Old heads and new blood combine seamlessly as Tipperary blow away Clare

We expected it to be stressful, but in the event it was stress-free. A fluctuating league series that began on a low ended on a high for Tipperary. Clare’s expected challenge never materialised.

We expected it to be stressful, but in the event it was stress-free. A fluctuating league series that began on a low ended on a high for Tipperary. Clare’s expected challenge never materialised.

The result, especially its emphatic nature, shot us to the top of the league table where the prize is a semi-final date with division 1B winners. We’ll therefore cast a cold eye on the collision of Limerick and Dublin at the Stadium on Saturday next to assess our opponents on April 21.

After a dreadful start to the league it was a delightful ending to the five-round series.

It’s difficult to even comprehend now that awful night in Cork when Tipperary hurling seemed to be on the ropes. This time it was the same Tipperary delivering the knock-out, swatting aside Clare’s young wannabes with considerable ease. Seldom has a Tipperary league run vacillated through such extremes.

There was genuine nervousness about Clare’s visit to the Stadium for this decisive bout. The Banner had been steady and consistent throughout the rounds taking out Cork and Galway in the process and being woefully unlucky to lose by the minimum to Kilkenny and Waterford.

Such a form line suggested that Davy Fitzgerald was stringing together a side of real substance and Tipperary needed to beware.

Yet one feature this league series has highlighted is Tipperary’s ability to rise to the stiffest challenges. When we expect to win we’re vulnerable but when the need is greatest we find the necessary response.

Even before a ball was pucked on Sunday Tipperary’s team selection underlined the day’s requirements. This was no place for experimentation or blooding of players; this was serious must-win action.

And so the management sent their ‘A’ team into battle: Stapleton back at corner back; O’Mahony resuming at number six; Brendan Maher on at midfield; Corbett in a lead role in attack beside ‘Bubbles’; Kelly recalled. That selection made a statement and the players responded.

Boss the game from early and boss it to the end, might have been O’Shea’s advice because that’s how we played. Aided by the wind we took control and kept control. There was a bite to Tipp’s play this time and the opening quarter saw Clare struggle to even get into attack.

The opening goal then endorsed the pattern. Its execution was clinical. Corbett latched onto a breakdown to knife through the heart of the defence. The pass to Kelly was inch-perfect and the finish emphatic.

Midway through the half we could have delivered another hammer-blow. This time it was ‘Bubbles’ who sent Brendan Maher through but the midfielder’s shot was tipped over. Keep it low, like Kelly’s, and there would be no heroics from the goalie. Still with a steady stream of points we were gradually opening a gap.

The heaviest traffic flow was towards Killinan though Clare did have a few fleeting chances to counter-punch. On one such raid corner forward, Colm Galvin, fired in a shot which brought a useful save from Darren Gleeson; the goalie followed up with a scoop away to safety. Later on Clare again threatened penetration and it took a marvellous flick from Paddy Stapleton to deny Shane O’Donnell.

An eight point lead at half time was substantial though not uncatchable if Clare could get a decent run on us when aided by the wind.

I’m sure the fade-out in Waterford would have played on minds too at this juncture so it was important to keep on top. ‘Bonner’ Maher replaced John O’Dwyer at the interval and would play a central role in what followed.

Our second goal was the one to really deflate Clare and thereafter there was no doubt about the likely outcome. It came with an element of gift-wrapping from the Clare goalie.

Corbett’s initial shot was blocked but then in the follow up a defender fumbled and when the goalie got possession he tried to hand pass to safety over Corbett’s head.

Lar I’m sure watches tennis so he’ll appreciate that Nadal or Federer of Murray would have been pleased with his forehand smash to the net. It’s a score that must have infuriated goalie, Davy Fitzgerald.

And the gifts from Clare didn’t end there. Later in the half a long-range free from Kelly was dropping short when goalie and full back got in a tangle to let it dribble over the line.

These were giveaways, though such errors often happen when you’re under the cosh and players’ confidence is 

From a Tipperary perspective it was all very smooth running. ‘Bonner’ had brought a new energy to our attack and there was no relaxation from Tipperary this time but instead a sustained focus driven on by O’Shea’s sideline insistence.

In the end there were crumbs of comfort for Clare when Tony Kelly tapped in a late goal but overall it must have been a long, long way back to Clare after this experience. They scored a mere 1-6 from play; Tipp managed exactly double that, 2-12, from broken play.

