Leaving Nowlan Park on Sunday evening Tipperary fans carried mixed feelings after another close encounter with the ‘cats’. There was understandable disappointment after such a vigorous effort came up just short - leaking two goals and scoring none was critical to the outcome.
However, the regrets were tempered by an acknowledgement of the massive effort invested and the hoped-for consolation that this may only have been a dress rehearsal for a bigger day later in the season.
The fall-out will be debated for some time, not least those red cards for Corbett and Delaney. For his part Lar has the added issue of damaged ribs, which rules him out of Sarsfields’ crunch tie with Drom this weekend.
Sparks usually fly when this pair collides and this was yet another in the list of sparky affairs between the counties. It was physically bruising but mostly legal until J.J. and Lar tangled about ten minutes into the second half.
There is a sort of code among GAA referees where if two players wrestle it’s a yellow card offence. Should one of the wrestlers strike then you’re into red territory. TV footage failed to show any striking by Lar and remember Delaney was already on a yellow so he had to go irrespective of the card’s colour. Two reds seemed the easier option for the ref though you’re then left questioning the justice of it all.
What annoyed me most was the role of the Kilkenny goalie which, inexplicably, went unpunished. Yet Ger Loughnane feels the referee got it spot on. Indeed. Mind you I was also annoyed by the tardiness of some Tipperary players when it came to defending their colleague. No, I’m not talking about going in with hurley swinging to get yourself sent off but when your team mate is on the ground being bullied by two opponents you need to show cause.
One assumes Corbett didn’t injure himself yet he now faces a spell of inaction where he’ll miss a vital club game as well as the Munster semi-final against Limerick on June 9. He’s not a provocative player but clearly Kilkenny have issues with him since his heroics of 2010.
Given the demands of this occasion Tipperary needed a bright opening but instead it was Kilkenny who shot from the traps in explosive fashion, 1-2 to nil ahead after a few minutes. Paudie Maher lost possession all too easily for the goal. Once the breakdown occurred Kilkenny were in like a flash, Michael Fennelly taking route one to goal before expertly avoiding the hook and then finishing a cracking goal on the bounce. Nightmare visions of another heavy defeat shot through our minds.
Fennelly was the man of the half and one felt a move of Conor O’Mahony to centre was warranted in order to shore up that zone.
The second goal was a real double whammy coming in the twentieth minute after we’d recovered admirably from that nightmare opening. This time it was another cracking lodgement from the left corner position.
I’ve heard criticism of Gleeson on that one but I don’t share it. It was a rasper, hit from a tight angle high into the net and I don’t think any goalie would have had much chance of saving. Those two strikes by Fennelly were critical to the day’s outcome.
The deployment of Noel McGrath on a roving commission around the middle third of the pitch was proving profitable, eventually forcing Kilkenny to bring Aidan Fogarty out as a counter. McGrath, though, continued to excel hitting some vintage points and overall putting in a colossal effort. By game’s end he vied with Brendan Maher for star billing on the Tipp side.
Once again Borrisoleigh’s Maher showed evidence of that lurking greatness that we always knew he possessed but somehow it seemed to go untapped in the past two years. His four points from play underlined an outstanding contribution. Not even the drafting of Michael Fennelly to mark him in the second half could dent his impact.
The goal breaches were major negatives for Tipperary but to their credit the team refused to be cowed so easily. The defence held its nerve and resisted stubbornly for the remainder of the game. Cahill, O’Mahony, Curran, O’Brien and in the second half Paudie Maher were all seen to good effect and then there was new-boy, Kieran Bergin.
I must admit to astonishment on hearing the starting fifteen where the Killenaule man was parachuted in from nowhere, it seemed. He’d been involved with the panel for some weeks before being listed for the game with Dublin but to be catapulted in at number five for a career debut in a league final at Nowlan Park was extraordinary. It was either going to be a stroke of genius or an embarrassment for the management – thankfully it was closer to the former.
Bergin’s display rates as one of the positives from the game. He looked strong, confident and well up to the pitch of the game though Cillian Buckley did inflict some damage in the second half.
Still, on this evidence he offers new options for the management who now have choices when Paddy Stapleton returns perhaps even moving the Killenaule man to midfield if the need arises. (Incidentally doesn’t Bergin’s impact question the logic of the training schedules these players follow through the winter and spring months? Here’s a guy in the second half of his twenties who by-passes the hard slog with no apparent consequences).
