During the closing stages of Tipperary’s three-point triumph over Clare in the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final, the Premier were struggling to shrug the Banner off their coat-tails, writes Peter McNamara.
Yet, at the same time, Michael Ryan’s side hardly looked in real danger of coughing up their advantage on the scoreboard.
Invariably, Tipp kept Clare at arm’s length for long enough to secure a place against Galway in the last four of the All-Ireland series.
The manner of which Ryan’s men held off their opponents despite operating in third gear is illustrative of how mature a group they have evolved into presently.
It is a level of maturity and experience that the Premier will need to call upon again on Sunday at headquarters against a Galway outfit that scalded them in the Allianz NHL Division 1 final.
Captain Pádraic Maher acknowledged such maturity is a commodity they lacked previously when under the cosh.
“Clare got six in-a-row on us and anyone would think that they were going to pull away, but, in fairness to the lads, there is massive belief there and that comes from experience over the last number of years and it was great to be able to draw on it,” Maher explained. “Maybe there were times when we could have folded a couple of years ago, but I think the belief within the group is massive.
“We gave them an opportunity to get back in the game, which they took, but you would have to take the positives out of it in that we finished the match very strongly. There’s massive belief there.”
Tipp have been, at times, underwhelming by their potentially exalted standards en route to the last four of the championship.
However, their performances were, to a point, irrelevant to the Thurles Sarsfields’ man who suggested they were in ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ territory in terms of the winning margins they posted against weaker opposition.
“Against Westmeath I don’t think it would have mattered what we did - if we won by 25 points or by five points we were going to be questioned.
“It was the same way with the Dublin game - we beat them by 20 and we were still being questioned.
“So, it was good to come up against a team (Clare) where people did not know what was going to happen. We came out on the right side of the result. It took a bit of hard work and we made hard work of it for a finish, but I think the belief in the group is unreal and it showed there. But we know that we have to come up a level for the next day.”
The Tribesmen had 16 points to spare in that aforementioned league decider last April in the Gaelic Grounds.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher did not start that day for Tipp while their primary hitman, Séamus Callanan was unavailable following a hand injury suffered in the semi-final against Wexford.
How significant will their availability be for the Premier on this occasion? It could be pivotal, as it happens.
Pádraic Maher, though, knew what was coming after that game, criticism was bound to be plentiful.
“We were always going to be criticised after a result like that. We were well beaten.
“You’re going to have to take it on the chin and move on. I think slowly, but surely we are proving that we are not all that bad and are getting back to where we want to be.
“We’re by no means at that level, but we’re very close. Once we get the work-rate right and we get the tackle-count right we feel our hurling will finish the job.
“We want to prove that we’re not as poor as we were that day. It’s going to be a massive game for us and the thing about it is that you have to have massive motivation going into game like this because the last two years have shown that there is nothing between Tipp and Galway when it comes to the championship.
“You have to have your head screwed on and everyone has to be mentally right because if you’re not you’re going to get caught.
“Galway showed in the league final that if we’re not on song what they can do to us. They played very well in the league final, but we have to hold our hands up and say we were a no-show on the same day.
“We know we have plenty to work on ourselves before we can worry about Galway.
“Definitely, they are a way more rounded team this year than they were the last couple of years. They can hurt you in so many areas and seem to be working very hard for one another. So, we’ll have to match that all day long on Sunday,” Maher stated.
Galway are in the unusual position of heading into an All-Ireland semi-final as favourites to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup.
However, as was stated in this column months ago, were the sides to meet in the championship the thought-process would be that Tipp would emerge as victors.
And despite the fact both counties have taken different paths to this juncture, that ideology remains intact.
While watching Tipp against Clare, you always felt they, realistically, had two more gears if so required.
They will definitely have to perform in fifth gear for sustained periods on Sunday, but they are capable of that and are put forward as the side to be first through to the September showpiece.
Maybe the reasoning behind that is in the reality that the westerners are not to be trusted to win an All-Ireland just yet.
And, in light of subsequent results, you really have to ask yourself, have Micheál Donoghue’s team even been really tested yet?
Then again, Galway would argue that takes us back to the argument Maher made about Tipp that no matter who you beat, sometimes you just can’t win.
Still, even though Galway are an improved unit, Tipp can advance.