The credits on the Tipperary side were widely spread though a few facets were particularly noteworthy.

‘Bonner’ Maher’s return was a highlight item. He started a new career in the army recently and lost hurling form. Yet here he was back to his old tearaway ways tormenting the defence.

His return is timely as we head into the business end of the league series.

Encouraging too is the ongoing expansion of Brendan Maher’s game. Once again he put in a glorious shift at midfield chasing down all sorts of situations in defence and attack.

His energy levels are huge. His partnership with Shane McGrath seems to be the future unless injury intervenes.

Some of the statisticians might correct me on this one but I suspect Lar Corbett has never had such play-time in a Tipperary league campaign.

And the quantity of his involvement is certainly matched by the quality. Once again he was a central mover is so many fruitful attacks, scoring 1-1 and setting up several others. Hopefully this is a foretaste of the summer.

I’m excited too about Eoin Kelly’s input. He looks fitter and hungrier than ever, lethal when given a goal chance and unerring on those frees. Actually in players like Corbett and Kelly we have the critical ingredient that Clare lack with such a young side – experienced heads.

Sunday too was a good day for Shane Bourke. He’s had too many ups and downs in his career thus far so hopefully he can build on a day like this and become a permanent attacking feature on the team.

We need new blood to supplement Kelly, Corbett et al and John O’Dwyer too can fill that role. I thought he had a useful first half on Sunday so maybe that leg injury contributed to his withdrawal.

Defensively we could be well pleased too on Sunday. The meagre score we conceded from play is evidence of that and remember that 1-1 of Clare’s 1-6 came in added-time at the end and can be filed away in the consolation drawer. When the match was ‘alive’ we were mostly watertight.

Paddy Stapleton stood out for individual praise but as a unit I thought all six were on top of the job in an area that now looks close to settled formation.

Darren Gleeson’s selection for this game is being seen as significant in terms of his head-to-head with Brendan Cummins. As a must-win match we were putting out our best so perhaps the Portroe man is now rated ahead of Brendan Cummins.

Either way Gleeson didn’t put a foot wrong on Sunday so it will be interesting to watch that space in future games.

With the scheduled rounds now completed it’s probably an appropriate time to mark a report card on the team and management. In terms of the team things seem to be taking shape nicely albeit with some hiccups along the way.

The mood certainly looks positive with the older hands as enthusiastic as ever and the younger cubs showing positive attitude too.

Corbett has refocused, Brendan Maher has reignited the flame and Kelly seems intent on rolling back the years. Conor O’Brien has emphasised his claim and Shane McGrath has taken on the captaincy with relish.

Of the younger guns Shane Bourke and John O’Dwyer have shown most potential.

Against that there are some negatives. We’d like to get more from Noel McGrath given his extraordinary ability and Seamus Callanan has to find some consistency too. John O’Brien’s return to peak impact would be a huge asset as well and there were some signs of that on Sunday.

‘Buggy’ O’Meara too has to deliver more – ditto for Pa Bourke. Overall then at this juncture the team is developing nicely, though with some way still to go.

As for the management they deserve credit for steadying the storm-tossed ship they inherited. We left 2012 utterly deflated and so far the job of restoration has been progressing well albeit through a mixture of peaks and troughs.

We might have suffered critical retirements after last August but the reputation of the new management was enough to keep all on board for another effort.

The management will take credit for the highs of this spring, specifically the wins versus Kilkenny, Galway and Clare, but will be docked marks for the lows against Cork and Waterford.

When a team is as poorly focused as that which crumbled against Cork then the management must take a hit as well as the players. Likewise the Waterford game represented a slip by management in terms of the original selection and the inaction during a critical first half. Too many changes from game to game also costs marks in my assessment criteria.

But these are relatively minor blips in the overall scheme of a tough job. Qualifying for a league semi-final has restored pride for the moment and we await further developments before making a fuller judgment.

For the moment they’ve earned a middle-B rating on this mid-term league report.

And so, sitting pretty on the top of the table, we have a three-week wait for that semi-final.

In the meantime Limerick and Dublin go head-to-head this Saturday. Limerick won the scheduled round at Croke Park so it will be tough luck now if they lose out in this play-off. The bookies have made them marginal favourites but it really looks like a 50/50 game. We’ll watch with interest as we prepare for a semi-final with the victors.