Few players are better placed to comment on Tipperary’s renaissance this year than Lar Corbett. The 2010 Hurler of the Year knows current manager Liam Sheedy well, having won an All-Ireland under him that season, when current forwards coach Eamon O’Shea was a selector. Tipp’s forward play that season was exceptional. Just like this season.
“I’ll start with this,” says Corbett. “I’m jealous, looking in at Liam (Sheedy) and Eamon (O’Shea) and the formation that’s there at the moment. As an ex-player, you’d be jealous looking at the energy, the movement, and the togetherness.
“The backs are playing as a unit, they’re hitting diagonal balls or giving the small hand-passes, helping each other out all the time. Take Ronan Maher, Padraic Maher, Noel McGrath, the ball they’re delivering to the forwards. It’s unreal.
“I’m not looking at results. I know Tipperary have the wins in the bank, but look at how they’re applying themselves, how they’re working together, the movement. When I saw Bubbles give the ball across to John McGrath for the second goal against Cork, and then Seamus Callanan doing a similar job against Waterford, creating the goal for Jason Forde . . . when these lads play like that, they’re dynamite.”
How much of the Tipperary improvement is down to freedom and how much to coaching is a hot topic at present. Corbett is better placed than most to distinguish between the two.
A lot of it is about letting players go out to express themselves, which is something you hear a lot, but what does that mean, exactly?
“When you say to a player, ‘go out and express yourself’ but it goes wrong, what happens then? Are you saying ‘go out and express yourself, but just be sure not to make any mistakes’?
“I’m only looking in from the outside, but from my experience with Liam in particular, when he’s saying to the players to go out and express yourself he knows the boys’ ability, how well they can play — but if it goes wrong he has their backs.
“That’s when you know that you can express yourself as a player — when you’re free, and you know the management is 100% behind you no matter what happens. That would have been my experience with them as a management.”
And Eamon O’Shea specifically? What does he bring to the table?
“To see his influence you have to look at how the forwards have been lining out. At one stage in a couple of games the three full-forwards were in the small square. If the ball is hit left or right then Bubbles or John McGrath can go left or right into open space.
“Sometimes if the full-forward line are in the traditional positions, the 13-14-15 slots, then they can only run in one direction. Then look at the balls Ronan Maher has been hitting in — the forwards can go left or right into space, because they aren’t lined up as traditional forwards, and that makes it even harder for opposition backs.”
No matter how good the forwards’ movement, they still need good ball coming in. This year that’s improved as well, says the Thurles Sars clubman.
“It’s definitely a step up. It’s gone away from the high ball up to the forwards, where your percentage chances of winning those when there’s a spare back around — which is the case with most teams — are very low. It’s 60-40 against you as a forward.
“But if the ball in is good enough then it doesn’t matter if there’s a spare defender there as long as the forward is out in front of his man. That comes back to the quality of the ball.
“The other thing is if you’re a forward and you see Ronan Maher pick up the ball then you know he wants to give it to you, to put you in as good a position as he can — so you’re gone, out looking for it.
“That’s a different situation to a back getting it and you know all he’s going to do is blast it down the field. Then you’re not going to waste your energy on a run when the odds are heavily in the back’s favour.
"It’s gotten to a stage with the team now, though, that a couple of times in games I’ve seen the likes of Ronan Maher and Noel McGrath thinking so quick they were nearly waiting for the forward to move before delivering the ball.
“Because of that — because they’re nearly a step ahead out the field — it’s a joy to be in that forward line at the moment.”
Corbett also admires Tipperary’s ability to play horses for courses. Limerick, for instance, have been very strong around the middle of the field in recent years, but he expects Tipperary to have a plan for that this Sunday, just as they did in the last round-robin game.
“What it’ll be I don’t know, but someone like Darragh Egan would be good in that department, as is Eamon, and they’ll have different scenarios.
“From my experience they always have a scenario for different teams, different individuals, and they’ll explain that to lads individually. It’s not always the same job, either. After the Cork game people were saying Michael Breen wasn’t involved that much, but he had a specific job, to pick up Seamus Harnedy; he had a different job against Waterford and he ended up hitting six points from play, but the players aren’t listening to fellas asking if they scored or whatever — they know they have a particular job to do, and if that means they’re not seen in the game, then it doesn’t matter.
So that shows you the players believe in the management in turn, because they know they’ll get the credit from management. That mightn’t suit supporters or the television, but they’re not worried about that.
“That closes the circuit: the trust players have in management to give them credit for their work only drives them to work harder at their assigned jobs.
“It’s important to Liam and the management to pick players they know will do the job they’re given, and it’s important to those players that they get the credit for the jobs they’re given by management.
“That’s why you’ll hear lads saying ‘what happens in the group is all that matters’, and when they believe that, then that in turn strengthens the bond between them all too.
“If I were guessing, I’d say after the Waterford game, for instance, that Liam went to Seamus Callanan because of his hook on Stephen O’Keeffe in that game. Seamus ran 60 yards to cover and Stephen looked around and thought he was too far away, but Seamus got in that hook, and when the ball went out over the line Ronan Maher cut it over the bar for a point.
“The Liam Sheedy I know would nearly have more respect for that hook than for someone catching a ball and sticking it in the net. Seamus burst a gut to get that hook in — we know he can bury a goal, but if he’s putting that effort in it shows that the team has bought into it.
“You don’t have to show that clip in the dressing-room to the players, because you can be sure they all noticed it. When a quality forward is working as hard as that you always notice it.”