LAST chance saloon for both Kilkenny and Tipperary on Sunday at Croke Park, the All-Ireland final, but were it not for the second chance offered these days to every team in the championship, the so-called back-door, one of those teams wouldn’t be there.
In the first round of the Munster championship back in May, Tipperary went to Cork with hopes high but left with heads low, beaten out the gap and back up the road to Thurles by a far more motivated and more focused team.
In the days when selector Michael Ryan was a player, plying his wares alongside manager Liam Sheedy in the Tipperary full-back line, there was no such lifeline at such an early stage of the competition. You were gone, finished for the year, six months training gone for nought after just one game.
Now, however, in a more enlightened era for the GAA, there is that second chance, and how Tipperary have taken advantage! “It has been a great learning curve for us all,” says Michael.
“But that was a very humbling day and we had no answers for Cork who got it all right on the day and we seemed to get it all wrong. As the game wore on we had less answers and less appetite for the fight – and that was concerning at the time. We had a five-week break then, and a lot of soul-searching can go on in five weeks. But, in fairness to this bunch, once we got a chance to regroup a few lads jumped up to the plate and won jerseys, and thankfully we have done enough since.”
The ‘few lads’ who have won jerseys since that hiding in Cork are forwards Gearóid Ryan and Patrick Maher, but those are the only two changes in personnel since then, though there have been a few positional switches – Padraic Maher from full-back to wing, Michael Cahill to the corner, Paul Curran to full.
Hardly radical surgery, however. “Not overly radical, no, it was a chance for our guys to refocus. If that was pre-97 that was knock-out hurling and they were gone – that’s what they would have been remembered for in 2010. That’s the hurling we grew up on, any of us who are of that era, and that’s the benefit of the backdoor system. You can afford one blip in your province – it’s a single lifeline, you can’t do it twice.
“It would have been a travesty for this team because they have put in a great effort for us since we got involved in 2008. It would have created a lot of problems in Tipp and you would have been wondering – is our system wrong? Are our players wrong? Is our management wrong?”
No such wonder now, however; nevertheless a post-mortem was necessary after that dark day in Cork, so, what went wrong? Was the safety-net actually the problem, that when the going got tough, fellas just said to themselves – ah, to hell with it, we have another chance anyway?
“I don’t think so. The earlier part of our season wasn’t good, to be fair. We didn’t do well in the league, mixed some good and some bad, a good day then a bad day – we got no run of consistency. Our form hadn’t been great coming in against Cork and maybe we were relying too much on the performance we gave last September being enough to buy us through an early round in May.
“Clearly it wasn’t – ten points was a very humbling defeat. You think you are preparing as well as you can for every match, and we’d like to think we didn’t underestimate Cork, but we clearly got it wrong. It was great to find some reprieve after it.”
The flip side of that coin – perhaps the win didn’t do Cork any good, subsequently beaten by Waterford in the Munster final, then fairly comprehensively beaten by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final? “It may not – there are no plaudits handed out in May. The game has changed – we here in Munster love our Munster Championship, but winning it doesn’t buy you a place through to the final, as Waterford found out, and as we found out in ‘08.
“That’s the benefit of extra games. When I was playing I remember being knocked out in ‘94 by Clare and it was the longest, hardest summer I ever put down. It’s great that it doesn’t end like that for the current generation of inter-county players because they put in too much effort and they deserve another bite at the cherry.”
Speaking of which, having lost in such heart-breaking circumstances to Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland final, Tipp now get a second bite at that particular cherry – can they go one better this time?
“I believe we are better than last year, with a more even panel. We certainly have more headaches when we sit down to pick a panel and that’s the best barometer of where we are. Our original ambition was to win the matches that were there and go through the front door, because we feel it’s the best way.
“But these are the deck of cards that were dealt to us and we have to run with it.”
Last year there was hope in Tipperary, this year, however, an even greater urgency to finally make that All-Ireland breakthrough? “There is, absolutely there is. That’s a natural expectation. Throughout the county there would have been a sense of great pride in the performance levels last year. That’s fine when you’re building a team and building momentum.
“The value of this Tipperary team went up considerably after last year, but ultimately the test is – can you win an All-Ireland and can you reach the pinnacle. There’s no joy in being number two.”
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