Resilience is a word that is often used in relation to Kilkenny under Brian Cody.
After yesterday’s heroics, it is now a label that can also be easily attached to Tipperary under Liam Sheedy.
This All-Ireland semi-final was nicely poised 10 minutes after half time when Tipp’s John McGrath — already on a yellow card — made a rash strike on Kevin Foley and was sent off.
Down to 14 men and down five points in a matter of minutes when Lee Chin ran a great line down the middle to crack in a terrific goal, it looked very grave for the Premier County. However, after that 48th-minute strike, Tipp hit 12 points. Wexford would only manage 1-2 in almost half an hour.
The game became very unstructured during that period, with no set positions.
Tipperary upped their workrate and showed great application as the game came down to heart, hunger, and determination.
Their character was questioned after their poor Munster final performance against Limerick. Those questions were answered emphatically yesterday.
Comebacks always start with defence. In the last 15 minutes, Tipp’s defensive unit, with Ronan Maher to the fore, were solid, defiant, and heroic.
It was as if Wexford had mentally decided that they were going to win after Chin’s goal, and instead of kicking on they went 10 minutes without a score. Tipp struck over five unanswered points in that period and ultimately these scores ensured they hung in at a time when Wexford should have been stretching their legs for home.
The last 15 minutes of a game always calls for coolness. From the time Conor MacDonald scored his second goal to push them three points clear, on 60 minutes, Wexford needed to use every possession wisely to frustrate their opponents.
MacDonald fielded a high ball forward just after his goal. He had two colleagues available for offloads that would have created a great goal chance to kill off Tipp’s comeback.
Instead, he elected to strike over his shoulder, always a low-percentage shot, and it tailed wide. This was the turning point in the game.
When you get a big score and attack again immediately, recycling possession to a team-mate in a better position is key.
A further score for Wexford, even a point, at that stage could have rocked their opponents.
Throughout the game, Tipperary struggled to cope with Wexford’s overlapping from the back through midfield.
As they had an extra man, Wexford ’keeper Mark Fanning would have been better advised to pick out the free man and for him to run the ball through the lines, as they had done to set up their third goal. Instead, Fanning went long, with the majority of his re-starts dropping down near the Tipp 20m line.
The Tipperary rearguard dug in, won almost all the possession, and then had acres of green in front of them to pick out colleagues and to counterattack.
These counterattacks set up point opportunities which won the game for Tipperary.
This is now a 75-minute, 20-man game. In the final analysis, Liam Sheedy’s defensive decisions pre-match were important. Seamus Kennedy began the game in place of James Barry.
Kennedy’s pace and athleticism, as well as Barry Heffernan’s, allied to the other experienced defenders, helped enormously to batten down the hatches and stymie Wexford’s movement up front, particularly in the final 15 minutes.
But it was Sheedy’s introductions from the bench that made the crucial difference as the game hung in the balance. Ger Browne, Mark Kehoe, and Willie Connors all scored vital points.
They added pace and freshness around the middle and Connors took up good positions for outlet ball from his defence to set up the aforementioned counterattacks.
This gave Tipp a grip in the middle third that they refused to relinquish, while they had great leadership throughout from Seamie Callahan and Noel Mc Grath.
John ‘Bubbles’ Dwyer made a telling contribution to his county’s cause, in the second half particularly.
Jake Morris replaced him for the final 10 minutes. He slotted over a beauty, and his pace and energy troubled the Wexford defence.
Wexford’s bench failed to provide a much-needed spark.
To their credit, Wexford made a massive contribution to a great game, but when they review this epic match, they will rue the goal chances they spurned.