PM O'SULLIVAN: With Cork pigeons flying, Tipperary hurled with the monumental simplicity of fear

A story endures about Tipperary and Cork in the 1909 Munster Final.

Hurling well, Cork led by 1-6 to 1-2 at halftime and seemed set for progress. Four points was a considerable lead in the early 20th century. Their supporters let off pigeons from Tipperary Town, winging home glad tidings.

Some things never change, come whatever surface alterations. The principle of Twitter and texting is nothing new. Excitement, anticipation and presumption comprise an old cocktail.

Tom Semple, captain on the day, clocked the pigeons and swooped, exhorting his players: “There they go; Cork think it is all over.”

Even if further behind at 2-6 to 1-2, Tipperary mustered an extraordinary final quarter, triumphant on foot of 1-8 without reply. They would not be presumed.

The Tipp tradition got tempered in the crucible of those afternoons. More than a century later, those contests still shine because the tradition, as per last Sunday afternoon, still insists, still exhorts.

Last Sunday at halftime, Tipp supporters were letting off distress signals on social media. The Sunday Game Live studio had Ger Loughnane sat plucking a shot albatross, that omen of death. There was, Loughnane claimed, no way back.

Tipperary of 2018 held otherwise in Tom Semple’s Field. Their stirring second-half performance could be reckoned more impressive even than the second half produced in the Senior Finals of 2010 and 2016.

Scoff not and consider the context, which was effectively do or die. Nine points down, Tipp knew a loss would leave them goosed, championship chance gone, May not finished.

Where would they be going, looking at Loughnane and his albatross? Where would they be going for several seasons?

Last Sunday, Tipperary hurled with the monumental simplicity of fear. The current set up was fighting for the life that is dignity.

There are times, due to supporters’ carry on, when the magnificence of the Tipp contribution gets obscured. Not last weekend. So much of 21st-century hurling, the kind that pleases knee-jerk punditry, harks to nouvelle cuisine, to much ado about scarcely anything.

Tipperary hurling, at its best, is momentum hurling. Last Sunday, Tipperary reinstated the sovereignty of appetite.

Coaches will feast on the spectacle. Wishing to underline hurling’s core values, they need only sit down a panel of players, club U14 to Senior intercounty, and set them watching a tale of two halves.

Achieving a draw from such a deficit, without sweeping rejigs in personnel or tactics, bares many truths.

First half, the Tipperary front eight made the Cork back eight look like lethal shadows, untouchable figures putting the game to shade. Cork’s ball carriers exploited deadly rations of space granted by opposition listlessness.

Second half, the Tipperary front eight hewed wood and carried water and hounded opponents.

The Cork back eight found hands of clay, as per Mark Ellis’ spill of possession before Noel McGrath’s goal. Stephen McDonnell’s absence has not eliminated the bomb scare factor in Cork’s defence. Rebel feet, at the back, are typically much faster than Rebel hands.

Bare truth, any area: closing down space closes down pace. Ball handlers, standing still in middle third to receive possession from pressured defenders, find it much harder to become ball carriers.

Here is why I italicized the importance of Tipp confidence levels before the Limerick game. True confidence, which is focus squared, so often means true application.

Anthony Nash of Cork in action against John O’Dwyer of Tipperary during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 2 match between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Tipperary. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile.

For Tipperary, all is changed, that albatross back in the sky. A point gained means their summer regains a compass. Beat Waterford on Sunday and control returns. Victory over Clare the following weekend in Thurles would guarantee third place in Munster at worst.

Can there be strong doubts about Tipperary beating Waterford? Hard to make a case. Waterford’s travails with injuries, absentees and a suspension are extensively documented.

They appear a husked team, below half strength and more. This weekend, Waterford would need a laggard Tipperary, heedless of last weekend’s truths.

Seeing a county perfectly competitive in last September’s All Ireland Final slump so far is dispiriting. Everyone should have a thought for Derek McGrath as Waterford’s manager. He has spent his entire life, mostly to fine effect, working in hurling.

His regime tapering off in such fashion is nothing to be desired. While I am not an admirer of defensively orientated play, McGrath’s commitment and dignity, over and above individual results, should be emphasized. He is a total hurling person.

Yet is not a broader moral, for all that injuries cannot be gainsaid, unignorable? So much in life and in sport, for keeping going, depends on economy.

You cannot drive a car at an average speed of 100 miles an hour and expect it to remain in the same nick as one driven at 60 miles an hour.

Hurling without economy, over time, does the same to a team’s prospects as bookmakers, over time, do to a punter’s prospects. Percentage bets hold sway. These last seasons, even with their advances, Waterford largely hurled without economy.

They won an NHL title and could have won an All Ireland. McGrath accurately characterizes this achievement, within the grooves of Déise tradition, as no pinched feat. But the gods of hurling, avid for economy, are mean masters.

Cork host Limerick on Saturday evening in one of those encounters where format might trump form. Showing soundly on the whole, Cork will nevertheless be out three weeks on the trot.

Any team would find this schedule a challenge. But a team whose main strength is quickness, a team competing a mere six days after tumult with Tipperary?

Limerick are further advantaged by a week’s rest. Their management will seek to push the lesson of Tipperary’s second half for 70 minutes. Cork’s back eight, sufficiently pressurized, can become silky thread without the requisite needle.

Limerick’s management will likewise batten on Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh’s staunching job on Mark Coleman in 2017’s All Ireland semi-final.

Cork’s most impressive operator, Coleman had been flying, suturing defence and attack. Walsh’s marking job snipped his impact. Limerick might deem Ger Hegarty another scissors.

