“No nonsense” is the description that comes up time and time again about Michael Ryan. Observers have hardly been startled by the more direct approach taken by Tipperary this year, given the nature of the man at the helm.
Diplomacy isn’t missing from the Upperchurch/Drombane’s makeup, but there’s a pragmatism to his words too. Take the venue: Eoin Kelly says Thurles is worth a goal to the home team, but the fact that the Gaelic Grounds hosts Sunday’s final is no big deal to Ryan.
“Did the pitch ever win you a match? Does the wind ever win you a match? It really doesn’t. It’s down to what you do, how the players adapt, how quickly they settle, who’s going to win the key battles, the usual post-match signals we all recognise. That’s what will tell us who is going to win this match. We’ve just got to try and figure them out in advance.”
When he mentions his preference for a more orthodox style, it’s not that he’s stuck in his ways; he’s only two years older than Davy Fitzgerald and six years older than Derek McGrath, the game’s touted revolutionists. He’s just a paid-up member of the tried-and-trusted school of hurling.
As a defender, his first thought is not how to break down Waterford, but how to stop them breaking down Tipperary.
“I think what really drives what we would call systems or that is the type of player that is available. Teams that you meet, you obviously look at their strengths and what you need to do to negate those, obviously up front most of the time, you are not usually concerned with what they do in the back line. It’s what they are going to do to you in terms of damage limitation for your own backs.
“It reflects more on the players. Would you fear hugely if you were caught five on five at the back if you trusted the pace of the guys? I think you would. It depends on what you have got. A few years ago, and the lads won’t mind me saying it, we were in a bind where, in a league match, we had Paddy Stapleton at full-back. Paddy would give you his heart to defend, but we ended up with a really small full-back line just through the availability of players and we paid a huge price against Galway, who had big guys and rattled in three goals. That is an extreme example.
“My own preference: I really like the traditional game, with six at the back and six up front. You take Kilkenny over the last number of years, they always had six up front. Not if they required the ball to be won; they’d be back in the middle third. Any team would flood back their players to gain possession or to stop momentum against them.”
Tipperary have more defensive options now than in previous years, particularly down the spine of the back-line. In their opening two games, James Barry looked the part at centre-back, but injury allowed Ronan Maher to step in and make the position his own, while Barry, upon his return, moved to full-back replacing Tomás Hamill, who Ryan believes is developing into a strong full-back.
From the league, where they conceded nine goals in six games, Limerick’s consolation goal is the small blot on the defence’s copybook this summer. Waterford are tight at the back, but Tipperary are getting tighter.
“These guys are trying to get better all of the time and our challenge is to facilitate that and it is a challenge just to try and stay ahead. We are like teachers in the classroom, barely a page ahead of them in the notebook, and that’s how it feels. These guys are trying to get better at every opportunity.
“In terms of their awareness of risk, it is just improvement. Look at the experience in the full-back line: Cathal [Barrett] made his debut in 2014; James had a run in 2013, but he was slow coming to inter-county and was well out of U21, but very accomplished; Mickey Cahill has loads of experience.
“The impressive part of the half-back line is you take Paudie’s experience for granted. Ronan had last year’s experience so I wouldn’t discount it and Seamus [Kennedy] is over 21, has got that maturity.”
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