Walsh Park has been the catalyst for all this. Trying to read a Cork form line is well nigh impossible. No other county has yo-yoed so much over the past twelve months. At the low end you have last year’s All-Ireland final, this year’s league decider and the Limerick and Clare games in the round robin series – all dismal days when they showed neither structure nor spirit.
Counterbalancing that you had this year’s feisty league win over Limerick and now Sunday’s rousing rendition against Waterford. It must be hard for the Cork fans to make sense of it all, not to mention the rest of us.
When a team vacillates so much between extremes it’s hard to get a handle on their true merit. At their worst they look flaky and fallible but then when the mood takes them there’s plenty of pluck and pride in their play. Skill is never an issue but getting the battle lines manned can be. Their true ranking probably rests somewhere between the league final form and last Sunday.
For Waterford this was a particularly troubling day, especially coming after earlier rounds where they looked vulnerable against Tipperary and were more soundly beaten by Limerick than the scoreline indicated. As the championship intensifies their form is dipping and they now stand dangerously close to the exit door.
Liam Cahill suggested they were like an engine running on dirty petrol. I like the metaphor. There was certainly plenty of chugging and spluttering in their play, unlike the flowing fluency that saw them take league honours some weeks back. Without the running energy that we saw in the league they’re a struggling unit.
Big names were muted. Apart from frees you’d be looking for Stephen Bennett; Hutchinson peripheral too. Austin Gleeson was their best but his temperament yet again let him down, the first yellow card resulting from a needless late tackle.
By contrast Cork got the game plan just right. Big games from the likes of Harnedy and Fitzgibbon were part of it, but there were big decisions too such as the withdrawal of Horgan and the introduction of O’Mahoney. In this mood Cork will be a handful, it’s just that you don’t know which game they’ll bring on a given day.
The highlight of the weekend was, undoubtedly, the Clare/Limerick clash at Ennis. This was a game for the ages between two sides who threw everything at it. What a ferocious battle. The intensity was way above what we saw at Walsh Park, with manic workrate from both teams, plenty of heavy hits and marvellous scores.
Others have brought this type of game to Limerick but failed to sustain the effort; Clare saw it out and deserved the draw. Tony Kelly was majestic. This was hurler of the year territory.
Clare have been the surprise factor in this year’s championship. The return of players like Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell has been part of the story but there are other elements too. John Conlon’s role in anchoring the defence shouldn’t be understated. Rory Hayes at corner back has caught everyone’s eye; David Fitzgerald’s impact at midfield. Brian Lohan has got something stirring here which doesn’t bode well for Waterford’s visit at the weekend, even though Clare have nothing tangible to play for other than keeping their form flowing.
It's a pity that the sending-off of Gearoid Hegarty has dominated talk after a game that had so much else to rave about. The first yellow was clearly ridiculous but I’m out of sympathy for him on the second one. Of course, there was very minimal contact but that flicking back of the hurley has become a trademark and he needs to eliminate it from his game.
When discipline issues are a constant theme then Limerick need to take stock and not start blaming others. In fairness it’s just a few players who are generating this narrative but they have got away with a lot in recent years and there’s always going to be a twist in that story.
Tipperary’s target for Sunday is quite clear: we must win by at least seven points and then hope that Clare do us a favour by beating Waterford. More than that we need Clare to prevail by a sizeable margin, something that’s being overlooked in some quarters. If we win by seven, for example, we need Waterford to lose by a minimum of eight.
I’m surprised at the odds being offered on the Clare/Waterford game: the Banner are on 5/2 with the Deise listed at 11/4 on. The evidence of championship form so far certainly wouldn’t support those odds, though I presume the fact that Clare have already qualified for the Munster final is weighing heavily on judgements, with an expectation that Brian Lohan will rest key players.
Our recent championship history versus Cork is quite heathy. The last 10 meetings, for example, have seen Tipperary win seven, lose two and draw one. It’s a far cry from a former age when Cork were a perennial problem in all grades. The historic record shows we’ve met in 88 previous championship games, with Tipperary shaving it on 39 wins and Cork on 38. There were eight draws and three unfinished games. The Rebels are favourites on Sunday – 8/15 against 7/4 for Tipperary. Those odds are understandable, given Cork’s resurgence last week and our failure to win a single game thus far.
I assume the Tipperary team will be broadly similar to that which lost to Limerick the last day. I’m unsure about the status of players like Jason Forde and James Quigley so I won’t even speculate.
Cork are in a strong position entering Sunday’s match. If they win they’re through, regardless of the outcome in Ennis. Even if they lose by a small margin they could still go through if Waterford lose heavily. Their fate is in their own hands and after the boost of last Sunday at Walsh Park you’d expect them to bring a strong game to Thurles.
For Tipperary and Colm Bonnar, it’s a last chance to salvage something from the wreckage of the season so far. The outcome could colour judgements on his first year in charge, so a huge effort is expected.
Finally, the minors deserve generous acknowledgment for their dramatic Munster final win over Clare last week in a game that left followers breathless. For entertainment value it had everything: quality hurling, brilliant scores, fortunes fluctuating, tension and drama, controversy even, all climaxing in the decisive penalty shootout.
Things looked bleak enough midway through the second half when Tipp captain, Sam O’Farrell, was dismissed on a second yellow card and the side was soon trailing by three points. Nothing malicious on O’Farrell’s part, just that he needed to be a bit more careful after the first card.
The manner in which the team responded, however, was commendable. The bench played a huge part in the rescue mission. The only goal of the game (apart from the penalties later) was a critical item in Tipperary’s second half, with Adam Daly setting up Sam Rowan for the emphatic finish.
Other substitutes, Darragh McCarthy and Cathal English, also made their mark with crucial points as Tipperary hit the front.
However, in a game of swaying fortunes, Clare came strongly in injury time for Keane Hayes to send the match to extra-time. His equalising point came almost five minutes into added time despite an additional four minutes being announced, something which annoyed the Tipperary camp.
However, if Clare came with a late leveller in the initial hour, it was Tipperary who had to rescue the tie and send it to penalties at the end of extra time. Paddy McCormack, with ice in the veins, held his nerve to strike a brilliant leveller from a sideline free. It was no more than the side deserved because they were the better team late in the game, though squandering several scoring chances.
There was more controversy with the penalties when Eoin Horgan’s initial shot was saved but the Clare goalie was deemed to have advanced off his line so a retake was ordered. Viewed on replay it seemed very marginal and ridiculously harsh on the Clare goalie.
Anyway, Fergal Horgan’s son made no mistake on the second attempt and twice saved opposition efforts as Tipp took the shootout three-nil, Adan Daly and Paddy McCormack the other nerveless scorers.
So, a famous win for Tipperary. Paddy McCormack deservedly got the man of the match award but in essence it was a team of heroes who carried the day against a very strong Clare team. Goalie Horgan must have pushed McCormack for top billing, given his influence on the outcome, making one particularly brave save in the second half.
The Munster title is in the bag but it will be no surprise if we cross paths with this Clare side again before the championship is over. Well done to all concerned.
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