Involvement in this summer’s Super 8s is an “optimistic goal” for the Tipperary footballers to harbour, says Conor Sweeney, but to get there, the Premier captain knows they’ll more than likely have to make a Munster final.
Tipperary, back in June of 2016, scored a first championship win over Cork since 1944 to bridge a 14-year gap to the county’s last provincial final appearance. And while the decider itself did not go as they planned, Liam Kearns’ charges capitalised on their subsequent bounce into the fourth round of qualifiers to wind up in the last four of the championship.
Back-to-back Munster semi-final defeats to Cork in 2017 and 2018 saw them cast into the early rounds of the qualifiers, the best they managed in either year was to scramble as far as the third phase.
Armagh, in 2017, and Clare, the year before that, are the most recent examples of middle-of-the-road counties putting together lengthy qualifier runs to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals. But they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
“To make the Super 8s is everyone’s goal,” says Sweeney.
“It is definitely the goal for Division 1 teams and then for Division 2 sides, it is probably a bit further down the line, but it is an optimistic goal to get to the Super 8s. For us, if you were to get back to a Munster final, it would be unbelievable, and that makes the whole Super 8s and getting there a couple of steps easier. If you can get to a Munster final, then Super 8s football becomes more attainable.
“We’re not in a position at the moment, though, to be thinking about Super 8s and Munster finals because we haven’t warranted that. Hopefully, we can get over Limerick and if we do, we’ll prepare then for what will be a tough challenge in Cork.”
With home advantage, Kearns’ troops are expected to defeat Limerick this evening. (Incredibly the Treaty County has not won a Munster football championship fixture since 2012).
I know it is a cliche but you have to take it one game at a time. Cork came to Thurles last year and they wiped the floor with us. We might not have been as mentally prepared as we should have been for that game.
"We would like to think we have learned from that so we are definitely not looking past Limerick. We haven’t played them since 2014 so for a lot of our squad, it is their first time coming up against Limerick in either league or championship.”
If they are to be still standing come July, the 29-year old corner-forward, who kicked 2-30 this spring, says the team must get back to the level they showed against Mayo for three-quarters of their second-round qualifier meeting last June.
It was a game which Tipperary led by three after 52 minutes, only for a speculative James Durcan point attempt to curl in over the head of Tipp ‘keeper Evan Comerford for a goal.
“We were at it that day for 55-odd minutes. Trying to stay at that level for 70,75 minutes is the challenge and where we have come up short. We were the same in 2016. We were in that All-Ireland semi-final for a good 55 minutes. And then Mayo, again, just pulled away in the end.
“Last year, we didn’t have it in the legs as much as we should have. Mayo had coming into the last 15 minutes. They overran us. I would like to think we have improved in that sector this year. Now, it is about getting our heads right, telling ourselves we are as good as these teams, and to stick at it as long as we can.”
From the team that featured that June afternoon, Robbie Kiely (travelling), and the injury-stricken pair of Josh Keane and Bill Maher missed the entire league. Further injuries to Michael Quinlivan and Jimmy Feehan meant they were exposed to limited game-time this spring as a depleted Tipp suffered relegation to Division 3.
“It is almost as if the lads have timed it well, in a way, because everyone is back for championship. The squad is as strong now as it has been over the last number of years. Bill Maher is back on the field, Michael is back on the field injury-free, and having Robbie back from his travels is brilliant because they have savage experience. You know with a couple of the experienced players, if they are even half fit, they are as good as anyone else.
"It wasn’t ideal getting relegated but I don’t think lads are too phased by it going into summer. Some lads might dig into our league relegation and see it as motivation because we would like to think we are a Division 2 side even though we didn’t show that this year.”