What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago we were lauding an historic triumph; now it’s our turn to digest a role reversal with Kilkenny. A deeply disappointing day for Tipperary as sceptre and crown came tumbling down. As reigning champions we got hit early and spent the remaining time in hot pursuit. Ultimately it was a futile chase as Kilkenny held what they had to send Tipperary back to basics and a winter of reassessment.
In ’09 we were left mulling over the ‘what ifs’ but this time there was no quibbling with the day’s outcome. Kilkenny laid down the early markers, taking immediate control. Driven by a fierce desire for revenge they instantly put Tipperary on the back foot. They dominated the individual battles so we played the game on their terms and lost heavily. The record will show a four-point outcome but the reality was far more decisive.
The day’s fate was signposted early on and in truth it never deviated thereafter. Kilkenny laid out their stall immediately. There would be no sweeper in defence but individually they’d man-mark instead of holding lines. And Cody chose his pairings well: Tyrrell on Corbett, Hickey on Kelly and Murphy on O’Brien. The marking was tenacious and persistent, the space at a premium. J.J. careered across to pummel Corbett over the line on his first touch of the ball. The tone was being set.
And then in attack the Kilkenny tactic was an old familiar one: put Shefflin on the most inexperienced and vulnerable defender and target that zone. Didn’t they do likewise to Limerick’s Seamus Hickey in ’07. Tactically we were immediately on the defensive and when you coupled that with a somewhat flat, hesitant display from the reigning champions the immediate drift of the game was inevitable.
Facing the early assault Tipperary were struggling to get to the game. Every ball posted to the Tipp attack was returned with a tag line ‘address unknown’. We couldn’t buy possession in the forwards for the first fifteen minutes. Luckily there was no avalanche of scores at the other end but instead a slow trickle. Shefflin was guilty of untypical misses and Curran rolled one off our goal line. We were hanging in there – just about – Cahill (great flick to deprive Eoin Larkin), Curran and Paudie Maher holding the dam steadiest.
At five-nil down the Tipperary fans shuffled uneasily. Eventually Noel McGrath posted the first delivery, a really sweet point from the Hogan Stand side line. After early difficulties against a rampant Tommy Walsh, ‘Bonner’ Maher started working over-time, winning precious frees, which kept us in Kilkenny’s slipstream. But all the time the greater energy was coming from the ‘cats’, hunting in packs, hitting hardest and sweeping up the breaks.
Worryingly for Kilkenny their superiority wasn’t being reflected on the scoreboard though they did get a major break before half -time. In a sense that first Kilkenny goal summed up Tipperary’s mood. Stapleton was treated for a leg injury and then a quickly taken side line by Shefflin caught us napping. A quick inter-change of passes opened the door for Michael Fennelly who barged through from midfield to plant a precious goal. We’d been caught dawdling and the price was a heavy one.
Still, five-down at half time wasn’t insurmountable if we could regroup and up the ante on resuming. By now Brendan Maher was in for O’Keeffe and for the resumption Benny Dunne replaced Shane McGrath and Pa Bourke was on for Callanan. An immediate Dunne point promised better but the game’s drift wasn’t going to be easily altered. Shefflin drove a super point and with Richie Power hitting two the lead stretched out to seven.
O’Mahony drove up field for a fine point but just when we needed a goal it was Kilkenny who pounced once more, Brennan’s piercing run setting up Richie Hogan for a smashing finish. It was a long road back now but credit the team with battling spirit as they refused to buckle. The defending was at times heroic while in attack John O’Brien made some amazing catches and ‘Bonner’ kept up the onslaught. Eventually we got a reviving break, Corbett to Pa Bourke for our goal. Amazingly we brought it down to just a three point game before a silly foul from David Young gave Kilkenny the cushion once more. Bourke had been hooked on another goal effort. Despite all our difficulties Kilkenny had to sweat to the end but ultimately the title went where it deserved on the day’s play.
Overall it was a troubled day for Tipperary where the mood seemed wrong from the start and that I’m sure will be the greatest regret. Like in the semi-final our attack will take the heaviest hit for the failure. ‘Bonner’ Maher deserves to be exempted as does John O’Brien but otherwise there were only snippets from Noel McGrath, little from Kelly and Corbett and even less from Callanan. For a second game in succession the attack misfired as opponents found the key to lock them out.
Midfield was mostly a barren area for Tipperary. Gearoid Ryan worked well early on but showed less in the second half and Shane McGrath had a most forgettable day. The defence, though, takes major credit for keeping this game so tight despite a continuous barrage. Michael Cahill was excellent but there was much to admire too about Curran and Padraic Maher while Paddy Stapleton held his line well also being woefully unlucky not to block that Richie Power goal. I’m not convinced about the need to replace Conor O’Mahony. Perhaps he took the blame for the second goal and Richie Power did have a significant influence on matters but ask yourself was the substitution an improvement?
