Walsh Park fade-out a concern and now it’s do-or-die against resurgent Banner

By any reckoning it was a missed opportunity at Walsh Park as Tipperary’s erratic form line saw them ship a second league defeat in the series. Waterford’s late winner means that Clare’s visit to the Stadium on Sunday becomes a ‘must-win’ game if we’re to make the semis – and, even more importantly, avoid a relegation dogfight.

By any reckoning it was a missed opportunity at Walsh Park as Tipperary’s erratic form line saw them ship a second league defeat in the series. Waterford’s late winner means that Clare’s visit to the Stadium on Sunday becomes a ‘must-win’ game if we’re to make the semis – and, even more importantly, avoid a relegation dogfight.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of Tipperary hurling was once again painfully exposed in this latest fixture. Just as we were getting used to winning following those victories over Kilkenny and Galway we’re hit by another sucker punch. A match that was so winnable was squandered through a combination of first half laxity and a final-quarter fade-out.

We played with a Siberian wind at our backs for the first half and really should have done much better than retire on level terms. The hurling was pedestrian at this stage but there was no drive in our play, especially the forward division where Callanan alone rose above the general poverty level.

The sight of Waterford defenders tapping the ball around nonchalantly to each other with space and time in abundance was scarily reminiscent of our first league game in Cork. We had plenty of possession from outfield but our forwards were offering no threat to Ian O’Regan’s goal.

A modest lead was eventually built only to be demolished in one sweeping Waterford move that produced the game’s only goal. It began when over-elaboration in attack yielded up possession and the Deise attacked down the right flank working the ball from Prendergast to Shanahan to Jamie Barron who flashed the finish across Cummins and into the corner.

We did recover from that body blow reeling off a series of four unanswered points from Shane McGrath, Callanan, Noel McGrath and again Callanan from a ‘65’ but the locals had the final three flags of the half to tie the game at the interval.

In hindsight the game was lost in that first half. We had the wind and the possession but forward ineptitude left us vulnerable. Already ‘Brick’ Walsh and company were having the proverbial field-day. Our defence was doing okay but midfield was flying on one wing as Woodlock fell way below the excellence of the Galway game.

And why we didn’t move to bolster the attack while we had the wind is something of a mystery? It wasn’t as if we didn’t have options with John O’Dwyer, the hero of Salthill, sitting on the bench beside Kelly and Brendan Maher and others. They were eventually introduced for the second half action but by then we’d lost our best opportunity to put Waterford deep into deficit.

The urgency of the situation was eventually recognised at half time when Kelly came in for Adrian Ryan and Brendan Maher for Noel McGrath. In the reshuffle Woodlock went to wing forward with Maher taking over at midfield.

And it was Brendan Maher who almost singlehandedly resurrected our cause into the teeth of the wind. Showing typical aggression he drove us forward winning a series of frees which Callanan landed, some of them from way out in the country.

It was a much more driven third quarter from Tipperary; what a pity we didn’t show this ‘bite’ in the first half. Eventually we’d go five-up and looking well set for a valuable win.

Alas the final ten minutes made uncomfortable viewing for the Tipp followers. Walsh, Moran and company got a grip for Waterford around midfield/half back and the Deise upped the intensity admirably.

Tipp faded as Waterford found new energy levels and the final phase of the game was one almost unbroken rearguard action from Tipperary. Waves of attack were coming at our defence with no relief outfield and only for a series of bad wides by the locals we’d have been well polished off by the end.

With the local followers roaring them on Waterford kept coming and the lead dwindled. Substitute Pauric Mahony took over the free taking and landed a few, Jamie Barron hit a good one and then Jake Dillon had the leveller.

A draw seemed likely but in added time there was one final encore from the Deise as Kevin Moran hit the winner from about forty-five metres out near the side line.

In truth we could have no quibbles. From a position of strength at five-up with ten minutes to play we faded out badly something which will surely worry the management. Waterford deserved their win and for Tipperary it’s back to that over-worked drawing board and more reassessment of our whereabouts in the hurling universe.

Most of our credits were confined to the defensive end where Conor O’Brien was again excellent and Thomas Stapleton filled in for the injured Conor O’Mahony at centre back. Padraic Maher hit a lot of ball and the full line was dogged though Michael Cahill’s touch and control let him down quite a lot and, like others, he needs to stop fouling.

The free count against us needs addressing by the management as does that looseness in discipline which saw extra yards ceded on a few occasions for disputing calls by the referee.

