So much for the betting odds. Tipperary bids goodbye to the league and says hello to a reality check. Our deep resources are perhaps not so deep after all.
It’s been an eventful week for the county. Callanan’s reprieve came hot on the heels of that awful newsflash about Noel McGrath. ‘Such welcome and unwelcome things at once ‘tis hard to reconcile’, to quote a Shakespearean line familiar to students of Macbeth. Then came that thumping win by the U21 footballers followed by this league reversal. Yes, it’s been a yo-yo week alright.
After all the excitement, the county’s hurlers now face into an unwelcome two-month hiatus. Perhaps the break will allow those injuries to clear up – and, maybe, give space for some serious reflection on our whereabouts ahead of a Munster semi-final in Mid June.
This was a league we needed to win. Eamon O’Shea’s third year as manager needs some tangible endorsement in the form of silverware. We’re tired of being valiant losers and with Kilkenny out of the way this time the path seemed clear.
Yet once more we’ve blinked in a tight finish. By any reckoning it’s a kick in the pants, another harsh reminder of a core frailty which has seen us unable to close out so many key games in recent years.
It all began so spectacularly well. ‘Bonner’s’ pouncing on that breaking ball for the opening goal represented a tonic start. The second goal hinted at a stress-free day, Forde’s sublime touch setting Brendan Maher away and then the pass to ‘Bubbles’ and the one-handed tennis smash to the net. It was champagne hurling and one wondered if Waterford’s confidence would crack after such a double whammy.
It didn’t. The Deise are mostly young and brash and bubbling with youthful exuberance. Their All Ireland minor win of two years ago has reawakened hope in the county, epitomised by Austin Gleeson, probably the finest product of that class of 2013. They remind one of the Clare side of the same year, full of energy and athleticism and a sense of abandon.
It was an enthusiasm we couldn’t quite tame on Sunday last. Despite the early goals Waterford settled to the job working slavishly throughout the field. They refused to be daunted by Tipperary’s reputation and by half time the lead was pared back to just three points, albeit with the aid of some typically strange refereeing calls.
Thereafter in the second half it was always going to be a struggle for Tipperary to gain traction in this contest. The critical point came about sixteen minutes in when Colin Dunford left Paul Curran chasing shadows before smashing home a critical goal.
We were now in a dog-fight but by instinct we’re not scrappers. We might have sneaked it if Ronan Maher had found the target on his three efforts or if Callanan hadn’t dropped one hopelessly into the goalie’s hand or if Shane McGrath had finished off a promising run with a better result. Paudie Maher drove one inspiring point but then dropped another short and in the climactic final moments another dubious refereeing call handed Pauric Mahony the winner. In the final seconds we couldn’t manufacture the leveler as the day belonged to the Deise.
Good luck to them in the final. Like Clare two years back they’ve found a method to suit their resources. It’s not pretty but it’s working. Playing an extra defender, usually Tadhg de Burca, is part of the ploy but otherwise it’s based on a manic work ethic where opponents are crowded out. Trying to track positions at times last Sunday was hopeless. Football’s disease, it seems, has infected hurling.
For Tipperary the result will surely invite a reassessment ahead of the championship. On Sunday last we replaced two of our full backs – it might have been all three. Surely when Conor O’Brien cried off the original selection the obvious replacement was James Barry. Yet we were in arrears in the second half when the Upperchurch man came in for Paddy Stapleton and the game was in the 66th minute when John Meagher arrived for Paul Curran. By then the damage was done.
Our half back line fared better, Paudie again hitting a huge amount of ball from the centre. At midfield Woodlock grafted with typical tenacity but Shane McGrath was eventually replaced by Gearoid Ryan whose form continues to disappoint. Likewise Shane Bourke brought little to attack when he replaced the injured John O’Dwyer, though Conor Kenny did better when he came on board for Jason Forde.
With Waterford crowding out the defence there was no room for runners coming through the middle so ‘Bonner’ had only occasional influence and Callanan too was increasingly denied clean possession. We could have done with Noel McGrath shooting from distance because Brendan Maher for all his hard-nosed grafting is not a scorer. Overall we failed to cope with the Waterford tactics not to mention their energy levels.
Perhaps O’Shea best summed up the display when he said afterwards that we were flat. We tend to do ‘flat’ too often at critical junctures – recall last year’s championship opener v. Limerick. In fairness the absentees were badly missed. Our defence with Barry and Cahill back will be stronger and it’s a pity John Meagher hasn’t enjoyed more game time. Bergin would surely have brought something to the team too. Noel McGrath also was an obvious loss but thereafter our resources are slight once you dip beyond number twenty or thereabouts.
The second game saw an extraordinary turnaround as Dublin coughed up a lead that at one stage stood at a healthy dozen. There was always going to be a second half ‘kick’ from the rebels but it was surely aided by an alarming slackening off by the Dubs. With this Cork forward line you can never slacken because they’re always likely to shoot up big numbers on any given day. Their difficulties remain in defence, though the likes of Mark Ellis and newcomer, Cormac Murphy, will strengthen matters when they return.
I thought the critical aspect in the second half was the toll of wides shot by the Dubs. They just needed to keep the scoreboard ticking with that lead but their count of wides expanded as Cork gathered steam. It was a painful one for the metropolitans and a joyous one for the Leesiders.
Before finishing a parting comment on the Seamus Callanan reprieve: the Central Appeals Committee saw sense where their colleagues in Central Hearings didn’t. Justice was finally done. Incidentally the same Central Hearings Committee sat in council last week over another case. Dublin hurler, Conal Keaney, was cited on video evidence for an incident with Limerick’s Cian Lynch in the league quarter final. However, our friends on Hearings cleared the player despite the video evidence. They seem to have a blind spot when it comes to any camera. Someone would need to ask this group why they continue to get things so spectacularly wrong.
Finally, I have huge admiration for the manner in which the McGrath family handled Noel’s diagnosis. A straight up announcement of the news immediately ended all wild speculation and brought a wave of goodwill towards the player. If good wishes have a medical value he’s already on the way back to training.