Spring showings the Tipp of the iceberg

Premier men have a habit of beginning the season as they mean to go on.

Tipperary’s chances in the championship? We’ll know a lot more about them by 4pm tomorrow. Yes, it may only be February but no, it’s not too soon to be drawing hard and fast conclusions.

It’s not too soon to be drawing hard and fast conclusions because for the past five seasons the shape of Tipp’s summer has been visible by the end of February. By their early-season form shall ye know them. A recap as follows.

In 2009 they won their opening three games, an impressive declaration of intent. Neither their form nor their intent wavered thereafter. Granted, they didn’t win the All-Ireland, but many an All-Ireland has been won by a team playing far less resplendently in victory than Tipperary played in defeat in 2009.

2010: Another declaration of intent. They beat Kilkenny in that twice postponed Semple Stadium fixture, gaining a modicum of revenge for the previous September and a confidence boost in the process. What happened the following September you know.

2011: You’ve seen this mentioned here before but it bears repeating, particularly in view of how lightly Clare wore the mantle at Cusack Park last Sunday. Three years ago the then MacCarthy Cup holders hosted Kilkenny in Thurles, didn’t realise that their new status required them to play with their chests out and lost by seven points. One can’t switch it on and off just like that, a message Kilkenny would underscore in the All-Ireland final.

2012: To Nowlan Park this time and an opportunity to make a resounding statement, one vibrating with controlled fury and wounded pride. In the event Tipp produced a limp dishcloth and lost by eight points. The following August they’d lose by 18.

2013: First night of the competition at Páirc Uí Rinn and a second-half collapse that saw Cork run out winners by 0-26 to 1-11. The year would not get any better. It wouldn’t last too long either.

While statistics can mislead, in this instance they don’t. Tipp have made a habit of beginning the year as they continue it. What’s more, Tipp are not Cork; they don’t come barreling out of the long grass. They’re WYSIWYG kinda guys. What you see with Tipp in the league is very much what you get in the championship.

Last year’s championship left them at a lower ebb than they’d been in six years. Since 2007 Tipperary have, as the illustration shows, marched up to the top of the hill and – real Grand Old Duke of York stuff – marched back down again. Not that starting from zero is anything but an incentive to them this time around. Concentrates the mind. Also contains the advantage that Yazz and her synthetic pals pointed out many years ago. The only way is up.

The manner of progress as well as the need for it is an issue that seems to be exercising some minds amid the homes of Tipperary, judging by Michael Ryan’s comments in a recent interview. What, he asked rhetorically, is Tipp’s style of play these days? Is it easily identifiable? Is it sufficiently identifiable? Everyone knew what it was in the 1960s. But what it is now? One can understand Ryan’s concerns. He is a Tipp fan as well as a Tipp man, a keen student of the county’s hurling history as well as a current selector, and Tipp folk more than most desire that their team have a distinct and proud identity every day they take the field.

Yet it is no harm not to get hung up about these things. At any given juncture the players and their skill sets come first; the style of play adopted by a team derives from that rather than precedes it or is imposed on it. What’s also important to realise is that playing styles – even playing styles encoded within a club or county’s DNA for decades – change.

The Cork team of the noughties and the Cork team of the 1950s? Similar only in the jerseys. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are, mercifully, a very different proposition to late-era George Graham Arsenal. And whereas Ger Loughnane’s Clare were meat and potatoes, Davy Fitz’s Clare — defenders driving forward, hand passes to the runner from deep, Tony Kelly’s reinterpretation of the centre-forward’s role as that of a false 11 – may as well have been crafted in the kitchens of Noma or El Bulli.

Before Tipp resolve who they are and what they’re at to everyone’s satisfaction, a more pressing and less esoteric issue presents itself. They aren’t scoring enough.

It was enlightening to hear Eamon O’Shea, the most thoughtful and interesting man in the intercounty game, give voice to what he felt was the source of their woes last season: they were “too mechanical”, he said. He didn’t dilate upon the extent to which Bonner Maher’s loss of form and touch was a contributory factor; suffice it to say the machine runs rather more smoothly when Maher is able to get the sliothar up at the first time of asking and make those 10-yard incisions. Nor did he add – perhaps he deemed it self-evident — that this grinding of gears, as well as being a stylistic glitch in itself, led to another, graver problem: a decline in scoring output.

Tipp’s 0-20 in the league final constituted a creditable tally in view of their slow start to the game, but want to know what they’ve scored in their three most recent championship outings? To call it under-whelming is to be generous. 1-15 against Kilkenny in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final; 1-15 against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds last summer; and 1-14 against Kilkenny in the Nowlan Park qualifier – and this in a kingdom where Davy’s boy-kings seized the throne in such blazing scoring fashion last September and where Cork hit 3-16 both days against Clare and still didn’t win. Points, contrary to the cliché, win games; Tipp won’t be winning many games that matter until they’re back to a baseline of 20 points a match with goals on top (in passing, stating that a team needs to score more is not the “well, duh-uh” observation it may appear. Clare, far from needing to score more in 2014, need to be conceding less. Cork need to raise their scoring GNP but not by much. Kilkenny need to raise theirs substantially. Tipp need to raise theirs dramatically).

Kilkenny tomorrow? Well, they played better in losing a fine contest to Clare than Tipp did in winning a poor one against Waterford. The bittersweet part of the afternoon for them lay not in the defeat, however, but in the identity of their best player.

The man who was making those drifting, quarter-circle runs from the wing into the centre all afternoon. The man who had the nous to pause, look up, see the opening and play the lateral pass that led to Walter Walsh’s miss. The man whose fandango of fury – now gone viral – underlined once more the fact he is the supreme hurler of the age not because he is the supreme artist of the age but because he is its supreme competitor.

It is not often that Brendan Bugler — tough, durable, resourceful, a two-time All Star, a leader – comes ashore early after being bested by an opponent. But he did last Sunday.

Henry Shefflin is 35 years old. That was the bittersweet bit.


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