Two games, two wins. For 4-58, Against 1-42. Average winning margin 12.5 points. Aggregate from play – inevitably the most interesting bit for experienced observers like us – 4-27 (2-24 against Cork, 2-23 against Waterford). Total number of wides: 20 (desirable – not so many that squandermania is an issue, not so few that their shooting isn’t open to improvement). Time of first wide against Waterford: 19th minute. Shall we get it over with and make it easy on everyone by just giving them the MacCarthy Cup now..?
One cannot think of anything more calculated to draw a shudder from our old friend, the man on the Clonmel omnibus, than those two paragraphs. Tipperary the All-Ireland champions in June. We have been here before. A reality check, then, is required and required sooner rather than later. Let’s look at the boxes to be ticked.
A fixture not in Semple Stadium or Páirc Uí Chaoimh but somewhere off-Broadway. Tricky opponents. Tight ground. Confined spaces. No room, because the opposition forwards will be clambering all over them, for the Maher brothers to fire their nuclear warheads. No room for Bubbles and the boys to swan around potting points from 60 metres. “Hmmm, Ennis looks ideal…”
It is too early to say with conviction that Tipp’s issues in goal and at full-back have been solved. It is not too early to say with conviction that last season’s overriding issue – the logistical part, the small matter of how best to work the ball out of defence and weight it to the benefit of the forward line – had been euthanised. On the evidence of their opening 140 minutes, Tipperary know and are comfortable with the kind of game they’re
attempting to prosecute.
They’re a better-organised team, as the return of Liam Sheedy all but guaranteed. They’re also a better coached team, as the return of Eamon O’Shea pretty much ensured too, with their manipulation of space a throwback to the 2010 All-Ireland final.
Of the nine points they landed from play a fortnight ago prior to Conor Gleeson’s dismissal – in other words, when the match was still a going concern – one emanated from broken play and another from a Waterford error. The other seven were self-made, four of them featuring a lacerating, near-undefendable diagonal ball to the corner. Only one of the nine was converted from closer to the enemy posts than the edge of the D.
Inference? Tipp intend to stand in the middle of the ring, jab away and win Munster and the All-Ireland on – yes – points. If and when they work the sliotar closer to goal, all well and good: enter John McGrath. But volleys of arrows from out the field will constitute their standard-issue weapon.
To the caveats. Even aside from Cork’s state of dishevelment and Waterford’s reduced numbers, their two outings to date were played on Tipperary’s terms. When matches are played on Tipp’s terms – for which read their forward line’s terms – there’s only one outcome.
When the opposition forwards wire into them? When the half-back line are clearing the ball under pressure, never mind not being allowed to chip in with four points from play, as was the case against Cork? When Patrick Maher – still important all these years down the line in that he remains the one Tipp forward who can turn on the afterburners, head into open ground, draw defenders and offload the ball – is surrounded or fails with his first touch? Do Brendan and Padraic Maher, magnificent as they’ve been, really need some lad a decade their junior running at or around them?
The visitors’ opening goal at Páirc Uí Chaoimh emanated from Seamus Callanan being allowed to saunter in untouched from the right. Gearoid Hegarty tried the same trick at the Gaelic Grounds but was coursed by both Mark Coleman and Robert Downey, who between them were happy to concede a free. There isn’t a defender in Munster who didn’t see, make the comparison and digest the lesson.
None of which is a big deal for Tipperary just yet. Should they fetch up at Croke Park in mid-August, admittedly, it will be a surprise if they do so with the same XV that started against Cork. Yet Sheedy isn’t really trying to win the 2019 All Ireland with the 2016 team. What he’s doing is setting out on the road with the 2016 team, getting the points on the board and a berth in the business end of the championship secured.
As much out of pragmatism as loyalty, one suspects, he’s also giving the old stagers sufficient rope to do what they will with it. So far they’ve fashioned it into all manner of interesting shapes as opposed to hanging themselves.
A result tomorrow and he can shake things up for the Limerick game. Take a look at some of the young lads and in the process remind the old lads that possession of the jersey is not nine tenths of the law.
Last year’s restructuring has made the championship a true two-circuit race. Some teams will have another gear to reach for after the provincial hostilities. Some teams will not. Three in the former category this season are Kilkenny, who have regulars to return; Galway, who have Joe Canning to return providing they make it out of Leinster in the first place, a task that no longer looks the gimme it did a month ago; and Tipperary.
Narrow win. Narrow defeat. Draw. Whichever. Anything to keep the blood pressure of the man on the Clonmel omnibus stable for the next couple of weeks.
It is reasonable to expect the All-Ireland winners to put their best foot forward in their first outing in the following championship. See Wexford in 1997, Clare in ’98, Tipperary in 2002 and Cody’s Kilkenny nearly every year bar 2004, the paucity of the challenge the latter generally faced in Leinster serving to sharpen their focus rather than inciting it to waver and have them get sloppy on the job.
It was reasonable by the same token to expect Limerick to put their best foot forward at the Gaelic Grounds a fortnight ago. That they didn’t constituted a small black mark against John Kiely and Paul Kinnerk – but only a small one, and one likely to be washed away over the coming months, as Limerick’s no-show in Cusack Park last June was erased in the weeks that followed.
Too long in the refrigerator since the National League final? Too successful a campaign in that competition? An element of the non-alcoholic champagne of the past ten months understandably, for all that they tried to guard against it, going to their heads? Each of these and more, with the most pertinent cause of their defeat harking back to a Seamus Flanagan comment in the spring.
Because Limerick didn’t have an arcane game-plan, Flanagan declared, and because what you saw was what you got, they wouldn’t be beaten by a team that didn’t succeed in outworking them. It was a perfectly valid assertion and it turned out to be perfectly accurate. Cork succeeded in outworking them and therefore beat them.
One can say with hindsight that Waterford, amid the hype surrounding the return to home base, fell into the trap of playing the occasion rather than Clare. A late flurry that day and a manful third quarter against Tipperary do not add up to much of a return thus far, however. And many of their old hands can do better than they did at Semple Stadium and must do so.
Tomorrow in Walsh Park is unlikely to be lovely. Emerge with a scrappy victory and Limerick will be entitled to be extremely happy.