PM O'Sullivan.

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This squad can rewire what it means to be a Tipp hurler

Hurling’s last big day, even though a league day, colours summer’s start, writes PM O'Sullivan.

This squad can rewire what it means to be a Tipp hurler

So many years, the hue sits light and bleaches soon as first championship sliotar is thrown in. April is the hurling cynic’s month.

True, dismissal of league form’s significance eroded over the past two decades. There you have one facet, via Kilkenny dominance on two fronts, in which 20th century and 21st century hurling differ. But you can still hear a hard blitheness about vernal implications.

Last year, people instanced Clare’s fate. They won a replayed NHL Final against Waterford in thunderous style, last man standing following a storm of hurling.

End out? Championship defeat to Waterford and Galway, managerial exit for Davy Fitxgerald. Over and out, says yer cynic.

This time round, spring hues might keep vivid a spell longer, courtesy of 2017’s NHL Final.

That occasion was more blitzkrieg than thunderstorm, with Tipperary obliterated from get go. They finished wrong side of 16 points that could have been 26 points without another goal being scored.

Tomorrow afternoon returns Cork and Tipperary to a Munster quarter final. That sliotar is being thrown in. Yet the overwhelming nature of Galway’s showing drops a spotlight not easily dimmed.

A four or five point reverse could be construed, without much bother, as a salutary kick up the transom. Actual scale of loss? Getting on for psychic wound. That experience catapulted Tipp into an entirely different head space.

Overstatement? Not on notable reactions. Respected local columnist ‘Westside’ remarked: “Hitting such a low and being taken for a sixteen point margin was clearly beneath the dignity of All Ireland champions.” A week later, he worried the same bone: “The league final though was unbecoming for All Ireland champions.”

Pádraic Maher, their new captain, stated last week: “That was my fourth league final and I’ve lost them all now. It’s very disappointing. And it makes it twice as bad that we didn’t even put in any kind of a performance.”

For that contest, Tipperary arrived with a trumpeted new jersey and departed with a fresh set of longstanding doubts. They looked not so much ‘the new Kilkenny’, a phrase wearyingly ubiquitous in recent months, as the old Tipperary. Besides, why would Tipp, with such rightly proud traditions, ever want to be anyone other than themselves?

Tipperary hurling faces its most important season since 1989. The current squad own the possibility of rewiring what it means to be a Tipp hurler. To retain the Senior title over another five match campaign would go down as one of the game’s most brilliant achievements.

If their supporters’ pressure for successive titles is immense, the rewards of meeting this imperative are immeasurable. How often does a group of players land the opportunity to revise their county’s identity?

Most early season scorelines end up cold math, devoid of further significance. This time round, Cork’s management watched Galway offer a live template in guise of a frozen result. Among its many fascinations, this summer will be an exercise in hot mimicry, an attempt to parse Galway hints. Far more than The West got roused.

If nothing else, that afternoon underlined the utter dubiousness of seeking to counteract Premier fluidity in attack by extra defenders, extra midfielders. Denied bespoke clearances, their front eight fell back prey toallergies about dirty ball.

Granting current Tipperary defenders a free agent is like handing a gunslinger an automatic pistol. Are prospects of dodging bullets ever increased by multiplying the quantity of bullets in flight? Denied bespoke clearances, this attack was disarmed before it ever got started, assassins waiting on a quartermaster.

Galway made mucho stuff plain, including the macho stuff. Battle with terrific champions must be up close and personal, must be swung to a knife fight in attack, pirate against surprised deckhand.

Nub: Galway having cut a path, can Cork follow? There is no tickle of portents. Even pessimism seems in short supply throughout Rebel circles. Fatalism is the governing note.

Let us be blunt about the need for sharpness. How many lads for a knife fight, up front, do Cork possess? Not a lot, going by the last three seasons. Their front eights over this time consistently favoured craft over graft. Yes, always a first time for everything, with Dean Brosnan an augmentation in robustness, but there is a Godot factor with Cork in said regard.

Go other end for assessment. Last May, seven defenders proved insufficient unto the hour.

Cork were swamped, with William Egan so deep lying a sweeper as to end up a rerun of The Man From Atlantis, out of his depth in both elements. Offering Tipperary far too much respect in their heads, Cork allowed their backs far too much handy possession.

This May, can a mere six defenders quell Tipp’s attack? No great chance, on available evidence. A full back line of Stephen McDonnell, Damien Cahalane and Colm Spillane simply should not muster enough finesse to stymie a full forward line of John O’Dwyer, Séamus Callanan and John McGrath.

But… Hurling’s eternal but. Tipperary’s full back line pets its own yapping queries. Cathal Barrett, hurtling forward like David Campese in full flight, is a sight to behold. No stranger to impetuousness, Barrett sometimes defends like Campese too.

Last September, Colin Fennelly twice skipped around James Barry, prising goal chances, in the first half. Those moments got lost in the cavalcade of Tipp’s second half. Michael Cahill appears a gifted ballplayer entering sere phase as a defender (and is unlikely to be fit).

12 months ago, Michael Ryan could debut Michael Breen, Seán Curran, Séamus Kennedy and Dan McCormack. Similar momentum scarcely looks available. Talk has Curran partnering Brendan Maher at midfield and Alan Flynn a possible at corner back, which would tip back the scales.

Then you have Jason Forde’s suspension and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher’s hamstring strain. Mice have been at the Tipp cake.

Cork are certainly a work in process. Their pick presents plenty of young players but continues to lack leaders. Seasoned hands, such as Mark Ellis, Patrick Horgan, Stephen McDonnell and Anthony Nash, are getting on for the point at which Pa Cronin, Cian McCarthy and Shane O’Neill were jettisoned.

Unless Cork take 2017’s Senior title, they face their longest Senior famine since 1916. The vista is that unprepossessing, with last Minor title back in 2001 and last U21 title back in 1998. Is it not well time for someone to launch a Ciarán Fitzgerald type appeal to basic desire?

Tomorrow, Alan Cadogan will be dangerous on the points front. Shane Kingston in the corner on a half fit Cahill or a rookie might be a better chance of goals. Cadogan at full forward, releasing Séamus Harnedy for half forward duty, could be a nice gambit.

Equally, Cork can deploy Conor Lehane as a roving centre forward, keeping clearances on the beat out of central channels. Although well short of Joe Canning’s hurling intelligence, Lehane should cause trouble in this role. But you are still looking for Brosnan, Bill Cooper or Brian Lawton to have a day of days.

Horgan, if started, requires a change in mindset in guise of costume change, d’Artaganan turned Captain Blood. Elegance in hurling is bunk unless a lethal elegance.

Given recent travails, Tipperary will wish to make a statement as much to themselves as to direct opponents and waiting rivals. Psychic decks await a scrub. Attendant danger? Too much energy is expended, leaving them vulnerable to Waterford, taking Galway hints, in a Munster semi final.

Another day’s work. First things first lest first things burst. Tipperary still have plenty to conjure as regards progress. But the stain of that NHL Final will prove indelible until their Senior title is retained.

This time round, Tipp need to go all the way before old queries can fade away.

If you enjoyed this you'll love our latest GAA Show on Paper Talk!

  • Anthony Daly recalls the magic of a Munster championship childhood and looks ahead to the big game.
  • John Fogarty assesses all the weekend's matches.
  • We hear from Tipperary manager Michael Ryan on why the Premier have been hyped too much.
  • And Munster Council chairman Jerry O'Sullivan on the future of the provincial championships.

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