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26 Jun 2022

Tipperary hurling has entered difficult phase that will require very careful handling

Next year will be crucial for Colm Bonnar, says Westside

Noel McGrath

Westside hopes that Noel McGrath, who he says emerged as a real leader this year, will continue with the Tipperary hurlers in 2023. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Ne’er cast a clout till May is out, is an old proverbial warning against the dangers of throwing off clothes too early in the year – clout is an old English word for cloth or clothing. It highlights the vagaries of the May month, which is nominally part of summer, though the Met people regard it as belonging to spring. It has that in-between feel, summery but not quite summer, with the risk of being hit by an unexpected chill.
There’s a definite May chill running through Tipperary GAA at the moment. The month may now be just out, but so are the county’s seniors - out on the double after the footballers fell to Carlow at the weekend. These early exits by both codes leave plenty of room for club affairs - and for inquests into the respective codes.
The football exit, I think, is the earliest since 1999 when the team lost a first round to Kerry on May 23. That was the era of one-chance, knockout championship in football where there were no backdoors, round robins or qualifiers. In hindsight it’s hard to imagine how that unforgiving system lasted so long. All that training and preparation for one game and then your season was over.
The hurling exit on May 22 is, I suspect, the earliest date ever for Tipperary to be consigned to the season’s dustbin. It’s certainly the earliest in my memory. When you go back to the knockout championship the games generally started on the first weekend in June so this was history-making of an unwelcome kind.
As the dust begins to settle, people have been speculating on comparable years from the past. You could make a case for several. 1986 and a defeat at Ennis still stands out in my memory as one of the most depressing. Part of the reason was that it came after the promise of ’84 and ’85. To a background of minor and Under 21 All-Ireland wins this seemed to be such a regression that it was hard to take.
And yet when you look back now to ’86 the scene wasn’t as bleak then as today, because there was a core of emerging talent with underage All-Ireland medals who just needed to get a break after the famine years. Three All-Ireland Under 21s in a row, ’79 to ’81 (another in ’85), as well as minor wins in ’80 and ’82 provided the backdrop. That break they needed, of course, came the following year with Babs and we know what followed thereafter.
This time the picture is more troubling. The underage wins of ’16 (minor), ’18 (Under 21) and ’19 (Under 20) have yielded far fewer seniors than some people expected. The gush of talent that some wrote about just isn’t there. A few players have emerged this year and made a mark but they’ve been fewer than hoped for and shy of the quality that the exceptional minors of ’06 and ’07 threw up.
The stark reality is that we’re likely to see more retirements this year and the supplementary talent to replace them is sparse. I suspect players like Seamus Callanan and Bonner Maher are unlikely to be part of the set-up next year and others too may consider their position after spending a lot of time on the bench this season.
Noel McGrath is of the older vintage too but he emerged as a real leader this season and hopefully will continue. As a player he hurls with head as much as hands and his dedication to preparation has aided him in avoiding injuries. All of which helps to extend his involvement.
There will be a focus in the months ahead on players who opted out this year in the hope that they’ll commit for 2023. We certainly need all bodies on board. Niall O’Meara has been a loss and the reputations of other players, such as Bryan O’Mara and Ciaran Connolly, have risen in their absence. As a cautionary note, however, it should be remembered that these players have yet to make an impact at senior inter-county level so there are no guarantees and patience will be needed.
Overall, we’re into a difficult phase that requires very careful handling. On the positive side the underage teams this year have shown some promise. The Under 20s put in a respectable shift against Limerick and will be a major focus next season, given their age profile. The minors have a Munster title in the bag and we’ll watch carefully their further progress in the All-Ireland series. Seldom has a win been so badly needed.

In the shorter term, though, there’s no obvious quick fix. Colm Bonnar has been shielded from some of the harsher criticism because of the sheer bad luck that he endured in his first year. Tony Wall got no such indulgence in 1986, even though injuries were a major factor back then too. I guess expectations were so much higher in ’86, which led to much harsher judgements back then.
Next year will be crucial for Colm Bonnar. Even allowing for the various defections and bad luck there were aspects of our play this year, especially against both Clare and Cork, that were unacceptable. The entire system looks very broken at the moment and putting all the pieces back together is the challenge on which ultimately the manager will be judged.
In the meantime, Tipperary will watch the McDonagh Cup decider with unusual interest. In the circumstances - and with apologies to Kerry - we’ll be hoping for an Antrim win. The last thing we need now is an awkward play-off with The Kingdom. I expect Darren Gleeson’s side to do the business but in a year of some surprises you never know.
Elsewhere there will be great expectations around the Munster and Leinster provincial finals. Unlike their football equivalents these should be blood-stirring. I know the provincials have lost the do-or-die tone of the past but there’s still a lot to play for in these pairings.
The rematch of Kilkenny and Galway is fascinating, not least because of the managers involved. I thought Galway were the better team the last day but typically Kilkenny took it to the “death”. Cody has a strong record in re-matches and I suspect he’ll burst a gut to get a result here. It will be a test of Galway to stand up to that. The loser won’t be out of the race, but will be wounded.
After their draw in Ennis, the Munster final pairing also offers great hope of a classic encounter. Clare have been the year’s springers, coming from a low rating to joint third favourites now for the All-Ireland. They’re behind Limerick and Galway and rate alongside Cork, the Lazarus lads of the championship.
Clare’s development has been impressive and has taken most by surprise. Their league form was poor, a win against Offaly their only success, though they did, significantly, draw with Limerick in round four. After two draws then, Sunday represents the best of three between these counties – and who’s to say they won’t meet a fourth time.
Limerick remain the championship favourites, that draw with Clare the only blemish on their round robin record. Their league was poor, losing three of the five games, but they’ve picked things up considerably in the championship, despite being without some key players like Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch.
I like the shape of Clare and the progress Brian Lohan has made but you’d still have to fancy Limerick to edge this one. The prize for the winners is a visa to the All-Ireland semi-finals, whereas the losers play quarter-finals. The shorter route will appeal to all four teams at the weekend so expect full-blooded battles.
Finally, the split season has hit the headlines in earnest, thanks to The Sunday Game pundits and their vocal criticisms of this year’s schedule of games. Actually, I think their comments have backfired, judging by the social media response, which in itself is interesting.
For years we had a hue and cry about the treatment of the club players, whose season was constantly at the mercy of the tiny inter-county minority who dictated fixtures. Club championships, as a result, were farcical at times, with perhaps a game or two in April and then a long wait for a resumption, with no clarity on when that might happen.
People rightly castigated this system for years but it took a world pandemic to finally bring about dramatic change. Forced by Covid to introduce the split season, it has been a spectacular success, with club players now having certainty about their season. It has been a major boon for clubs but now we have the detractors taking pot shots and for questionable motives.
It’s probably unfair to some of the pundits but it’s hard to escape the charge of self-promotion by people who have a vested interest in extending the inter-county show for as long as possible.
You can argue the merits of tweaking the system by a few weeks here or there but it would be nice to hear the pundits acknowledge, and back, the basic premise of the split season, which has been hugely successful. Too much to ask?

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