The big games are starting to come thick and fast for Tipperary’s hurlers. Their last competitive assignment was the National League Final against Kilkenny a month ago and the serious business of the season is now looming into view with a trip to the Gaelic Grounds to face Limerick in Sunday’s championship opener.
This Munster semi-final is a repeat of last year’s provincial quarter-final played at Semple Stadium. Tipperary won by 2-20 to 1-19 on a day when a late Brian O’Meara goal helped them recover from a seven-point deficit midway through the second half to win by four points.
The Limerick performance on that occasion was spirited and despite an indifferent league campaign that culminated in a one-point defeat by Dublin in the Division 1B Final nothing less will be expected of them this weekend.
John Allen’s side will also be pinning their hopes on making maximum use of home advantage, although Tipp gained a slight psychological edge with victory in last week’s Munster U-21 Championship tie between the counties.
Tipp’s season got off to the worst possible start with a heavy defeat by Cork in their opening National League game. However they’ve improved steadily since then and that improvement was sufficient to take them to a League Final, where they lost to Kilkenny by 3 points.
Despite the defeat, manager Eamon O’Shea was pleased with the performance of a team that many view as a work in progress; victory in that game played in Nowlan Park might well have raised expectations to an unreasonable level.
The panel appears in good shape in O’Shea’s first season in charge, after he was appointed to replace Declan Ryan at the end of last year.
To be fair to Ryan it shouldn’t be forgotten that he guided the county to back-to-back Munster championship successes, although it’s a reflection of how far the provincial championships have slipped down hurling’s pecking order that his reign will be most remembered for its disastrous climax.
His two-year tenure ended with the hammering by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, a match that will be recalled as much for that strange sight of Lar Corbett, Pa Bourke, Tommy Walsh and Jackie Tyrrell trotting around in a ridiculous sideshow as the 18-points margin that eventually separated the teams.
The nature of the defeat, which bordered on humilation, and failure to regain the McCarthy Cup meant there could only be one outcome for the management.
In the search for a new leader the county turned to someone who was pivotal to their last All-Ireland success in 2010 and it’s been a case of so far so good for Eamon O’Shea and his team. While the real examination of the squad’s well-being only begins on Sunday, there seems a better connection between players and management this season than there had been for the previous two years.
The league final highlighted a familiar weakness of Tipp teams in recent years – the failure of the half forward line to win sufficient possession.
Of the line that started against Kilkenny, Lar Corbett will almost certainly be missing as his broken ribs continue to heal. In recent challenges against Waterford and Galway Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher, James Woodlock, Pa Bourke, John O’Brien and Drom’s Johnny Ryan (who caught the eye against Waterford) have all been given a run as half-forwards. Seamus Callanan, Noel McGrath and even captain Shane McGrath could also come into the reckoning to figure in that problematic area.
While that’s an area of the pitch that’s still causing concern the emergence of Jason Forde, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Tomas Hamill has increased the overall options available to Eamon O’Shea.
The defence could be in for a testing time on Sunday too, with O’Shea having poinpointed Limerick’s strength in attack where Kevin Downes, Graeme Mulcahy, Shane Dowling and Declan Hannon are players of considerable talent.
Kieran Bergin was a surprise starter at wing back in the League final and the Killenaule man could have done enough that day to retain his position. The return of the injured Paddy Stapleton means that Eamon O’Shea will have a tough task to select the six players in front of the goalkeeper, where Brendan Cummins’ experience could see him get the nod over Darren Gleeson.
Victory will guarantee the winners a straight passage to the Munster Final on July 14th, where they’ll meet the winners of the Cork/Clare semi-final, which goes ahead on June 23.
Tipp have lost just two of their last fourteen championship matches, both to Kilkenny. They’re regarded as a 7/2-on chance to extend that impressive sequence on Sunday, with Limerick at odds of 3/1 to pull off a surprise win, while the draw is available at 12/1.
It won’t be easy but Tipp appear to have the greater resources to confirm their favouritism. Limerick won’t lack for honest endeavour, yet another season spent in the league’s lower tier is hardly the ideal preparation for the rough and tumble of the championship against a side that’s aiming to maintain its gradual improvement.
The Munster championship got off to a subdued start last weekend with Clare’s win over Waterford. Tipp and Limerick supporters, as well as neutral followers, will be hoping that it slips into a higher gear on Sunday afternoon.