A welcome win over Offaly but stiffer tests lie ahead against Cork and Galway

A freewheeling final quarter carried Tipperary to an easy win over Offaly in round four of the Allianz league. The points are welcome and essential but far stiffer tasks lie ahead as ‘away’ fixtures to Cork and Galway await us. Results elsewhere have opened up the race so we still harbour a slim hope of making the final. Essentially, however, it’s a fate that’s not entirely in our own hands.

A freewheeling final quarter carried Tipperary to an easy win over Offaly in round four of the Allianz league. The points are welcome and essential but far stiffer tasks lie ahead as ‘away’ fixtures to Cork and Galway await us. Results elsewhere have opened up the race so we still harbour a slim hope of making the final. Essentially, however, it’s a fate that’s not entirely in our own hands.

Offaly have slipped quite a bit from the days when names like Whelehan, Dooley, Troy and Pilkington lit up the hurling stage. Four games into the league they now languish at the bottom of the pile staring down relegation unless they can conjure a big one in their next bout against fellow-strugglers Wexford.

In the circumstances, and given the absence of Shane Dooley, it was a game Tipperary was expected to take with some ease. They duly delivered the predicted win but hardly with the ease that a thirteen-point margin would suggest. It was a display more sufficient than sparkling.

The absence of Padraic Maher brought a reshuffle to the defence with David Young moving sideways to fill the centre and Paddy Stapleton coming on at wing. The opening minute saw Young out-fielded by Joe Bergin for an immediate point. It was an early indication of how that duel would develop, Young having an uncomfortable half before being withdrawn at the interval, his place going to John Coghlan.

The early skirmishing was even enough, Tipperary facing the icy wind and shading the opening quarter by five points to three. The game’s only goal was the major lodgement of the half and happily fell our way about twenty minutes in. Credit Patrick Maher here with a typical dash towards goal followed by the lay-off to Gearoid Ryan who smacked home the score from close range.

The Offaly rearguard had been punctured but wouldn’t leak anymore as Tipperary thereafter found the aerial route more profitable. Pa Bourke was a significant contributor as was Benny Dunne. Noticeable too was the smart work of newcomers Eddie Connolly and John O’Keeffe in defence, behind a dominant midfield of Maher and Gearoid Ryan. We lost Eoin Kelly early on to a hand injury, Shane Bourke the replacement.

As the half unfolded it was more adequate than admirable from Tipperary. Shane Burke had a fleeting goal chance but was half hooked and when Pa Bourke drove a twenty-metre free low the Offaly defence stood firm. Three uplifting points from Brendan Maher was a noteworthy element in the opening half too and we eventually sauntered off four ahead.

Eddie Connolly took a heavy knock during that first half and didn’t reappear, his withdrawal, and that of David Young, forcing a defensive reshuffle with Paddy Stapleton slipping back to corner, John Coghlan taking over at centre and James Woodlock strangely coming in at wing back. The appearance of Lar Corbett for Paul Kelly brought an understandable ripple of excitement among the attendance of just 2,510.

With the wind in our shoulder blades now we might have expected an easy passage in the second half but our efforts remained sluggish. By the three-quarter stage the margin was six points but Offaly thereafter faded and a succession of wind-carried points took Tipperary’s lead into double digits. Shane Bourke pitched in with three flags for a personally satisfying contribution and even if we lacked goal-scoring thrust there was a fluent run of points, John O’Keeffe rounding it all off with the final flag.

So, it was a case of job done, points in the bag and a few interesting personal contributions for the fans to mull over on their way home. Eddie Connolly will remember his league debut for both the pain and the gain. He took that heavy knock but gained significantly in reputation after an eye-catching input; he looked especially strong in the air.

John O’Keeffe too won significant credits with an efficient display. Good hands and a good head are an ideal combination. Likewise John Coghlan showed some steel when introduced at half time. If a few of these new boys make the ‘cut’ it will certainly provide defensive cover, which is needed after so many departures. All of that, of course, is in the context of an Offaly opposition that will struggle to win any game in the series.

I thought Paddy Stapleton was powerful, especially in the second half when he reverted to his accustomed corner position.