Up the other end, Declan Hannon on Conor Lehane is another asterisk. Lehane plays as a false 11, a centre-forward who roves, picking up ball in unusual areas. Running at opposition halfbacks, so armed offers a potent weapon.

If Lehane were less selfish, he would make a goal a game. Still, he does possess real pace, moderating selfishness, and a keen eye for a point (if his first effort goes over).

Going with a false 11 requires his team not to strike on the beat up central channels to a holding centre back.

This factor dictates composure and cleverness. If successful, the gambit poses a difficult question. If the centre-forward consistently gets on ball, assembling scores, can the centre back continue to sit?

This nub is the rub. If centre-back follows roving centre-forward, space accrues through the middle, with the full-back line left swinging in a breezy corridor. Precisely this scenario ensued in 2016’s Senior Final when Kieran Joyce followed the roving Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher.

Although Kilkenny’s full-back line were blamed for concession of 2-29, that macro decision, allied to meltdown at half forward, threw open the fatal corridor.

That lesson remains clear. Pilgrim centre-forwards thrive when their half-back line is dominant. Reverse the logic, so. A spoke in that line’s wheel impacts on travels further afield.

Tomorrow evening, Ger Hegarty, Kyle Hayes and Tom Morrissey will strive to shore up Declan Hannon’s position. This trio will gun for their centre back’s ability to sit and strike balls direct to full forward.

If they succeed in significant part, Limerick gain every chance. As Tipperary, once kissed by momentum, demonstrated, Cork struggle once forced to clear on the beat.

Over in Leinster, the sole element barer than the surface of Pearse Stadium, Salthill ended up people’s sense of Kilkenny’s situation. Many illusions, without Galway nearing their best, were scattered. As of now, Kilkenny are a fair way off All Ireland pace.

This assessment is not news to natives. Supporters are pleased with progress but realize this new combination remains a work of several seasons’ duration. Galway in May was a reality check, welcome in its starkness.

Outside dynamics differ. Commentators and pundits lined up this spring to dismiss Kilkenny’s chances in 2018.

Then the same figures returned, as if end of pier in a Punch and Judy show, and contradicted their own verdict. I suppose they feel nobody remembers the scurries of opinion.

On a break this weekend, Kilkenny are not as poor as proved the case in Salthill. The All Ireland semi finals remain a reasonable aspiration.

Still, management should reconfigure their defence, since too many players line out removed from best (or better) position.

But will management reconfigure at this stage, if only with an eye on 2019? Probably not. Then again, if Conor Delaney, 22 this year, would suffice at full back, he might be there for half a dozen seasons.

Delaney’s claims at Senior for the position might not be straightforward but the horizon holds no other obvious candidate.

Having been full back for Minor and Intermediate All Ireland success, Delaney was again full back when one of few to escape last year’s U21 All Ireland Final with reputation intact.

Is Pádraig Walsh really going to stay Kilkenny full back for another four or five years while the county waits for a 15 or a 16-year-old to announce a claim?

All the while, this break factor is causing more and more disquiet, as people twig the absolute importance of roster.

Although Des Cahill hailed “a great format for the championship” on The Sunday Game, there are many parties who beg to differ in strongest terms. Paddy Joe Ryan, Waterford County Board Chairman, stated this week: “Everyone I’m coming into contact with, supporters and club mentors, are saying this championship is a disaster for the GAA.”

For sure, three outings on the spin left Offaly much weaker. Last Saturday, they went down to Wexford by 24 points. Manager Kevin Martin noted afterwards: “I just think these guys have to go and do a day’s work. They can’t just put their feet up tomorrow.”

His conclusion? “Two weeks in a row is probably more than enough.” Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald chimed in post-match assessment: “Just one break in the middle of it would be just right.

His charges receive Galway tomorrow evening. Here, the hosts are out third week in a row, emphasizing the roster factor in nth degree. What is Fitzgerald’s best ratio of eggs and basket? Wexford are already guaranteed making Leinster’s top three.

Ask yourself the hard question: do management go all out against Galway in Wexford Park, when a win delivers the Leinster Final?

Or does such all-out effort, which might not force a win, endanger prospects the following weekend in Nowlan Park, when defeat of Kilkenny would likewise deliver the Leinster Final?

Go further with moot questions. Yes, three weeks is bad enough as a run of commitments. How gauge the implication of four weeks in a row, balancing this equation with a rested Kilkenny’s likely standing?

Quite a conundrum. On summer showings, Wexford have a better chance of beating Kilkenny.

You can speculate about whether Lee Chin, placed at centre-forward, might cause Gearóid McInerney bother.

You can run through every scenario, endline to endline. But these speculations hardly equal a macro decision about stops pulled out or stops not quite pulled out. Fitzgerald is facing one of the most difficult managerial decisions in yonks.

Next Sunday, Dublin and Offaly square up in Parnell Park for a de facto relegation final. Here, the hosts are leavened by a week’s rest.

Four weeks on the road, Offaly will do right well to meet this task. Happenstance underscores automatic relegation from the Leinster Championship as too high a tariff. We simply do not have, with week on week exertions, a level playing pitch.

There is a final nuance in Leinster. Let Wexford overcome Galway, followed by Dublin overcoming Offaly. Given this scenario, Dublin would head to Salthill the following weekend in a sharpened context. If Dublin won and Kilkenny did not lose to Wexford, Galway would be out.

Highly unlikely scenario, although not an impossible one. Dangers lurk from angles never before experienced.

Hurling is entering a time of hawks, with pigeons in peril all over the place.



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