The timeless charm in a charmless time wasn’t burning as brightly as usual yesterday in a sodden Munster hurling quarter-final in Thurles.
Tipperary had nine points to spare over Cork on 70 minutes, showing that while underdogs may lie in wait in the long grass, there’s always grass that’s longer where the favourites can hide. Or something.
Pardon the confusion. We all arrived in Thurles yesterday for fire and brimstone and saw a dull glow instead: Cork’s tactical experimentation doused by Tipperary’s crispness.
For a game with a back catalogue of thrilling jousts and surging excitement, this was one encounter that won’t feature prominently in anyone’s playlist. All week Cork supporters were optimistic, and now the question is simple: Why? The good cheer was based on evidence no more empirical than a decent showing against Kilkenny and a narrow win over injury-ravaged Galway.
Tipperary’s league was no triumphant procession either, but their own supporters might have seen in their performances the wakening stretches of a large predator, its blood slowly warming. The blue and gold beast was attentive and unblinking yesterday, giving a brisk and clinical display, a practiced doctor drawing blood: sore but necessary work.
On 17 minutes Tipperary were 0-7 to 0-1 ahead: Untroubled in the half-back line, picking their men out despite Cork’s sweeper, playing at their ease. Any possible fault lines in the Tipp full-back zone went untested as clearance after clearance from the men in red fell into the hands of the brothers Maher, who returned the ball with interest, often untroubled by an opponent’s challenge.
Though Cork had William Egan situated between their defensive lines, nominally barring the supply options to Callanan and O’Dwyer, the other elements of the spare man equation defeated Cork.
Waterford have felt the wrath of the traditionalists for their deliberation in the middle third of the field, but they have a keen understanding of the operating terms and conditions of the spare man approach. Specifically? How to work the ball upfield when the opposition have a spare pair of hands to read the play as well, and pressuring the ball when the opposition have it.
Tipp feasted on Cork indecision coming out of defence, John O’Dwyer’s injury-time point before the interval a perfect example of a turnover activating the scoreboard, and the time and space afforded the half-backs in blue and gold when looking to pick out their men showed Cork’s lack of industry in the middle.
The Rebels’ first-half travails didn’t arise because they were playing a sweeper; they were troubled by an inability to link the play effectively, either with long deliveries or supporting hand-passes, and as their management admitted afterwards, they didn’t work hard enough without the ball.
At the interval it was 0-14 to 0-5, and the supporters in red and white among the 29,114 spectators were exhaling in anticipation of a long 35 minutes.
With a stiff wind and driving rain behind them Cork were better, and they reduced the gap to seven points before winning a 20-metre free on 51 minutes. Patrick Horgan went for the goal that might have set the contest alight but Pádraic Maher saved, Tipp cleared, and that was the ball game.
In a contest of understated drama it was a fittingly low-key turning point.
Even facing the elements, however, Tipperary looked comfortable. With Anthony Nash able to land the ball on the D jutting out of the 20-metre line, Cork went long with puck-outs but still couldn’t break through — the Maher brothers were particularly impressive under the bombardment; no-one doubts the value of an old-fashioned stopper facing an old-fashioned attack, but having two of them on hand made it an armchair ride for the Tipp defence as the clock wound down.
In the Cork camp selector Pat Ryan wasn’t sugar-coating the pill when asked if there were any positives in the game for the Rebel backroom: “No, not really, not many positives at all. In modern hurling workrate is the key, and we didn’t work hard enough — we didn’t win the ground ball, we didn’t the breaking ball, we didn’t win the 50-50s, and that’s what happens. Ye all know what happens.
“We thought we’d trained well, that the lads had bought into what we were trying to do, but it didn’t work on the day. We’ll have to go back to the drawing board and see was it something we’ve been doing wrong, something we need to change, new players to bring in to freshen it up... we didn’t perform today.
“Maybe that (lack of time) is a factor, but at the same time everybody is playing that system. We just didn’t work the ball hard enough, they closed down the space, and they got some good scores.”
Tipp manager Michael Ryan was understandably happier: “It was pretty solid. It was a very difficult day for forwards to operate. Even a slow back like myself could survive on a day like that. Okay, I jest. But it was easier for the backs today. And it just made your use of the ball far more important.
“We knew Cork had us in their cross-hairs for a very long time. Forewarned is forearmed, so we were ready.
“I was expecting a really, really good game here. I honestly believe, the elements played a significant part in not allowing that to happen. The quality in that Cork team is undeniable, but they just didn’t get the opportunities to express themselves as they normally would.
“We were very, very wary of what we were going to face here. And we knew we had to be right on our guard from the off.”
Both Ryans were accurate in their evaluations, though the latter was being diplomatic about Cork not getting opportunities: Tipperary denied them those opportunities.
In a curious way yesterday’s encounter was the game most observers were expecting of the NHL final replay, a match which kindled because of an early goal. Before that, though, there was a gloom about the prospects of a goalless sterility in the big games of the summer, and we saw elements of that yesterday. Perhaps Congress can legislate for first-minute goals from now on to boost the heart rates.
For Tipperary, this was encouraging but the poverty of the challenge will keep Michael Ryan and co. grounded.
In the circumstances — taking the game on its merits, as Johnny Giles would say — they’d have expected a little more from their half-forward line, given the way they dominated proceedings generally. Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher stretched his legs yesterday and can expect a more central role on June 19th against Limerick. As a major plus, though, they allowed no clear-cut goal chance.
Cork have different challenges. Pat Ryan’s blunt assessment of deficiencies in workrate is an indictment with a familiar ring to it. As of yesterday the men in red and white have shown the requisite application in just one game this year, that league game against Kilkenny. If they don’t rediscover their appetite for work ahead of the qualifiers, then the Cork county championships could be played off well ahead of time, with no inter-county games to interfere with fixture planning.
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