Michael Breen is a symbol of Tipperary’s new hardness, writes Anthony Daly.
I watched the first half of yesterday’s Munster senior final in a haze. I spent about 15 minutes wondering what had happened to us, Limerick, in the minor final that we lost by 17 points. By half-time, the rest of the Limerick minor management and players left the Gaelic Grounds to get food. I turned around and noticed myself sitting alone amongst six rows of empty seats. It summed up my afternoon. At least I know exactly how Derek McGrath felt.
A few minutes later, John Sheedy, Liam’s brother, and Liam Cahill, the Tipp minor manager, came back and sat down beside me for a chat. “Jeez, we didn’t see that coming, Dalo, no more than you did,” John said to me. We didn’t. I’m sure Derek and the Waterford players didn’t either but the Tipperary beast is the type of animal that when it smells blood and senses the kill, they ravage you like a demented brute.
I’ve witnessed it first hand on numerous occasions. On page 73 of yesterday’s match programme, there was a photograph of John Leahy turning away in celebration after his goal in the 1993 Munster final, and me in my number 3 blue Clare jersey despondent behind him. We went into that Munster final full of hope and expectation before being slaughtered and sacrificed at Tipp’s altar.
We didn’t have a backdoor afterwards. We had to wait another 12 months for a shot at redemption but at least Waterford have a chance now in two weeks time to flush those toxins out of their system. After their impressive win on Saturday, Wexford will see a wounded Waterford as vulnerable to another kill, which increases the challenge ahead of Derek and his players.
What do Waterford do now? Do they stick to their system or change it up and go more offensive? I’m sure they will stay with what they know best. When they abandoned their sweeper system midway through the second half yesterday, Tipp cut them to pieces. Their template is to hang in there and see if they can take the match to the wire against the top teams. In any case, are they strong enough to set up more orthodox?
That is the conundrum Waterford repeatedly face when they take on the big boys. When they don’t have that incisive goal threat like Kilkenny and Tipp. Waterford need to nail about 80% of their chances to give themselves the platform they need in the match to fully execute their gameplan, and give themselves the breathing space it needs for them to stay alive.
When they cripple themselves with the amount of wides they had yesterday, the oxygen is just ripped out of their lungs. When a team with Tipp’s firepower starts hammering them with a barrage of scores, the flatline soon appears on the machine.
The more disconcerting aspect of the defeat for Waterford was how easily Tipp dismantled their defensive ramparts. Michael Breen broke through those defensive lines like a demolition rugby back repeatedly smashing through the gain-line. Breen flattened one of the Waterford fellas near the end like a crushing machine mangles an old car. Some people are already talking about the potential clash between himself and Mick Fennelly in an All-Ireland final because Breen looks like one of the few players in the country who could run into that wall, and have a chance of knocking a few bricks off it.
Breen is a symbol of Tipp’s new hardness but this was a serious statement from them. I fancied Waterford based on their league form, and their victory against Clare, but I’ve felt all year too that there has been something really different about Tipp this season. There is a desperate steel about them. Padraic Maher was immense, just swatting fellas aside like flies. He looks in fantastic physical shape but so do all the Tipp lads.
They just strangled Waterford all over the field. Waterford started well. There was a real energy and buzz to their play. Kevin Moran jumped three feet off the ground at one stage to catch a ball. Dan Shanahan nearly jumped as high on the sideline in simulation.
You were wondering if Waterford were finally going to take their game to new heights but Tipp weren’t long in cutting them back down to size.
Apart from the league quarter-final against Clare, Tipp have shown this season how to go about beating teams setting up with a sweeper. They mix up the play well but they have no problem running at defences and taking on their men. And when a half-chance of a goal presents itself, Tipp just go for the jugular.
John McGrath was brilliant, but he has been threatening to explode since that Clare game. Scoring three goals, and setting up another, is some achievement in your first Munster final but he was always looking to bore holes in this Waterford defence with his running game.
Conceding five goals is a huge psychological blow to any team but you’d feel it will leave an even bigger ridge of psychological scar tissue on this Waterford team, given that their whole philosophy is largely based on not conceding goals. Being hard to beat forms a large part of their identity but shipping so many green flags is bound to raise doubts. It will also make it harder to pick up the pieces in just two weeks. Even if Waterford do get over Wexford, Kilkenny are coming down the tracks two weeks after that. Can Waterford sort out all those issues, both on the field and in their heads, within a month? You’d imagine there will be a backlash but they have to summon that kind of performance from deep within their gut now.
On the evidence of the last two weekends, a Tipp-Kilkenny final is already forming in the mind’s eye, unless Clare can muscle their way into that picture. They will have it all to do against Galway in two weeks time but I also think Clare are simmering nicely to the boil. If they had been more accurate on Saturday evening, it would have been a very comfortable win.
Limerick will have been very disappointed with their performance, and so will Cork. The Rebels are just that in name now because there was no defiance about them. Once again, they had no leaders. They had no man like Lee Chin, who just grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and took control.
Even when Cork got the goal at what looked like the right time, they couldn’t seize the initiative and drive it on and win the game. Kieran Kingston must be scratching his head and wondering what to do next.
Deep down though, he surely knows, and he has already begun that process. Kieran brought on his own young lad, Shane, in the last two games. Mark Coleman, another talented young player just out of minor from last year, was also introduced. Cork only have a shallow pool of talent but those young lads are the future.
In the meantime though, this journey will be a long road, and one paved with lots of pain.
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