Midfield was certainly a comfort zone for Tipperary this time with Brendan Maher in powerful form and Gearoid Ryan getting through a huge volume of work also. In attack the main scoring credits were shared by Pa Bourke and Benny Dunne. Patrick Maher’s first half was typically thrustful. Last year he developed the passing side of his game; now he’s probably over-passing and could work on taking a few scores himself. Paul Kelly never really got into this one and Noel McGrath was less prominent than against Waterford; eventually he was replaced by Sean Carey. Shane Burke took those points well, which will keep him in favour for the moment.

We’ve now passed the half-way mark in the league series and with a break before our next game, ‘away’ to Cork, it’s probably an ideal time to take stock of our whereabouts. It was a troubled opening to the series but the Waterford and Offaly games have stabilised the picture somewhat. That’s not to get carried away because Waterford were depleted, and then further reduced by those dismissals, while Offaly are outside the top echelon of teams at present. Cork and Galway in upcoming games will pose different examinations entirely.

In terms of personnel the developments have been significant since the start of the year. Several medal holders have been dropped while others have been promoted. Some have signalled potential, especially John O’Neill, John O’Keeffe, Eddie Connolly, John Coghlan and Shane Burke. In all cases, however, further evidence will be required before definitive judgments are made.

Others have been less successful. It was hoped Brian O’Meara would step up to claim a forward place this year but so far he’s disappointed. Sean Carey too has found the rigours of senior inter-county hurling a notch above anything he’s met thus far. David Young, heir apparent for Declan Fanning’s position, has yet to fully ‘nail’ that post.

In other areas Paul Kelly is back but his form is somewhat variable. Lar Corbett too is back as is James Woodlock. We look forward to the returns of Seamus Callanan and John O’Brien.

Balancing all the pros and cons, I suppose, shows that we made a very slow start to the season but have stepped up in recent weeks. Results elsewhere mean that we still have an outside chance of making the final. Effectively we need to win our remaining games and then hope that others lose at least two of theirs. Score-difference could then decide the final pairing. Cork lost twice already and both Kilkenny and Galway have one reversal each. Dublin are unbeaten and Waterford too are still in the mix. Only Wexford and Offaly are definitely out of the race at this juncture.

That means it’s all down to remaining games. We have a chance but it’s an outside one.

Last weekend was certainly an eventful one for the league with Galway skinning the ‘cats’ and Waterford pipping Cork. Watching the highlights on telly it seemed a strange game at Pearse Stadium with goals galore, even a few embarrassing ones especially for the Kilkenny ‘keeper. It looked very un-Kilkenny like, not the type of stuff Cody has often to deal with. I suspect some will feel the backlash.

It does challenge this perception that Kilkenny have a second string which would beat most others in the country. They don’t. Their resources are definitely deeper than the rest of us but when you dip into their reserve pool they suddenly become fallible. Ultimately what most will watch is the progress of players like Shefflin, Tennyson and Richie Power. Come championship time and it will be back to the old reliables down Noreside.

Meanwhile on the local scene the county’s clubs have returned to action with a full round of the county league played off last weekend. It’s a competition that gets little notice but when treated properly provides clubs with an ideal build up for the upcoming championship.

In the premier division I note that Toomevara edged out Clonoulty by a single point while Drom\Inch had a useful win over Thurles Sarsfields. That will certainly encourage the boys at the Ragg who’ve lived in the shadow of the ‘Blues’ in recent years. Burgess had a useful win over Holycross while Kildangan had ten points to spare over Loughmore. It was a good weekend for the North teams though presumably all sides were without their county panellists.

In division one Borrisoleigh topped Roscrea, Moycarkey were eight-point winners over Kilruane while Brackens drew with Portroe and Eire Og Annacarty had a big win over Upperchurch.

Finally in division two Lorrha drew with Golden\Kilfeacle while Boherlahan were too strong for Ballingarry and newly-promoted Borrisokane thrashed Kickhams by seventeen points.

Inevitably teams will be at different stages of preparation, some playing catch-up and others well ahead, but those opening results are interesting nonetheless. There’s an added complication this year which sees several clubs losing key players to emigration. Inevitably our sick economy will impact on the health of our hurling championship. The times are indeed tough for clubs.