We’ll call him Pat, not least because that’s his name. He’s a young man from Tipperary (some of my best friends, etc), who likes his sport and adores his hurling, and various Munster final days have seen sightings of him in that garb beloved of Tipp hipsters, a Boca Juniors jersey.
Yet being a strikingly normal and well adjusted youth, he’s content to regard hurling, much and all as he loves it, as slightly less important than a matter of life and death. Over the past few years, though, he’s had more dark nights of the soul fretting over the vagaries of the Blue and Gold than he deserves.
One of them occurred last August, a couple of days after the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, upon which he despatched an email in this direction. Two observations he made stand out today.
Did Tipperary underachieve on Eamon O’Shea’s watch, he wondered? On the other hand, did they overachieve? Or did they simply punch their weight?
“I guess hindsight on that will only kick in when we see how Michael Ryan gets on,” he mused.
Quite. Of one thing we can already be sure, however. Even if a mere matter of inches denied them glory in 2014, All-Ireland success under Ryan will see O’Shea viewed in a less kindly light, regardless of how dazzling or otherwise that light may be at the moment. The end crowns all.
And the second observation. “Maybe it’s because they have a few class forwards and can look amazing sometimes, but Tipperary have been talked up far too much over the last few years. Incredible the number of pundits — including yourself — that have been suckered into backing them to beat Kilkenny over the years. They have a very obvious and recognisable way of losing matches, and that way just happens to tie in perfectly with Kilkenny’s way of winning matches under Cody.” A very obvious and recognisable way of losing matches.
So neatly put, so utterly accurate and a line I’m seethingly jealous not to have come up with myself.
Consider. Tipp’s average losing margin in their five championship defeats under O’Shea was 2.4 points. (Three and three and two and three and one.) A puck of a ball in each game. Fine lines. Lines it shouldn’t take too much to turn the other way.
Consider this too. The Gaelic Grounds last June. Limerick with the benefit of a previous outing against Clare. Tipperary coming in cold, having lost to Limerick in each of the previous two seasons. A toss of a coin match if ever there was one. If anything, a toss of a coin match with the hosts the slight favourites.
Final score? Limerick 1-16 Tipperary 4-23. Seamus Callanan 2-2 from play, John O’Dwyer 0-6 from play, Patrick Maher 0-3. Yes, three points for Bonner. That was the kind of afternoon it was.
Precisely as our friend said. Tipperary: class forwards and can look amazing sometimes. That’s why some of us keep giving them the benefit of the doubt. And as at the Gaelic Grounds, every now and then they give us ample reason to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt.
That Tipp will have an edge about them under Michael Ryan, the more so in view of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, has been well flagged. To say they were horsed out of it the same afternoon would be overdoing it. But Galway had the heft and Galway had the attitude and Galway gutted out the win. Tipp’s “obvious and recognisable way of losing matches” again.
The putative return to basics is a doctrinal shift and an understandable one. O’Shea was a forward. Ryan was a defender.
Tipperary under O’Shea occasionally elevated hurling to the plane of molecular gastronomy, as in the 2014 drawn game against Kilkenny.
Under Ryan it’ll be good, unpretentious, wholesome fare. The carvery in Hayes’s Hotel, if you will.
O’Shea wanted his charges to locate their inner zone of enlightenment. Ryan will want them to locate their inner John Doyle.
It took O’Shea a full year of his second coming to acclimatise to the requirements of the job. Ryan won’t need similar adjustment space, having been a recent selector. The speed with which some of the older hands were escorted off the premises last autumn demonstrated as much. Here’s a man who knows exactly what he wants to do.
As such, the county’s best chance of winning an All-Ireland under Ryan is surely in the first year rather than the second year. This isn’t a journey or a process or a search for spiritual uplift in the way it was under O’Shea.
Three players will be crucial. Patrick Maher, Jason Forde and Michael Breen.
Apropos of the former, is he so important to Tipp that he’s become too important? There was the 2014 All-Ireland final. Maher hit 1-1, drove Brian Hogan demented, and Tipp dazzled. But there was the 2014 All-Ireland final replay: couldn’t get the ball onto his stick, and Tipp foundered.
There was the Limerick match last year: hit 0-3 and the machine purred. But there was the All-Ireland semi-final: was barely mapped and the machine spluttered and died.
Forde, who top-scored with 1-5 from play against Dublin the other night and was unfortunate to be the first man subbed against Galway last August, has been around the place for a couple of seasons now. A couple of seasons is required by all bar the superstars to adjust to the rigours of life at the top table. But that couple of seasons extends to infinity for no man. This is a big year for the Silvermines player.
As for Breen, he has versatility and attitude and an edge. The sooner he makes a berth his own, the happier Ryan will be.
Kilkenny? For once, and in spite of Eddie O’Connor’s latest profundities, they enter this fixture as the crowd under pressure to lay down a marker.
Brian Cody offered their late start to training as “a reason, not an excuse” for events in Walsh Park last Sunday. Fair enough, but Kilkenny have been touring the world for many years now in late December and early January without flopping when the curtain went up in February. Twelve months ago they travelled to Cork for the league opener and handed out a lesson about the relevance of determination and application. That was as All-Ireland champions and after a foreign holiday.
Nor was the softness of the sod a contributory factor six days ago. The thing about bad conditions is they’re the same for both sides, and if anything, Waterford’s youngsters should have been more discombobulated by the heavy going. You think Colin Dunford was overjoyed to be trying his best Usain Bolt impression in glue? And Cody would hardly have been as phlegmatic had it been a double-digit beating — as well it might have been in view of the winners’ 18 wides — rather than a four-point reverse.
A home victory would be apposite in the week of the 650th anniversary of the Statutes of Kilkenny, which sought to ban hurling. That worked out well, didn’t it?
As great historical brainwaves go, it’s right up there with: “Hey, I think the world is ready for Guinness Light” and, “Let’s invade Russia.”
Kilkenny needing a result against Tipperary. Tipperary needing to demonstrate their new edge. This could be tasty. Seeing I’ve apparently been suckered into tipping Tipp so often when the counties meet, Kilkenny to win.
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