Shane McGrath was steady throughout at midfield where Brendan Maher brought a major improvement in the third quarter before the fade-out began. Callanan was easily the hero in attack with five excellent points from play and great confidence too on the frees hitting some superb ones into the wind especially. There was the odd snippet from some of the other attackers but nothing consistent.

How all this will reflect on team selection for the Clare game on Sunday will be interesting. I suspect we may have slightly underestimated Waterford on Sunday last given the attack we sent into action. Experimenting and trialling is all very well but you also need to win games.

For the Clare match I assume there will be much mulling over positions given the dire needs of the occasion. The analysing will begin with number one where Gleeson and Cummins are now seen as toe-to-toe for the job. Perhaps Cummins is seen as the better shot-stopper and Gleeson with the greater accuracy and variety in puck-outs. Cummins is still the safer, more proven option but Sunday’s selection should tell us whether or not the management agree.

Defensively there will probably be minimal change. I don’t know if O’Mahony will be back but if he’s not then surely Padraic Maher is the obvious option at number six with either Brendan Maher or some other filling the wing. Then again Brendan Maher may be needed for midfield alongside Shane McGrath.

The attack is where the shake-up has to come. Last Sunday’s formation will not beat Clare. Why not put Corbett into the centre of it once again as he was against Kilkenny and Galway and see can he direct matters once more. Callanan has obviously earned his stripes after last week but then you have a lot of names vying for the remaining positions. Given the importance of this game I’d start Kelly. Shane Bourke, Adrian Ryan, Noel McGrath and to a lesser extent Brian O’Meara were all disappointing last week so I wonder how many will survive. John O’Dwyer must wonder what he has to do being dropped after a man-of-the-match outing so I won’t be surprised if he starts this time. Maybe John O’Brien’s experience would be useful in this tie also.

Either way we’ll have to wait until later in the week to find out the management’s thinking. Incidentally a Congress motion to have teams released to the press by Wednesday was defeated. There was a time when they had to be released by Monday, then it slipped to Tuesday, now Thursday in Tipperary, though due to circumstances it was Friday in recent weeks. The argument in favour of early release is to enhance publicity as media outlets announce the selections during the week. And surely we need all the exposure we can get given the extensive coverage of other games.

The importance of this game with Clare hardly needs stating. A victory sees us through to the semis while a defeat sees us face a relegation play-off. It’s as blunt as that. It’s incredible how tight the group is with just two points between top and bottom. Actually a certain set of results could see all sides finish on five points with score difference then deciding the placings. Our score difference going into Sunday is minus one, a legacy of that bad defeat in Cork in the opening bout. That game could still haunt us by next Sunday evening.

Anyway I suppose the best outlook is to highlight the positives and think in terms of winning rather than losing. We haven’t met Clare very often in recent years with the Banner spending some time in the second division. Our last league clash with them was at the Stadium in ’09 where we won by seven in a goal-less game (0-23 to 0-16). We drew the previous year at Ennis and then you have to go back to ’05 for our previous meeting where Clare had their only ever league win in Thurles (1-16 to 0-15).

In a sense it’s a new look Clare side that will travel to Thurles on Sunday with Davy Fitzgerald exploiting underage success and, on recent evidence, doing quite a useful job. Together with Waterford they’ve been the form teams in the present league. Clare were utterly luckless to lose twice by a single point at Ennis. And we hardly need reminding of how they brushed aside our efforts in the Waterford Crystal final back in February.

It’s going to be a tough one – and a tense one given the huge prize on offer. The Clare side is young, skilful and speedy. Davy has cultivated this running style of combination play which tore us apart in the Crystal final and will again be a challenge on Sunday. Actually the Stadium suits their style.

So at the tail end of March the Tipp team and management face the first major examination of progress to date. Defeat and a relegation battle – most likely with either Galway or Cork – is not what we need. Hopefully the severe demands of the occasion bring out the best in the team.

Finally an eventful Congress at Derry introduced that black card to police the more cynical elements of Gaelic football. Thankfully hurling is decoupled from football for these new rules, though the division will be no help to referees, especially at club level. I can see this one causing major chaos next January.

I like the introduction of an advantage rule where a referee can now allow play continue for five seconds before calling back a foul where no advantage accrued. It’s sensible. Smart referees were always able to delay the whistle that split second but now they will have official sanction for a pause of up to five seconds.

Lastly haven’t things really changed in the GAA when ninety-three percent favour allowing Croke Park negotiate with the IRFU on the possible use of stadia for a rugby world cup. We’ve come a long way.