So Tipperary remain the benchmark.
You expected a little more insight than that, no doubt. That’s coming shortly.
The throb and energy in Nowlan Park for yesterday’s NHL semi-final was provided in large part by the Wexford contingent, who outnumbered Premier supporters in the 19,000-plus crowd. They were passionate and vocal, and their team mirrored that belief with a fine display, going toe to toe with Tipperary for over 60 minutes, never taking that action dearly beloved of rugby pundits, the backward step.
Tipp were smooth and efficient yesterday, however; professional in the best sense. They had clearly done their homework and played accordingly, leading by four at half-time, and by the final whistle they had a double-digit winning margin, forged largely by three clinically finished goals deep in the third quarter.
Sufficient to the day is the newspaper thereof, Joyce told us; drop the word ‘display’ in there for ‘newspaper’ and you’d have a neat summary of Tipperary, April 2017.
Capable when necessary and crushing when required.
Forget the late flurry of goals and look instead at their reaction to Wexford closing the gap to two just after half-time. The crowd was howling for the men from the south-east, and so was the breeze freshening Tipp faces.
Brendan Maher and Michael Breen stitched fine points to restore their team’s advantage, though. Scores from distance, into that swirling wind, of a kind Wexford struggled to score in the first half.
When Wexford came knocking again with ten minutes to go, John and Noel McGrath killed the game with goals; straight outta Loughmore (or Castleiney, all depending), while Brendan Maher’s late effort was the icing on the cake.
Wexford had stifled Kilkenny’s goal chances a couple of weeks ago here, but yesterday they found the All-Ireland champions an irrepressible force late on.
Very well. Wexford can take a lot of positives from the league generally, but was yesterday a step backwards?
No. Davy Fitzgerald put it well after the game when he was asked about those final stages.
“I learned more in those eight minutes — the amount of stuff I’ll be able to show them (his own players) because you can’t leave Tipperary loose. If they get a ball in a bunch they’ll spot a fella 30 yards away and they’ll ping it into him,” said Fitzgerald.
“You have to be very disciplined in your structure and set-up. When our fella in the hole left the hole that’s when the trouble came. You can’t leave the hole. If we can cut down on those goals you can see we’re going to be — what was the final score today, 1-19 to 5-18?
“That means they had three more scores. That’s good. We were only a couple of scores away — I know they were goals — but it shows we just have to make sure that we hold that middle tight. If we hold that tight and don’t give up the goal chances — we scored 1-19 and had eight wides to their seven in the first half ; so we had a lot of scoring opportunities we need to take and it’s been the same all year. We’ll try our best as we go along.”
The learning goes both ways, of course. Wexford showed their hand against Kilkenny, for instance, and were rewarded with Shaun Murphy’s sweeping masterclass.
Exposure can be a double-edged sword, though, and Tipperary were well warned about Wexford’s alignment. Players like Brendan, and Ronan and Paudie Maher have seen more attacking deployments than Marshal Ney, and they made it difficult for Murphy to cut out their deliveries.
There was a corresponding issue when Wexford surged upfield, with Tipperary maintaining a free man to protect their own full back line. When Wexford went high with their deliveries they were simply giving Ronan Maher a chance to stretch his legs. You don’t lamp the ball on top of the best fielder in the country and expect not to suffer.
For all that, Wexford came close to a breakthrough more than once, only to be betrayed by a poor first touch. They can expect plenty of practice lifting the ball with two hands on the hurley this week.
Their management will also need to address their team’s shot selection. The Leinster side had to cope with a tricky wind in the first half — an early Conor McDonald free died on a gust that might have wheezed down specifically from Mullinahone for that very purpose — but some of those first-half sides are likely to have caused Fitzgerald and co some sleep last night. Maher and Breen’s economy in the same situation would be worth copying.
The implications for Tipperary? A little blurred. Michael Ryan’s team are learning the old truth, that nobody roots for Goliath. Such is the grip that Kilkenny have maintained that even last year the blue and gold were viewed almost as romantic interlopers — yes, Tipperary — but now the dynamic is different. Their opponents in Nowlan Park were the choice of the other 31 counties.
But what, specifically, did the interested spectators from the Cork management learn from yesterday, for instance? That Tipperary need some silk with the steel in their half forward line? What suited a tight Nowlan Park in windy April might not work as well in Thurles, or other open expanses, during the summer. However, in Noel McGrath, Tipp have a man born to pull the strings around the middle, while Bubbles O’Dwyer showed with his elegant assist for the fourth Tipperary goal that he could play a creative role in that zone as well.
It was interesting to hear Michael Ryan talk after the game about his side’s next opponents, Galway, in the league final: “We never fail to have but a good game with Galway. It’s super preparation for us — four weeks out from next Sunday to championship.
“But look, for the time we’re in, there’s a national title to be played for. We’re delighted to be in that final, we set it out really early in the year that we wanted to have a real go at the league.
“It was advantage us by a point in 2016, advantage Galway in 2015. In the intervening period, we had a draw in Salthill. There is nothing between Tipp and Galway. It’s a great rivalry. Again, we don’t meet that often but when we do, there’s nothing between us. For us to get out over the line last year in Croke Park against Galway, we were really lucky on the day and we always appreciate that there was nothing in it.”
As an example of focus it would be hard to beat, the awareness of how close the margins are in August when you’ve just won a game in April. But that’s how the benchmark is set. And kept.
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