If the All-Ireland hurling championship was more like the Premier League (which, let’s face it, it increasingly is), and you could pick which team to follow rather than adhere to county boundaries, I like to think I’d still pick Tipp, says Eimear Ryan.
The peripheral elements of supporting Tipp are all top-notch: Great tradition, colours that look good together on a headband, gorgeous stadium, and arguably the country’s most succinct terrace chant (‘Tipp! Tipp! Tipp!’). As for the hurling itself, Tipp are an entertaining and curiously rewarding team to follow — even long periods of frustration have just enough flashes of brilliance scattered throughout to keep us enthralled.
We’re lucky, too, to have a smattering of success every so often to keep us going, but never so much that we lose the run of ourselves. Consistency is a work in progress.
What does remain consistent is the pre-championship chatter surrounding the Tipp camp, mainly focusing on the killer instinct — or more accurately, Tipp’s lack of same. The league final didn’t help. The grinding familiarity of losing to Kilkenny in a national final is impossible to spin into a positive, even for the most adept of managers — though of course Michael Ryan tried, emphasising that at least Tipp got to the final in the first place.
Getting to finals is great, but when you’ve met the same team in 10 finals in the last 10 years, and won just two of those, the picture darkens considerably. The players will be bothered that they couldn’t make their point in Nowlan Park. It’s only the league, one might say, but the symbolic power of that game was huge.
Brian Cody knew the psychological importance of not conceding that ground.
Oftentimes, conversations about the Tipp-Kilkenny psychodrama turn to talk of character and heart, words that I’d dearly love to ban outright from punditry. They’re moot, because any person that plays inter-county gaelic games to a high level has heaps of both.
They’re meaningless terms that managers deploy to both praise their lads and deflect closer scrutiny, and commentators use to romanticise dominance. They distract from the simple fact that winning is a habit; that winning begets more winning; that counties that don’t often win or don’t have a strong tradition have a bigger hill to climb, psychologically, every time they take the field. Think of it this way: The sensational Richie Leahy has been alive for 21 All-Ireland championships and Kilkenny have won more than half of those. What does that do to a hurler’s brain, to his expectations, his confidence?
As for Tipp, the spectre of Kilkenny — as well as the occasional euphoria of beating Kilkenny — is embedded in this team’s sense of self. The class of 2009 — Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher, Seamus Callanan, and Noel McGrath — are now the team’s key leaders. They cut their teeth at the height of this rivalry. If this Tipp team has a DNA, its double helixes are striped black and amber. To play Kilkenny in a league final and not only lose, but to not really perform, is the worst psychological preparation for this team imaginable.
Which is why I think the new format will do Tipp the world of good.
Entangled in a thorny new Munster set-up, the team can forge a new identity rather than defining itself against Kilkenny, as it has done out of necessity for the last decade. It used to be you could win an All-Ireland in four matches, and so reaching the final — and who you might meet there — was never far from players’ minds. I’m not saying the Munster Championship as it existed wasn’t important to Tipp, or that as a spectacle it wasn’t high-stakes and exciting. In 2015 in particular, winning Munster was a lifeline for Tipp.
But there have also been memorable years for Tipp — 2014 and 2010 spring to mind — when their involvement in Munster was minimal, having been knocked out in the first round. With the round-robin system, the new format is by definition more immersive.
No longer will the Munster championship be a straight line of one or two or three matches, a prelude to the All-Ireland series. It’ll be its own furious entity, an all-out brawl of five evenly matched teams from which only three can emerge. There is no lucky draw anymore. Arguably, the Munster champions of 2018 will have earned the title more than any previous winner.
And there’s no doubt that Tipp have the firepower to do it. Michael Ryan will have the happy problem of trying to accommodate both Jason Forde and Seamus Callanan in the inside forward line — or more to the point, to keep both supplied with enough ball to let them work their magic.
Using 30-plus players, Ryan experimented gleefully during the league, to the extent where none of us are quite sure who Tipp’s centre-back or even goalkeeper is. With injuries to Mickey Cahill and Donagh Maher, the backline starts to look downright shaky, although Alan Flynn at corner-back has been a solid addition.
The new format will favour deep panels and consistent excellence, something the mercurial Tipp are still working towards. Case in point: Tipp’s track record of playing Limerick in Limerick is not good, and Limerick were in fiery form in the latter stages of the league, even without their Na Piarsaigh players.
For Tipp, getting their campaign off to a winning start will be no easy task. But I think it will suit Tipp mentally to be preoccupied with their Munster neighbours for a while, to let old rivalries flare up again. Tipp fans expect a lot, because we know what they’re capable of at their best. At the very least, I expect we’ll be entertained.
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