If a week is a long time in politics it can be quite a stretch in hurling terms too. After enduring some torturous days this league series finally turned for Tipperary on Sunday last, albeit with a dollop of luck at the end.
Some tentative signs of green shoots then, so here’s hoping Cork don’t visit a withering frost to the delicate buds on Sunday next in the quarter-final.
It was a big game - and an even bigger result for the home fans. Hard to imagine that we could get so energised by a March win over Dublin in the league, but such has been our agony in recent weeks that any sliver of light is welcome.
It was a day of high drama and chest-tightening tension. Our hearts skipped a beat as Dublin mounted that final attack. Unluckily for them the ball ended with the wrong player; young Niall McMorrow seemed unsure whether to point or target a goal. In the event his tentative lob goalwards was easily beaten away and the final whistle unleashed a wave of relief among the home fans, who could breathe at last.
So, our league rounds have been bookended by two edgy wins over the sides that now play out relegation. It has been an extraordinary league series with peaks and valleys and very little by way of steady, consistent form - apart from Clare.
Twenty minutes into this match we trailed nine-three amid a growing sense of déjà vu. Dublin looked lively. Alan McCrabbe was operating as an extra midfielder and from frees and play he was a central contributor to our unease. On the positive side, however, we kept our defensive shape and for once there was no goal leakage.
Gradually we found traction in the game and for the next fifteen minutes we outscored the visitors by 0-6 to 0-1. It could have been a whole deal better if ‘Bonnar’ Maher wasn’t thwarted by goalie Maguire on our best goal chance. ‘Bonner’ was starting to make tracks and with Callanan moving outfield to good effect we reeled off a neat run of points, which altered the trajectory of this contest. By half time we were just one adrift and that clichéd melting pot was beginning to bubble.
Yet second half progress was slow, piecemeal. Dublin got away again, going four-up, and it took the major strike of the day to resurrect our challenge. For once the Dublin defence got drawn out and Callanan made tracks goalward. His shot was textbook, going low to the goalie’s left but once more Maguire made the stop. In ping-pong fashion ‘Bonner’ returned the rebound but a third attempt was needed to finally scramble home. It would prove a precious goal by day’s end.
Eventually we nosed in front thanks to Noel McGrath but we could never draw the daylight that we needed and the game careered its way to a dramatic ending. A heavy stop by Stapleton on Conal Keaney brought a free which substitute Paul Ryan - of Ballycahill background - drove low but was denied.
James Barry was by now on board for the injured Michael Cahill and he’d play a critical role in the eventual outcome. A few aerial fetches were inspirational and then came a crucial intervention when he blocked a Conal Keaney effort. For once our goal-line would stay intact.
Yet still it remained miserly tight, Dublin playing a Clare-style combination game, Tipp defending well and hitting scores on the counter. An Alan McCrabbe free as we drifted into added time seemed to leave us cruelly short on the score differential. A minute into added time and Kieran Bergin set up Ronan Maher for a point that was cheered to the rafters; Tipp back at the required three-point lead.
Then came the late tension and, let’s be honest, our great escape. They’ll agonise in Dublin over that last attack and their failure to embrace the point which would have sent them through to the ‘quarters’. The players can’t have been unaware of the maths of the situation, though reading different scribes during the week would have led to confusion. Even the normally accurate Martin Breheny had us requiring a four-point win on Saturday. In the end our score differential was the same as Dublin’s and ahead of Waterford’s so it came down to the ‘scores for’ column. Quite ironic isn’t it that in a series where we conceded near record score totals that we were well ahead of others in the amount scored.
Two aspects of Sunday’s game were particularly pleasing: our defence and an overall grittier approach. For once the management recognised that minding our house at the back was critical after all that conceded space of previous matches. Thus when Dublin teased us by withdrawing Alan McCrabbe to midfield we resisted temptation and left three patrolling the rearguard to effectively snuff out any goal threat.
Equally important was the overall improvement in competitiveness. For once players showed a willingness to graft and hurt for the cause and once that’s present there’s always hope.
Not that a new dawn has suddenly washed over the county: there are still many problems. Defensively we certainly got it together this time, O’Mahony and Maher the twin pillars in the middle (though Ryan O’Dwyer bothered Brendan at times) and the flankers earning commendation too. Midfield is still a mite iffy, despite the earnest efforts of Kieran Bergin and Shane McGrath. Ultimately, though, I suspect we’ll manage from one to nine but then the difficulties mount.
We depend over-much on Seamus Callanan at the moment for scores, though ‘Bonner’ was getting back to form before retiring injured, and Noel McGrath came into the game better in the second half – ‘Bubbles’ likewise contributing, though we’d like to get more from him. Otherwise players like Jason Forde, Paddy Murphy and Michael Heffernan for all their known skill are having little impact. That’s worrying because recent indications suggest that Eoin Kelly is struggling to get to the pace of these games so we’re left wondering about Lar Corbett and where else we might find reinforcements. The future, perhaps, points more towards the likes of Ronan Maher and maybe Denis Maher.
And so to Sunday’s old firm quarter final clash at the Stadium. Thankfully our luck held over to Monday and that coin toss, which avoided a trip south to the scene of last spring’s mauling in the opening round of the series. Cork have shown only modest form in Division 1B, availing of Limerick’s slip against Offaly to top the group without resorting to score difference. Still in a quarter-final versus Tipp in Semple Stadium they’re likely to up their game considerably.
Team selection, as ever, will be intriguing. Has James Barry earned a start in defence and at whose expense? Paudie Maher seems to be still out and there are several other injury worries with the likes of Cahill, Shane McGrath and ‘Bonner’ being forced off the last day. Will ‘Woody’ return to midfield or to wing forward, which was his posting before illness intervened last weekend? Then the forward options come under the microscope and I wouldn’t even speculate about choices there.
Overall our fragile morale surely took a lift from Sunday last; whether it’s enough to send Cork packing though is questionable.
P.S. Why this hurry with quarter-finals and then a three-week wait for semis?