It took a moment for journalists lurking outside the Tipperary dressing room in Salthill last Sunday to realise what they were hearing from within. Eamon O’Shea, a man who speaks softly and has never been the type to carry a big stick, had reached for an oversized cudgel and wasn’t speaking softly any more.
Being Eamon O’Shea, he was calm, controlled and measured. He was also audibly frustrated and, unlike Cordelia, not being gentle and low about it. There was no need for panic, he told the troops, but they were now in a tricky situation and it would be hard to extricate themselves.
The frustration was understandable. This wasn’t just Tipperary’s third defeat in succession, it was — give or take the first half in Nowlan Park, and a period after half-time versus Clare — their fourth poor display in succession, the unconvincing win over Waterford on opening night included. More depressingly still, each of the defeats had featured one half of hurling where Tipp performed abjectly. Against Kilkenny, they ended up on the wrong side of a 3-11 to 1-5 second half; against Clare on the wrong side of a 3-7 to 0-8 first half; and against Galway on the wrong side of a 3-8 to 0-9 first half.
Dublin haven’t scored a National League victory on Tipperary soil since February 1946. Is it too obvious to say that tomorrow is the day this record will end? Probably.
Only the congenitally wise-after-the-event brigade would condemn O’Shea for ignoring the advice of Don Henley and returning to try and recreate the blazing romance of the summer of 2010. (An infuriating body of people, but not half as depressing as those knuckleheads on Twitter condemning Mount Leinster Rangers for taking a cautious attitude against Portumna last Monday when said cautious attitude transpired to be precisely what had them still in the game entering the closing 10 minutes).
As of this morning, however, it can fairly be stated that the Kilruane man has less to show for his team’s efforts to date than any other manager in Division 1A.
Clare have not merely asserted their status as leaders of the pack, but have made sure to shout it from the rooftops. They’re doing shock and awe and they’re doing it very publicly, rather as though they’re running for public office and are bent on stating their manifesto at every opportunity.
Kilkenny, as they needed to, have found a couple of new players. Derek McGrath’s introduction to inter-county life with Waterford has been a good deal less fraught than it might have been, even if last Sunday in Ennis brought a sharp lesson about the importance of cramping the space between one’s full-back line and half-back line when facing Clare. Galway have two wins on the board and the Portumna contingent to come back.
And last weekend Dublin made one of the most significant declarations of the competition so far. They’re alive. They’re well. They’ve made sure that their 2014 league campaign will be no repeat of the disastrous 2012 equivalent, when a series of brave and battling defeats led to relegation and to an even more disastrous championship campaign.
Beating Clare last month may have said more about the MacCarthy Cup holders’ state of mind and fitness that afternoon than it did about Dublin, but beating Kilkenny last Saturday night said far more about Dublin than it did about the visitors. After defeat in the Walsh Cup final to a mix’em gather’em Kilkenny and then the trimming in Galway, the bleeding has been staunched.
The consensus from Dublin supporters afterwards was that it was the kind of game they wouldn’t have won a few years ago. They were entitled to add that they were five or six points better than Kilkenny as opposed to the three points that separated the sides. It was a measure of the road they’ve travelled under Anthony Daly, moreover, that the manager didn’t feel the need to pull an extra man back into defence as protection against the wind during the second half. In psychological terms they’re well past requiring such tactical crutches against big-name opponents.
The reason? Simple. At this stage of Dublin’s lifespan under Daly there are no big-name opponents. At this stage they’re little more than one crafty and imaginative inside forward away from reaching an All-Ireland final (whatever about beating, say, an on-song Clare in a final).
Being generous of heart we’ll refrain from torturing Dublin supporters with visions of Diarmuid Connolly with a small ball rather than a big one.
Whatever the outcome tomorrow, Tipperary are guaranteed another game, whether a quarter-final or a relegation play-off. And Eamon O’Shea, living where he does, is better placed than most to be aware that paper can catch fire anywhere. Even in a humble relegation play-off.
Remember? Two years ago, not long after suffering a 3-26 to 0-10 defeat in Nowlan Park, Galway’s unimpressive league campaign ended with victory against Dublin in a relegation play-off. That was the moment their season began. It didn’t stop until the All-Ireland final replay on the last Sunday in September.
Little things – a bounce of a ball, a twitch upon a thread, Jason Forde catching fire – can have big consequences.
Tipperary need that small break quickly, before the bird has flown.
For Limerick, the bird has departed, unless Cork do something foolish against Wexford tomorrow. How painful to blow it against Offaly while Cork were simultaneously very nearly blowing it in Ballycastle. And please let nobody jump in to point out that last year’s Munster title was won from the lower flight; a fifth successive year out of the top division will have consequences for the county.
Business types talk about the “loss of corporate memory” when long-serving employees leave a company; a hurling equivalent is Limerick’s continuing absence from Division 1A. They don’t get to see new and interesting parts of the world in springtime or develop a greater acquaintance with the wiles of Galway or Kilkenny or Tipp. There’s not much wrong with a fortnight in Majorca every year but you don’t want to be going there all the time. Not when you could be seeing Rome or Paris or Berlin.
As the presence of two Limerick teams in today’s All-Ireland colleges semi-finals indicates — and surely it’ll be third time lucky for Ardscoil Rís against St Kieran’s — the underage scene in the county has seldom been healthier. All the more a pity, then, about what happened on Sunday.