Defensively then, apart from the two goals, we kept a safe enough house on Sunday.
The problem, though, was at the other end. With Noel McGrath functioning as an extra midfielder our attack was a man short and in truth struggled to make any impact against the sheer physicality of the Kilkenny rearguard.
Noel McGrath was the only one of the listed forwards to survive the game; of the remainder, four were substituted and Corbett was red carded.
If you take Noel McGrath out of the equation the other five starting forwards scored the grand total of 0-2 between them from open play.
In one sense you’re left wondering how we were so close to Kilkenny. The answer was that we had the likes of Noel McGrath and Brendan Maher doing the heavy lifting at midfield; between them they chipped in with seven points from play as well as being play makers for other scores. So it was a game played from distance rather than up close.
We did of course have one golden chance to shake the rigging nearing half time when ‘Bonner’ Maher found himself with time to pick his spot. However, his fluffed attempt summed up his afternoon.
And therein lay a major problem for Tipperary on Sunday: only a handful of players played up to form and none of them were in attacking roles.
Worryingly Shane McGrath on Sunday could do little right either. Whether it’s the pressure of the captaincy or just one of those off-days is debatable.
On this occasion Brendan Maher was the stand-out leader. ‘Bonner’ Maher did individual items like that spectacular second-half catch but mostly his touch was way off. Long hours in a ball alley might be the doctor’s prescription.
Corbett delighted with that lay-off for a Noel McGrath point in the first half but otherwise the game seemed to pass him by. The other forwards struggled too for any meaningful impact and when we emptied the bench near the end there was a boyish appearance to our forward outfit that certainly wouldn’t frighten Kilkenny.
So overall it was a day of very mixed emotions for Tipperary. On the positive side the ghost of last August was silenced. We showed we could live with Kilkenny on a big day and therein lay hope for the future.
Another positive was the unearthing of Kieran Bergin, which is probably bad news for the likes of John O’Keeffe and Thomas Stapleton and Donagh Maher who see their chances of promotion fading.
The flip side of the coin, however, shows several issues still to be resolved. We can’t keep rotating Gleeson and Cummins all season so a decision is needed on that score. Our championship full back has still to be finalised and are we certain about the best option for number six either?
But the bigger issues arise further up field. If we’re to persevere with Noel McGrath as a roving midfielder then what attacking ploy are we going to adopt.
The tactic of rotating forwards had no impact on Sunday. Besides we’re still unsure of the best formation in that attack.
And of course underlying it all is the reality that if players like Shane McGrath and ‘Bonner’ Maher lose form then we’re struggling anyway regardless of tactics.
A final thought on the game: I felt Kilkenny played with a ferocity that we couldn’t quite match and while playing catch-up throughout I don’t think there was ever a sense that we were going to win this game.
Their hunger for possession is at times almost frenzied and you need all players at that level to match them. The league campaign has probably restored our rating to number two in the pecking order as Galway slipped back but there’s still no doubting the ‘numero uno’.
And so with the league over the focus for the next few weeks reverts back to the club scene as the divisions sort out affairs. A highlight game in the series is billed for Templemore next Sunday evening when either Sarsfields or Drom will bow out of the Mid campaign.
The Mid stands alone among the divisions with a format that has knock-out plus losers’ section.
Already Loughmore and Upperchurch are into the semis and a pair of quarter-finals will decide their opponents in the next two weeks.
After their opening loss to Loughmore defending champions, Sarsfields, put out J.K. Bracken’s in the losers section, which sets up this crucial tie with Drom/Inch.
It’s a clash of two recent county winners so it’s a heavyweight battle where one of them will exit the divisional campaign though still having access to the county series. Lar Corbett’s likely absence will be a loss to Sars’. That game should draw quite a few to Templemore after tea on Sunday. The following week Holycross face Moycarkey in the second quarter-final.
In the West the crunch tie looks set to be that between Cashel K.C. and Cappawhite for the final semi-final place. Cappawhite’s defeat by Kickhams last weekend means that the Cashel game is now a must-win event if they are to join Clonoulty, Eire Og and Kickhams in the semis. Check fixtures for details of that tie.
P.S. What bright spark decided that a charity tractor run on the Freshford road was a good idea on a day of heavy match traffic? I’m all for the charity aspect but creating long tail-backs and dangerous overtaking is hardly sensible.