Eimear Ryan: Two Spidermen meet in Croke Park, but what now for Tipperary's superheroes?

As a Tipperary fan, is it crazy to be feeling strangely positive after such a blow-hot-blow-cold year?
Eimear Ryan: Two Spidermen meet in Croke Park, but what now for Tipperary's superheroes?

John O'Dwyer of Tipperary, left, with team-mate Seamus Callanan at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

The one downside of the compressed championship is the relative lack of anticipation time. We are being spoiled with meaty match-ups week in, week out. Last year’s finalists face off on Saturday, but it will hardly be a rerun of last December. In fact, when I heard that Limerick and Waterford were drawn to play in the first semi-final, I thought immediately of the internet meme where two Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) are pointing at one another: two of a kind.

Waterford, with their youth, energy, belief and lack of baggage from yesteryear, are looking a lot like the Limerick of 2018. Limerick, of course, still have all the same attributes as their breakthrough team, only with more experience, composure, and a winning habit. With Kilkenny and Cork in Sunday’s semi, we’re guaranteed an All-Ireland pairing of one traditional county and one avant-garde.

To be fair to Waterford, they have of course done much more than just copy Limerick’s homework. Their agility this season, and their knack of turning setbacks into opportunities, has been very impressive. Liam Cahill’s ability to motivate seems unparalleled. Having lost not one but two excellent centre-backs to injury, the slotting in of Shane Bennett is the most inspired position-switch since Kyle Hayes went to wing-back.

After his incredible solo goal in the Munster final, Hayes will be hungry for more. There is an unmarkability to him: once he starts running, his horsepower is such that he’s impossible to stop. And then there’s his foal-like gangliness: any awkward tackle, any clip to his body seems to happen in slow motion, making him an excellent winner of frees, too. You can’t win with Kyle Hayes, you can only minimise his impact; how Waterford go about that will be crucial.

Looking back, Hayes’s Munster final goal was where the tide turned on Tipperary’s season. They’ve learned some tough lessons this year, chief among them the fact that what would have been plenty in years past is no longer enough. Tipp scored at least 30 points in each game, tucked away multiple goals in each, and still only won one out of three games. Unfortunately, their wides tallies were also substantial in each match, particularly in the second halves against both Limerick and Waterford. There are no prizes for chance creation, only conversion.

Liam Sheedy said as much in his post-match interview last Saturday. It’s hard to believe that he has already been in the post for three years. The fits and starts of the pandemic have meant that what should be a substantial managerial stint has gone in the blink of an eye. In reviewing his tenure, the biggest talking point will be his faith in the old guard, and whether he should have brought through more new players.

I’m thinking in particular of someone like Mark Kehoe, who must feel as if he’s been running in place since 2019. His impact and energy off the bench last Saturday were badly needed. One of his deftest touches was his short hurley pass to Noel McGrath in the 54th minute, who looked a bit too casual arcing towards goal when he could have put the head down and motored on. When he decided not to go for goal himself, his pass to the advancing Jason Forde needed to be inch-perfect, but wasn’t.

Then, on a weekend when Dessie Hutchinson and Shane Kingston gave masterclasses in ground hurling finishes, Callanan’s sweep-up went just wide. Any other day of the week, if you had McGrath, Forde and Callanan converging on goal, you’d put money on one of them to slot it away.

The same could be said for John McGrath, who came off the bench to find himself on the end of two goal chances. Traditionally a goal-poacher, the middle McGrath may not have been brimming with his usual confidence this year.

After receiving a loping handpass from Kehoe, he snatched a shot off his right-hand side in traffic and was blocked, instead of opening up on his left. His second opportunity had goal written all over it, starting with a trademark pop pass from his brother Noel. McGrath did well, weaving through bodies and finding space to swing, but Shaun O’Brien pulled off an incredible save to deflect it over for a point.

This passage of play summed up the match. Tipp were always chasing the game and it was a relief, in a way, that the penalty wasn’t decisive in the final scoreline: we’ve had our quota of refereeing controversies already this year. 

Still, it was a bit of a pity, if only because the defending from Tipp in that instance was exceptional, of the kind you’d want to demonstrate to kids: determined, precise, physical but not dirty, Barry Hogan brave off his line. Austin, to his credit, stayed on his feet; if he’d gone to ground, the referee’s thought process might have been more understandable.

And yet – as a Tipp fan, is it crazy to be feeling strangely positive after such a blow-hot-blow-cold year? Tipp kept working hard and didn’t panic even as their luck ran out. Though Callanan has slowed down, he remains dangerous, as his coolly-taken brace of goals demonstrates. Paudie looks stronger than ever, with Noel McGrath’s invention and quick thinking still badly needed. Brendan Maher was quiet last weekend, but has only seemed to get better with age. The squad is primed for a refresh, but there are still roles for the older guard.

Or maybe I’m just reluctant to let go of the glory days. It’s hard to imagine a hurling landscape without Joe Canning in it, but his announcement might ease the exit for other players of his vintage. It’s remarkable to think that Callanan, Canning, TJ Reid and Patrick Horgan – probably the greatest players of the modern era, the four hurlers of the apocalypse – all debuted in 2008. Of these, only Horgan lacks the shiniest of medals. No hurling fan would begrudge him; with the absence of Tipp in the final shakeup, I may even be rooting for him.

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