Forget the fuss, enjoyable and merited and necessary as it has been, about Wexford for a minute. The outcome of this one will be decided by whether Tipperary want to win or not. The margin of the outcome will be decided by how badly they want to win. As simple and clinical as that.
While the lads in purple and gold are the team of the moment it’s the other crowd who’ll set the temperature today. If the All-Ireland champions aren’t too bothered about winning it may possibly be Wexford’s day. If they are it won’t. After that it’ll be a matter of the degree to which the underdogs manage to choke the supply to their opponents’ full-forward line.
Apologies if the above sounds about as wild and colourful as a government white paper, and unforgivably so given the presence on the sideline tomorrow of that most colourful of managers. But that’s the problem when trying to prognosticate league games. Which side are up for it? If both are, which side are more up for it?
As sciences go it is horribly inexact. It was perfectly plausible to assume prior to the throw-in at Nowlan Park a fortnight ago that Kilkenny would want to send a message and that Wexford would want to keep their powder dry for the championship.
We are now aware that Kilkenny weren’t bothered about sending messages – their current straitened circumstances preclude them from doing so – and that Davy, far from playing cute hoors, was anxious to see how his lads would fare in a room with the heating turned up. But we didn’t and couldn’t know these things until after the game, or until half an hour into it at any rate.
The reason for caveats having been outlined, then, a couple of assumptions about today's clash. Having got this far almost without trying there’s no earthly downside for Michael Ryan to giving it a lash and seeing what happens.
Having got this far with plenty of trying – and plenty of thought and heavy training and plotting and planning – there’s no downside for Davy Fitz to giving it a lash either.
But Wexford have put far more into the competition, and extracted far more from it, than Tipperary have, meaning there’s no percentage in them expending more energy than is necessary here. And Davy’s words after the quarter-final about the corollary that accompanies targeting, and winning, league games demand to be aired again.
“The only thing, I suppose, you’re getting ready very early in the year. I found it with Clare last year, we got really up for a lot of games and I thought we flattened as the year went on. Whereas the likes of Kilkenny are going to get better.”
Against the Kilkenny full-forward line he chose to field a sweeper, Shaun Murphy. By that logic he’ll surely field five sweepers against the Tipperary full-forward line.
A slight exaggeration. Still, two sweepers, possibly? Murphy in front of Seamus Callanan, doing what Kilkenny either decided against doing last September or couldn’t bring themselves to do, and possibly a more defensive-minded sweeper – Murphy is a midfielder by calling and instinct – behind the full-back line?
It wouldn’t be a shock. It would, indeed, be exceedingly Davyesque. He’ll do something. He wouldn’t be Davy if he didn’t. But against this Tipp full-forward line defending must start from the front, not the back, and whatever other sectors Wexford depopulate in order to build barriers in their own half of the field they cannot leave the Maher brothers to their own devices, with time and space to despatch manicured deliveries. That way death by bombardment lies.
Callanan racked up 2-11 against Offaly last time out, 2-3 of it from play. Nobody noticed. If they did they didn’t deem it worthy of mention. Just another typical day at the office. With Callanan we’re well into Dog Bites Man territory. He’s currently on 24 championship goals and edging ever closer to Lar Corbett (29) and Eddie Brennan (26).
If Callanan is finding his groove Steven O’Brien is taking longer to do so – scarcely a surprise, given that Ryan has consistently proclaimed this a two-year project. It would take that long, he insisted, to get the former county footballer up to hurling speed. Come summer we’ll see how O’Brien copes with a dry sod and a hopping ball. Should the project fail to come to glorious fruition no damage will have been inflicted. At the very worst O’Brien will be an option, and an option built like the proverbial brick outbuilding is superior to an option not built like one.
The current league campaign has disgorged two findings about Tipperary. Ryan has kept them on a tight leash, as he’d promised, and they have options aplenty. Yet another one in a row Tipp team? The signs to date suggest otherwise.
Tipperary folk of a certain vintage may be a little wary nonetheless. Along with Cork, Wexford are the only county who enjoy a better record in National League meetings with the county: 20 wins in 40 encounters down the years. Maybe Davy isn’t aware of that. It wouldn’t bother him either way.
In conversation after the Kilkenny match he was in understandably expansive mood, with his observations on the sweeper system similarly worth repeating – this after an affair in which, remember, the team with the sweeper created goal chance upon goal chance while the man between the uprights for the team without the sweeper was their star performer by a mile.
“I don’t think the analysts really read this 100%. There will be a time when I will explain to ye everything about it” – can’t wait – “but it’s not as bad as people think. None of the analysts have picked it up even any way right yet. I remember one particular analyst said, ‘It’s great, the sweeper system is dead and buried.’ There are times it has a place.
“It depends on the team you have. That is very important. You have to play with what you have. You’ve to make sure you play to your advantage. Would I play it with every single team? No, it just depends what you have and how you line out. But if you really look at the games closely, trust me, people have not picked up on it right yet and that’s for definite. They think it’s an extra man back to back all the time.”
You have to play with what you have. Exactly. The system must be tailored to the players, not the other way around. The message from Clare’s demise last summer was clear: blind subservience to the system, cultish devotion to Plan A even when Plan A isn’t working, as it wasn’t in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway, dooms it to failure. Has Davy digested the lesson?
We’ll know more as the season goes by. For the moment he’s entitled to kudos for not overcomplicating matters last Sunday week. Wexford worked the sliotar and worked the pitch, they used its dimensions and, on defending deeper in the second half once they’d compiled a lead, they had the fitness to get the runners charging through to support the man in possession. It’s a trick that doesn’t work in June or July but guarantees results in March and April against less fit opponents.
Nor does employing a sweeper automatically necessitate pulling down the shutters. Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Wexford’s number seven, had three attempts at points and found the range with the first of them. Liam Ryan, the full-back, got forward sufficiently far at one stage in the first half to have a pop himself. It wasn’t the hurling equivalent of Total Football but it did demonstrate the virtues of a sweeper system that seeks to create as well as to destroy.
Anyone can have a go as long as someone drops back to mind the house and occupy the space vacated.
Liam Ryan won’t be venturing as far afield today. Not with Seamus Callanan anywhere near him. Tipp with something to spare.
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