Winter is here. Never mind that we’re only in the last week of May, that we haven’t even hit midsummer solstice yet; for Tipp and Waterford and Dublin and Laois and Westmeath fans, the long hurling hibernation until 2023 begins.
I’m a Tipp fan, so while the temptation to throw my hurleys out of the pram is fierce, I know that we can have no real complaints about our season. Sure, we were unlucky with injuries, but so were a lot of teams.
Sure, luck seemed to desert us at every juncture (the route taken by the sliotar after Noel McGrath hit the post from the penalty spot, invoking the dreaded six-point swing, being the most recent example of this), but again, that’s something all teams have to grapple with and overcome from time to time.
We knew to manage our expectations this season – big retirements, new manager, didn’t exactly set the world alight last year etc – and yet we always hoped. Though there were enough bright moments in every match to engender belief, Tipp never quite managed to put together a consistently strong performance across any of the four games.
The Limericks of the world can afford to fall asleep for twenty minutes and come back to win it; the teams looking to take Limerick’s crown don’t have this luxury.
There have been lots of back-to-the-drawing-board proposals like calls to appoint a director of hurling in the county, or to increase our number of games development administrators. Sensible suggestions, but so dependent on recruiting the right personnel, and unlikely to make much pitch impact for a number of years at least.
There are more pressing matters, the c-word being one of them. Across their four games, Tipp either battled well before fading in the final ten minutes (Waterford and Limerick) or were blitzed from early on by a fitter team (Clare and Cork). Conditioning doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s something for Tipp to be working on over their long winter.
As for us supporters, we have some thinking to do as well. Cycling to MacCurtain Street on Sunday morning for a bagel, I was struck by the steady stream of Cork jersey-clad youngsters walking in the direction of the train station. In Semple Stadium, Cork fans vastly outnumbered Tipp fans in our own backyard. I didn’t participate in a single Tipp-Tipp-Tipp chant this year, something I would very much like to remedy in 2023.
Cork looked so comfortable. They had time and space on the ball, starting forwards and subs alike hitting it over from all angles. Enjoyment oozed out of them. The monster talents of Kingston, Harnedy and Lehane all seem to be peaking at the same time, and will cause havoc in any backline if they continue in this vein. Meanwhile, Tipp were over-reliant on Morris, Forde and especially McGrath for scores.
Part of it is the pandemic, but 2019 seems like a long time ago – another country, almost. Brendan Maher, Pádraic Maher and Seamie Callanan were at their apex. John McGrath and Bubbles were on fire. Sometimes, like Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan, you see the last dance coming. And sometimes you only recognise it retroactively, when Cork – a great rival you once were able to go toe-to-toe with – wipes the dancefloor with you.
Colm Bonnar should stay for another year, if he wants it. After the tough year he’s had, no one could blame him if he wanted to be one-and-done, but personally I think he deserves another season where he’s not constantly on the backfoot.
Anyone would have struggled with the curveballs he was thrown this year, and another change in such rapid succession might only cause more unsettlement and unease. The only good thing about rock bottom, maybe, is that at least it’s a solid foundation to build on; the only way is up.
Of the championship’s early casualties, it’s Waterford and Dublin you’d feel for; Waterford who showed such sparkling promise this spring, and Dublin who were denied on score difference, watching a team they’d beaten leapfrog them in the table.
We’re not used to these Premier League permutations: simultaneous fixtures, mind games, juggling screens, doing maths in our heads. Maybe if we’d had it continuously since 2018 we would be used to it by now, but it still has the power to pull the rug from under us.
There were eerie correlations between Tipp and Waterford’s unhappy final games. There were similar tallies in the scorelines, with both teams conceding in the region of forty points (anyone who worried that Clare might have been too reliant on Tony Kelly got their answer last Sunday); and similar hard-ground injuries, with Tadhg de Búrca, Jamie Barron and Cathal Barrett all grinding to a halt.
Is it overtraining, lack of conditioning, or both? If Tipp didn’t peak at all, did Waterford peak too soon? Did Tipp lack spirit in Thurles or were they over-stretched and under-supported? Did Waterford give up the ghost in Ennis, or were they just exhausted?
In a time when Tipp hurling is asking tough questions of itself, so too is Liam Cahill, the once and future managerial king. Thank goodness for Darragh Egan’s Wexford, who’ve managed to embody both the ridiculous and the sublime so far in the championship. Here’s hoping they steady up for the qualifiers; I will be low-key rooting for them.
As Tipp fans, of course, we still have skin in the game. Our camogie team plays Dublin in the second round of the championship this Saturday, after a controversial draw with Clare in the Ragg last weekend.
Our minor hurlers are in a semi-final next month. Still, it will feel strange to watch the remainder of the senior hurling championship play out dispassionately; to simply enjoy the matches without the adrenaline rushes and heart palpitations that go hand in hand with your county’s involvement. Tough times, and a long winter looming.