Not a great weekend for Tipperary forwards, then. Gortnahoe- Glengoole attacker Shane Long might have been manhandled around Bordeaux (might? - absolutely everybody), but John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer of PTT Killenaule could have no complaints about his early red card yesterday in Thurles.
It was an early spike of adrenaline in a game that fizzled out, despite a late, late goal for Limerick. That score cut Tipp’s winning margin to two and they had to throw back another Limerick attack, but the game seemed to be theirs from a long way out. A string of second-half wides by both sides took the tension out of the game and despite being reduced to 14 men, Tipp’s workrate and experience made sure they qualified for the Munster final next month against Waterford.
Add to those qualities their rampaging number nine and you understand why Tipp are many people’s fancy for success in September. Michael Breen’s two first-half goals came when he was bursting onto the edge of the small square in support of his forwards, and he covered the field so impressively that omitting any comparison with Martin O’Neill’s options in the middle of the park requires superhuman restraint.
For Limerick, the disappointment will be sharp this morning. This is a rivalry all the keener for being a knowledgeable one, to use an old Clive James line. If Tipperary have traditionally had the upper hand, Limerick have always known how to discomfit the men in blue and gold, but they couldn’t match Tipp in the close-quarter grappling yesterday, which is now the feature of every senior intercounty game.
What that early sending-off did was to open the game up tactically. After all the huffing and puffing this week about systems, Limerick were in a relatively orthodox alignment up to O’Dwyer’s dismissal.
After that, manager TJ Ryan could afford to release Gavin O’Mahony to a free role, and Tipp took some time to adapt to the new dispensation. Limerick failed to press home their advantage in that period, and when Padraic Maher recalibrated the home side started to motor again. The big wing-back found Seamus Callanan with a couple of those raking clearances, and when Limerick failed to clear the ball 28 minutes in, Noel McGrath had the vision to find Callanan with a long handpass — a third Tipperary goal.
At the break, Tipp were three-up, with only two players on the scoresheet. A series of deflating Limerick wides didn’t help their cause on the resumption. Some poor shot selection was compounded by hitting the square with their deliveries rather than moving their opponents out to the corner, perhaps. Tipp boss Michael Ryan said afterwards that they’d pulled an inside forward outfield to cover Limerick’s spare man, and that had the added effect of creating space near Nickie Quaid’s goal, open prairie which looked ominous every time Tipp attacked.
The Premier were efficient in comparison to their opponents. Looking into the third quarter they were five points up and weren’t flattered. Noel McGrath’s calmness in linking the play was crucial to their smooth functioning, as was Padraic Maher’s know-how at the back. You forget those two players, and others with them, were playing All-Ireland finals in the last decade — that’s a lot of experience to draw upon. McGrath’s pickpocketing of Seamus Hickey and snap shot for a point was a freeze-frame illustration of that nous in plain sight.
For all that, Tipp hit their own sequence of poor wides in the fourth quarter. Limerick weren’t putting them under undue pressure so they could afford the wayward shooting, and when a Callanan free eventually made it a six-point margin there was a strong sense that the game would run its course. Morrissey’s late, late goal caused a frisson among the blue and gold, but no more than that, before the final whistle.
“We’d hope we’d never be down to 14 men,” said Tipp manager Michael Ryan afterwards. “It probably reflects the maturity of the group. It was a curveball, without a doubt, but it didn’t derail them. That’s what I felt.
“We knew what we had to do straight away. There were those few minutes when their sweeper was mopping up every ball that seemed to break, but we got on top of that by using one of our inside guys. Credit Limerick too, some of the exchanges were fantastic. There were rucks with two players from each side and a guy would come out with the minimum of space, milliseconds of time, and do something with the ball, something positive.”
His opposite number felt at half-time his side had been getting on top.
“We’d plenty of possession, plenty of ball going forward, we needed to get a couple of scores,” said TJ Ryan.
“Obviously, when they’d 14 men we needed to get to a situation where we got level or put the pressure on them or try to get ahead of them and put them under huge pressure and that didn’t materialise. Coming into the second-half we ended up with them dictating the game, their backs played very well, they got a lot of hooks and blocks, we missed one or two chances at the start of the second-half and it wasn’t to be. We wanted to win the game. We played the guys because they were good enough, we thought we’d come here and get a result, that was the plan. We were going toe-to-toe with them. Conceding a couple of goals early on, unforced errors, that’s very difficult to recover from and when you concede three goals it makes life difficult.”
For Tipperary, discipline will be a key word in the review. Not just O’Dwyer’s cheap red card, but a couple of instances of backchat which encouraged referee James McGrath to advance frees to more scoreable range.
They’ll miss Bubbles for the final, not least because the Killenaule man’s immaculate, smooth striking would probably have converted some of the long-range frees they struggled with yesterday. Who’ll take those against Waterford?
Limerick started some of their All-Ireland-winning U21s in Thurles yesterday. When it comes to sending youngsters out for their first championship start, Jean Cocteau’s reference to young artists always comes to mind: All you can do is open the door and show them the tightrope.
It was an unforgiving milieu for some of them. Dan Morrissey saw up close why Seamus Callanan is so highly-rated, and a couple of them were withdrawn — but everybody’s career starts somewhere. TJ Ryan now has the qualifier route to season them. This year’s Munster final is a replica of last year’s, then, but with a couple of caveats. Though Waterford lost the league final they seem to be better this year, and physically stronger, ready for those rucks which Tipp won yesterday, maybe.
Tipp will be without Bubbles, as noted, and if the noises coming out of the southeast are reliable, the venue is far more likely to be the Gaelic Grounds than Semple Stadium. No matter where it is, though, it promises to be a good one.
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