It’s a common trope in any cat-and- mouse thriller or police procedural, writes Eimear Ryan.
To get into the mind of the person he’s pursuing, the detective must get in touch with his own dark side. As Denzel Washington’s cynical cop tells Ethan Hawke’s newbie officer in Training Day: ‘It takes a wolf to catch a wolf.’
Swap out the wolves for cats and you have Tipperary’s dilemma. For the better part of the last decade, they’ve been pursuing Kilkenny: almost catching them in 2009 and 2014, apprehending them in 2010 and 2016, but otherwise chasing their tails.
When Eamon O’Shea’s expressive blue-sky hurling came up short, Michael Ryan introduced a tougher, harder style of play, one that resembled Kilkenny’s famous brand of playing on the edge: ruthless, physical, clinical and smart. In order to beat Kilkenny, it turned out, Tipp had to become like them.
This was apparent in the league semi-final, when Tipp bullied and intimidated Wexford – themselves a physically robust team – to the extent that they managed to sneak a goal in the 18th minute that should by rights have been a free out.
There was a freewheeling arrogance to Tipp that day, a certainty that victory was at hand, so they might as well have some fun while they’re at it. This attitude did them no favours against Galway.
The league final showed categorically that this Tipperary team is not, contrary to certain media reports, the second coming of the great Kilkenny team of the 2000s. Tipp seemed to sleepwalk into it. To be so utterly outmuscled and out-hurled by Galway was shocking, not because Galway aren’t a formidable team – they are – but because Tipp were so complacent.
I don’t doubt that they prepared seriously for the game, but when you’re riding a wave of success, it’s all too easy to believe the voices in your head that it’ll all be grand.
I watched the game in a sort of cheerful denial. It’s okay, I told myself. They’ll turn it up a notch about halfway through the second half. That’s the pattern that Tipp have followed in tight games of late; a nervy first half with plenty of wides, followed by a more exploratory second half where the forwards tease out fissures in the opposition’s defence. (Case in point: Bubbles’ knife-edge goal against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland final, which turned the game in Tipp’s favour.)
But this time, the kick never came. It was Galway who made the second half their happy hunting ground, banging in three goals that killed off any bit of a gallop that Tipp managed to rise. Galway had done their homework. They latched onto the majority of breaking ball.
They dragged out Pádraic and Ronan Maher and lofted in ball over their heads. Tipp’s corner- backs, usually so forceful and solid, looked hapless.
The half-forwards weren’t winning their own ball, missing Bonner Maher badly; his introduction in the 46th minute was impactful but perhaps too late.
The Tipp players’ frustration and dejection was clear in their body language. The game was slipping away from them and they had no response. The 16-point margin at the final whistle wasn’t as concerning as the fact that Tipp had only a paltry five points at the break.
For a team that prides itself on regularly getting all six forwards on the board, surely that’s one of their lowest half-time tallies in recent memory.
Though the hangover of the league final has barely dissipated, it’s safe to say that Tipp’s scoring won’t be so poor. Hopefully, Tipp v. Cork will be an altogether more open game, on a par with the shootout thriller that was their last meeting in Páirc Uí Rinn. Cork showed impressive patience and composure that day, refusing to be daunted when Seamus Callanan’s injury-time goal suggested that the tide was turning Tipp’s way.
That they closed out the win without Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston shows that there’s more depth in the panel than they’re given credit for. They should be full of confidence knowing they can edge out Tipp in a testing encounter and as a panel in progress, will have the psychological advantage of being an unknown quantity.
Tipp’s character will be under scrutiny todat. How they handle the seeds of doubt planted in the league final, and how they respond when things don’t go their way, will be very telling.
In a best case scenario for Tipp, the Galway game was the bucket of ice water they needed to recalibrate for the championship.
As many commentators have noted, the fact that it was a proper hiding as opposed to a narrow defeat might do them no harm; there can be no easy explanations. They will be forced to look hard at the weaknesses in their game, and reflect on how their strengths were so easily short-circuited by Galway.
Having been rightly criticised by pundits and fans alike, they’ll be smarting. Maybe it’s the best thing that could have happened to Tipp at this juncture.
Tipp doesn’t need to be the new Kilkenny. The sport doesn’t particularly need a new Kilkenny. The narrative of the New Kilkenny is, in fact, probably only going to serve to annoy and galvanise the Actual Kilkenny, who won’t take kindly to media hype about who’s going to take their place and emulate their achievement.
What Tipp need to do to prove themselves as a great team in their own right is to string more titles together. Three Munster titles would be great. Back-to- back All-Irelands – which they haven’t achieved since 1965 – would be better.
And if a young, hungry Cork side manages to force Tipp through the back door, this optimistic and slightly superstitious Tipp fan won’t panic. It didn’t do us much harm in 2010.
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