Since their victory over Waterford this weekend six years ago, Tipperary haven’t managed to win a single Munster championship match and their record in the qualifiers, losing seven of the eight games they’ve had since their introduction eight years ago, is equally dismal.
The obvious reason for such expectation is promotion in successive seasons of the national league. Little wonder then that Tipperary manager, John Evans, chose during the week to propose Fermanagh’s recent win against Down as irrefutable evidence that league and championship form simply doesn’t correlate.
If we disregard Longford’s late season salvo in the league – Tipp had already been promoted and qualified for the final – Down are the only team to beat Tipperary in a meaningful match this year. Having lost only two games in the spring to Cavan and tomorrow’s opponents Limerick they would’ve been expected to progress in Ulster last weekend at the expense of a Fermanagh team who’s only win in the campaign came as far back as St Valentine’s Day. We now know that the expected Down win did not materialise and in our infinite wisdom based largely on hindsight we curse ourselves for ever having trusted league form to interpret the tea leave patterns ahead of championship.
We know for example that Tipperary were equally as impressive when emerging from the shadowlands of NFL Division Four last year and would quite reasonably have expected to turn Limerick over in what Evans describes as “an awful game of football” in Fermoy on the last Sunday in May 2008. That it didn’t happen was a source of huge disappointment to many in Tipperary football but it would also have opened Evans’ eyes to the fact that many of the older Tipperary players, when under pressure, will have reverted to type and lost their discipline. The clearout and rejuvenation of the panel over the winter months has been impressive. There was no major olagón when Foley departed for the USA or when full back Mark Peters decided he couldn’t commit to the programme. There was very little self-pitying in Tipp football circles when some of the talented U21 players were compelled to double job for much of the 2009 league campaign. Since Evans took over in October 2007, younger players like Ciarán McDonald, Chris Aylward and Brian Fox have taken on more responsibility, elder statesmen like Dublin based Gardaí, Hugh Coghlan and Brian Coen have responded with the form of their lives and Barry Grogan is helping Tipp folk adjust to life in the post Declan Browne era.
Ciarán McDonald’s shoulder injury and absence from tomorrow’s lineout is unfortunate but Robbie Costigan’s re-instatement at full back is a better than adequate replacement and he will have the physicality needed for head on combat with Jason Stokes. George Hannigan and Brian Jones will have their work cut out at midfield against Jim O’Donovan and John Galvin and with Stephen Lucey also hovering with intent around the middle (although I would not be surprised if Lucey concentrated on his more orthodox centre back role with Padraig Browne in the wing forward position), the youthful Tipp duo will be grateful for John Evans’ decision to play all league matches in the vast expanse of Semple Stadium all spring. The wide open spaces in Thurles suit the team with greater mobility and the back up provided by Fox and Aylward in the half back line should keep the Limerick midfield honest.
In the corresponding league match in the tighter Kilmallock pitch last March, Limerick were controlling midfield until they harshly lost John Galvin to a yellow card and it effectively loosened their grip on the game.
Tipperary will do well to win the aerial battle tomorrow but the cavalier, weaving bursts from the half-back line that have been in evidence all season should ensure they break even in the ground war.
While some football aficionados in Limerick are still reeling from their relegation to Division Four last month, their management have made no secret of their desire to be judged on championship form. It could be (and has been) viewed as a high risk strategy for a non-traditional power to be putting all their eggs into one championship basket but Mickey Ned O Sullivan, Joe Redington, Paddy Ivess and Donie Buckley still have a formidable spine to their team irrespective of early season form.
Johnny McCarthy, Stephen Lavin, John Galvin, Ian Ryan and Jason Stokes would be competitive in any environment and I don’t see any obvious weak links elsewhere either. For one reason or another, Limerick are rarely competitive in the league but few would have predicted after their win in Fermoy last May that they’d rattle Cork, and bring about an era defining change in Meath. They may have lurched from one disaster to the next in the league but with the hurlers back in tow, they’re still a sticky championship outfit.
To play championship football in August remains the dream for some of these footballers. It may seem a long way off right now but whatever team wins tomorrow will most likely be in a Munster final in July. If they can handle the expectation, that team will be Tipperary.