Other substitutions did represent improvement with Brendan Maher growing into the game and both Pa Bourke and Benny Dunne justifying promotion also.
And so a year of great promise ends in great disappointment. For Declan Ryan and his cabinet their first term in charge will be dissected and analysed over the winter months. In a sense the defeat will weigh heavier on them than the players, which is the risk you take when you inherit reigning champions. Inevitably comparisons will be made with Sheedy and company, though we must remember that the previous cabinet took three years to get it right.
One of Liam Sheedy’s great virtues was surely his ability to learn on his feet and not repeat mistakes and that’s now the great challenge for the present management because significant errors were made. They’ll face a lot of flak on the Brendan Maher situation. In fairness that injury back in the spring was the worst of luck for all concerned but once he returned to action it was difficult to understand why he wasn’t fast-tracked back onto the team. There was a ruthless decision to be made here and it was side-stepped.
And in the wake of this defeat be assured that the Conor O’Brien demotion hasn’t gone away either. There was a moment last Sunday when Paddy Stapleton seemed in agony on the sideline and one wondered what replacement would be called into action if he had to be withdrawn. Probably Thomas Stapleton, a player who was a very late inclusion on the panel this year. It’s difficult to fathom how a player like Conor O’Brien who was first-in last September could drift outside a panel of thirty in a matter of months. Either the present or the past management got it wrong and you can make up your own mind on that one.
Tactically too the present management will have to face criticism. The dogs on the streets knew that Cody would plant Shefflin on John O’Keeffe, yet we accepted it as a fait accompli and played on Kilkenny’s terms. Why not switch Padraic Maher across immediately given his record on the Kilkenny man in the past? Kilkenny seemed to dictate every head-to-head in this game and we went along willingly.
Perhaps it’s time too for revision of the style of ball we played into our attack throughout this campaign. We persisted on Sunday with high, booming deliveries into the forwards where only John O’Brien was able to compete in the air and even when he won possession he was instantly crowded out. That type of aerial bombardment worked against a frail Waterford defence but its shortcomings were shown up against Dublin and yet we persisted with the ploy last Sunday. In hindsight there was probably more worrying evidence from that Dublin match than we cared to consider.
``And then there’s the issue of the short puck-out, used to great effect in other matches but almost totally ignored on Sunday in favour of the long-puck. These and other items will be central parts of the debate as this defeat is scrutinised in the coming months. Incidentally I understand there’s annoyance, even anger, up Templemore way at Shane Bourke’s exclusion from the twenty-six man panel on Sunday. Pat Kerwick got in ahead of the Bracken’s man.
What of the future then? Well, there’s no reason why 2010 should be our one-in-a-decade All Ireland win. The age profile of the side is helpful, though we must hope that the elder statesmen like Cummins, Kelly, O’Brien and Corbett are not inclined to retire just yet. The stark reality is that the supplementary material is very limited and the underage production line has slowed up considerably in recent years. We have what we have, so we need to get the most out of this panel. Here’s an interesting statistic: Kilkenny had six alterations from last year’s starting fifteen including emerging stars like David Herity, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly; we had one man to replace and failed to successfully do so.
What of Kilkenny? Well, it’s a remarkable comeback after last year and you have to give Cody credit for managing the process. It seems to me that he has a core of truly exceptional players such as Shefflin, Walsh, Delaney, Brennan and company who are ever-present and then he keeps reinvigorating the side with fresh, supplementary material each year. The well just never seems to run dry.
Finally a word on referee, Brian Gavin, and this time it won’t be of the critical type. There were days in the past when his free-count against us was curiously high but on Sunday I felt the decisions were much fairer and consistent. Okay, he didn’t get everything right. A defender lashed out at Eoin Kelly near the sideline in the first half and went undetected while Noel Hickey escaped a booking for his trip on ‘Bonner’ Maher. Indeed Tommy Walsh surely deserved some sanction for that bizarre incident that left the Offaly man needing treatment. Against that Kilkenny were fuming at that free awarded against Jackie Tyrrell when none appeared obvious. Refereeing will never be perfect and you can always highlight individual items where the official gets it wrong but the overall judgment on Brian Gavin last Sunday was very complimentary.
P.S. I assume the local championship kicks off in earnest now so watch the fixture list for what should be a crowded schedule in the coming weeks. In a week of hurling mourning I haven’t the appetite for chasing fixture notices. In fact a week like this makes writing a column a downright chore.