Tipperary's tightrope of uncertainty

What kind of game are Tipperary trying to prosecute, asks Enda McEvoy.

Tipperary's tightrope of uncertainty

By rights, in order to be fair to both the writer and the reader, this piece should not have been started until after the Tipperary XV for tomorrow was announced last night and, following a couple of hours for necessary cogitation and contemplation and parsing of the implications, finished and filed sometime after midnight. Bloody deadlines, eh?

By rights, in order to be fair to both the writer and the reader, the comparative pieces for the National League final and last Sunday’s encounter at the Gaelic Grounds should not have been started until after the Tipperary XV was announced on the Friday night and, following etc etc.

The league final opus your correspondent did at least manage to redeem, sort of. Saw the Tipp selection at around 9pm. Saw, in particular, a forward line packing all the threat of this season’s Swansea City equivalent. Rang the desk in a panic and pleaded tearfully with them to insert a new closing paragraph wondering if it was too late to change horses and opt for Kilkenny instead.

Last weekend, no such salvage job was possible. That wasn’t a championship team Tipperary announced. It was a cry for help.

The five debutants against a guaranteed-to-be bulled-up Limerick, and on Shannonside to boot? The bizarre midfield pairing, which looked guaranteed to last about as long as Donald Trump’s attention span? A forward line with that many stickmen and that few labourers?

Jason Forde, the star of springtime, mustered one score, despatched with a silken touch, from play. In the circumstances, of course he did. Forde is a certain kind of forward, but this was never going to be a day for too many of that same certain kind of forward to be deployed.

Five points from play last Sunday, two of them in the second half. Six points from play in the league final, one of them in the second half. It is shocking stuff on the part of a bunch for whom scores from out the field ought to constitute daily, nay hourly, bread.

We’ve spoken here before about the difference between strategy and tactics and how hurling folk get caught up on the latter when they really mean the former. Tipperary’s tactics in the league final and again last Sunday weren’t the issue. Their strategy, meaning among other things the logistics of how best to transfer the sliotar from one end of the field to a Forde or a John McGrath in space at the other end, was.

The lack of lucidity is glaring. What kind of game are they trying to prosecute? Does anyone know? Do they know themselves?

Waterford and Wexford, to take two obvious examples, know their gameplan; they may even know it so well that improvisation becomes an issue. Galway have their own method of extracting maximum value from their monster forwards and employing it without unnecessary ostentatiousness. Kilkenny have unveiled a new business plan and are similarly all on the same hymn sheet.

Cork’s approach is different again but suited to the forces at their disposal. And six days ago Limerick knew exactly what they were doing: all those short and medium-range passes to pick out the man in a position to do damage.

Limerick were well coached and consequently thought their way around the field with coolness and precision. Tipperary were not and didn’t. Those long balls out of defence? Grand, lads — if Cormac Bonnar was wearing the number 14. Were there a player of the past Tipp could do with right now it might be Liam Doyle of Bodyke from the Clare team of 20 years ago. Someone to add poise, tightness and tidiness on the half-back line and to help bridge the distance from defence to the half-forward line with lasered 40-metre passes.

More and more the 2016 All-Ireland final, where Tipp produced one of the two greatest September attacking displays in the history of the game, is coming to resemble a gorgeous one-off rather than the start of something.

It marked the perfect storm, a divine synthesis of Eamon O’Shea’s philosopher’s stone, his ideas and ideals still sluicing in the collective bloodstream of his former charges, and Michael Ryan’s drill-sergeant approach with its first-season freshness.

That afternoon the starlets of 2010 won a second MacCarthy Cup and entered their inheritance. One wonders if the window of opportunity for extending the boundaries of the kingdom ended the moment Joe Canning hit that

point last August.

For a man who is the most engaging of speakers, and a manager whose generosity in defeat could be fruitfully copied by some of his fellows, Michael Ryan’s misstep with the media was astounding. Avoid the microphones and dictaphones for four weeks? Not a word post-match till after the final match? Oh Lord. Feed the beast. Dispense a few platitudes. It isn’t difficult. This isn’t organ donorship. Although Ryan resiled smartly the episode compounded the notion of a management team off their game.

Ryan is occupying a seat in the Tipperary dressing room for an eighth season in the last 11. What is he saying that he hasn’t said 20 times before? What can he say that he hasn’t said 20 times before? Has he juggled with the prospect of spending another two years trying to find things to say he hasn’t said 20 times before?

Or take Padraic and Brendan Maher. Since 2009 they’ve appeared in six All-Ireland finals, winning two; eight All-Ireland semi-finals, winning five; five Munster finals, winning them all; and five league finals since 2009, losing them all. That’s a lot of battles done and a lot of national deciders unwon.

Kilkenny’s own coterie of Methusalehs, of whom Eoin Larkin was the last, kept coming back partly because success was a way of life and winning is the most entrancing of habits. Perhaps some wandering sports psychologist will tell us how much harder it is to be a rubber ball when the staple diet is not silverware.

Some other observations.

A Tipp attack of Forde, Callanan, O’Dwyer and the two McGraths. For a purist and his fever dreams it’s a shame such a construct will only ever weave filigree patterns in the imagination as opposed to on the field. The nutritionists being insistent on the grounds of a properly balanced, fibre-rich diet, it is not a surprise.

Seamus Kennedy. He survived last Sunday, not least because he was far less reckless than the Limerick Seamus, but everything about the Clonmel man suggests a type likely to fare better at centre-forward than on the edge of his own square.

The calls for Michael Breen at number three have intensified in volume, yet does Breen really possess the wariness and subtlety of the best full-backs?

Limerick’s late wides. They may yet end up allowing Tipperary emerge from the round robin on scoring difference.

The Tipp fans. They keep turning up and they keep being let down, in ever more depressing — yet simultaneously familiar — ways. It’s like that Julia Roberts film where she kept standing guys up at the altar.

The hurling world is seldom tempted into sympathy for Tipp fans. This may constitute one of those blue-moon occasions.

Tomorrow? Tipperary will need a sensibly chosen team. They’ll need a gameplan that entails short deliveries in the middle third and longer deliveries kicking up off the turf into the hands of the full-forward line.

And they’ll need a manager sufficiently comfortable with the requirements of the job to engage with the media afterwards.

None of these items is too much for their supporters to ask for.

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