Experience key as Tipperary find way around Waterford roadblock

We’ll start with the context. Nothing occurs in a vacuum.

The Orient Express never carried the baggage attached to a Munster hurling final, particularly when Thurles is the venue. More than any other game in the sporting calendar a Munster hurling final is under pressure even before throw-in to earn its place in the pantheon.

That pressure doesn’t come from external sources — the tennis, the Tour de France, the cricket or the World Cup final every four years. It comes from within the game, a reflexive ranking of quality.

That may be unfair on yesterday’s event, but those are the terms of engagement.

Eamon O’Shea’s choice of words for the 2015 edition — absorbing — was astute, because it conveys the sense of well-crafted achievement rather than the silvery gleam of art.

Tipperary’s five-point win over Waterford owed a good deal to their experience and was admirable without being extraordinary. The sense lingers that the hurling championship has not caught fire yet.

In that context the Munster final was of a part with previous games, and in particular, the two All-Ireland qualifiers the previous evening. Thumbnail sketches of Dublin-Limerick and Cork-Clare would be pretty similar — they were two games with plenty of wayward shooting, won late on by a slightly more accurate team.

Yesterday Waterford hit eight second-half wides and ended with a baker’s dozen, but Tipperary’s tally had only two fewer.

Davy Fitzgerald, an astute judge, pointed out on Saturday night that the game has now become so compressed that the point-scoring opportunities come in such heavy traffic you have to expect wide tallies to rise.

There’s an accompanying rise in the importance of defenders who can score — Tipperary’s second-last point of the first half came from a player named at corner-back; Waterford’s last point of the first half came from someone playing at corner-back. Waterford sourced four of their points from the back six: a quick freeze-frame, but not the entire story.

Much like the Munster semi-final, halfway through the first half Waterford’s pattern of play clicked into gear and clearly flummoxed Tipperary, who gave away three points from errors.

The reason? Waterford created what at under-thirteen level used to be called a wall across the field, and Tipperary couldn’t scale it; in the modern game skying ball down the field appeals to the cider aficionados in the stadium but tends to draw a wagging finger from management, and when Tipp tried to plot a route through the field to Seamus Callanan and John O’Dwyer, they found a white jersey manning every toll booth.

They were just one point to the good at half-time, and Waterford were unhappy. A refereeing call they didn’t get denied them a late scoreable free, and a refereeing call Tipp got just afterwards gave them the free for that half-time lead.

In the second half Tipp management spoke to O’Dwyer, and he moved outfield. From there he hit points that Waterford couldn’t manage and won the game: his striking is so pure that you know well he barely feels the impact when the sliotar leaves his hurley.

At the other end of the field Waterford showed the truth in an old Benjamin Franklin adage, that experience keeps a dear school.

The second part of that saying — that fools will learn in no other — is markedly unfair, as even the wise must learn from lessons gleaned after the event. Waterford will regret some of the options they took in the second half, but all the training sessions in the world won’t teach a player the lesson of patience the way groans from his own followers will. If he’s willing to absorb them, of course.

It was significant that Waterford manager Derek McGrath stressed that, even while conceding his side’s relative lack of experience.

“Tipperary probably looked a little bit more fluid than us all day,” said the Waterford boss.

“It was seven-three at one stage but I thought we got a real grip on it in the middle part of the first half, and we looked like we’d be able to grind it out. Our much-vaunted system seemed to be up and running but we went in a point down at half-time.

“We have no real qualms overall, I thought Tipp were a slightly better team than us. I don’t think confidence dropped, it’s just the nature of the game. Defensively we were good, we were strong coming out of defence, but Padraic Maher cleared a lot of ball. I thought we showed a small bit of inexperience in the second half, and it’s important that we learn from it.” On a similar theme, Tipp manager Eamon O’Shea agreed that despite fielding nine debutants yesterday, his core of players who have won and lost in September were a significant advantage.

“That’s a fair point. We have players who’ve been through games which have been very tight. That experience is good, but I was also pleased we stayed at the game and tried to play the way we wanted to play. It didn’t come off all the time, and it doesn’t show up on the scoreboard — and rightly so, because they (Waterford) were so good, but I’d be happy enough. It was an absorbing game.”

Other lessons? We hardly needed yesterday to tell us that the 15 positions you see outlined in your programme are now as obsolete as warships in the Baltic, to quote Paddy McAloon.

Mind you, the sight of Padraic Maher as the spare man for Tipperary and Tadhg De Burca operating in the same role for Waterford brought to mind the old Italian soccer term from which libero derives. The spare man in the Serie A of the forties was called a battitore libero, a free hitter, because he had licence to strike the ball upfield on his own. That’s a more accurate description of Maher and de Burca’s role than simply calling them sweepers.

That said, the value of a clean striker who can operate under intense pressure is something we’ve already touched on. Tipperary will be glad that John O’Dwyer’s vein of good form continues: perhaps it was inevitable that a couple of weeks after the passing of Jimmy Doyle another clean striker would win a Munster final from wing-forward.

Waterford were defiant at the final whistle, and they need to be, with another day out on Sunday week against Dublin. They’re 70 minutes from an All-Ireland semi-final and will surely fancy their chances if they can improve their shot selection.

A quick word for the ground staff in Semple Stadium, by the way, who were on duty until 4.30am on Sunday morning getting the pitch ready.

It’ll host the All-Ireland quarter-finals in a fortnight. Will the championship kindle then?


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