Last Saturday was meant to be the first step along the road to redemption for the Tipperary senior hurlers. The chance to lay down a marker, to blast out an ominous statement of intent.
Get a fast start, beat Westmeath by a cricket score and show any would-be pretenders to the Premier County’s All-Ireland crown that it won’t be given up easily.
Do to the Westmeath hurlers what Dublin had done to their footballers a week previously.
But in an audition for a round 2 qualifier against superior opposition, Tipp flunked the test. They were flat, rudderless, devoid of any obvious game-plan and registered 16 wides.
Manager Michael Ryan had made six changes from the Munster quarter-final loss to Cork — and warned after the game that there could be more ahead of next weekend, when Tipp will face Dublin, Waterford or Kilkenny.
“There were periods in that game that were anything but what we came to see, to be honest,” said Ryan.
“Look, we came here to win, there’s no other prize on offer bar a place in the bowl on Monday morning. That’s mission accomplished but loads to do.
“We’ll certainly require a much, much better performance than that. Some of the performances were below par and when performances are below par, you open the door to competition. A healthy thing, as far as I’m concerned.”
Westmeath, playing with the breeze blowing towards the Town End, were two points up with 40 seconds on the watch. Tipp rallied to lead by 1-9 to 0-4 by the 19th minute, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer scoring the 15th minute goal.
But that eight-point lead was whittled down to four by half-time, Tipp up by 1-10 to 0-9.
As Tipp went 18 minutes of playing time without a score — and 22 without one from play — Westmeath rattled off five unanswered points.
With 17 minutes left to play, Tipp were ahead by just three points, 1-12 to 0-12, and home fans in the 6,893 attendance were shifting nervously in their seats.
Westmeath sub Cormac Boyle forced an excellent save from debutant Tipperary goalkeeper Daragh Mooney, when a goal would have drawn the Lake County level.
Tipp kicked on to lead by 11 points, John McGrath off the bench to score a second goal for the hosts, but Westmeath cut the final margin to single figures with two Allan Devine points deep in stoppage time.
It was all hugely underwhelming from a Tipp perspective and, in the second half, Ryan ran his bench in an attempt to draw a response.
Michael Breen lasted just nine minutes of the second half, Seamus Callanan 10 as he was brilliantly policed by Westmeath’s excellent full-back Tommy Doyle, rated by Westmeath boss Michael Ryan as the best in the country in that position.
“No injury,” Tipp’s Michael Ryan insisted when asked about Callanan.
“Mikey Breen, no injury.
“Those performances were below-par, the lads would be the first to admit that you have to hit your own levels and get yourself on the ball. If it’s off, it’s off.”
But Niall O’Meara was injured when he was stretchered off with 10 minutes left — and a serious ankle problem may have ended his season.
Ryan wasn’t underestimating the importance of a game, however, noting “rustiness” in the six weeks since the Cork match.
But his message to his underperforming stars was clear: “There’s still positions up for grabs on this team and we’re absolutely encouraging the competition, as you can see.
“We made changes there early in the second half and it continued right throughout the game.”
For Westmeath manager Ryan, this is the end of a third season in charge, and he’ll be back for a fourth.
They’ve made huge progress with the Waterford man at the helm and this display, coupled with the exploits of the U21 team in recent season, suggests that there’s more that can be achieved.
“As long as we don’t spend the rest of our lives talking about today, and congratulating ourselves about today,” Ryan piped up.
“We have to work on it and move on. Overall, immensely proud of the lads and as the average age of this team is 23 or 24, it can be the start of something big.”
John O’Dwyer (1-3, 0-1f); S Callanan (0-5, 4fs, 1 65); J McGrath (1-1); N McGrath, N O’Meara, J Forde (0-2 each); R Maher, B Maher, Patrick Maher (0-1 each).
A Devine (0-6, 4fs); P Greville (1f), K Doyle (0-2 each); A Clarke, R Greville, D McNicholas, N O’Brien, C Boyle (0-1 each).
D Mooney; J Barry, T Hamill, D Maher; Joe O’Dwyer, R Maher, Pádraic Maher; B Maher, N McGrath; D McCormack, Patrick Maher, M Breen; John O’Dwyer, S Callanan, N O’Meara.
J Forde for Breen (44), J McGrath for Callanan (45), A McCormack for O’Meara (60), S O’Brien for Patrick Maher (64) T Fox for Pádraic Maher (68).
P Carroll; S Power, T Doyle, G Greville; A Craig, P Greville, L Varley; A Clarke, R Greville; J Boyle, K Doyle, D McNicholas; A Devine, N Mitchell, N O’Brien.
C Boyle for J Boyle (21), B Murtagh for McNicholas (64), D Egerton for O’Brien (66), J Galvin for C Boyle (69), C Shaw for Varley (70+1).
P O’Dwyer (Carlow)