What a close call for champions Tipperary in this first-round Munster senior hurling championship clash in baking heat in Thurles yesterday.
But what a heroic performance by a precocious Limerick side also.
With only 15 minutes remaining the youngsters in green were seven points ahead (1-16 to 1-9), their hosts having been held to just a point in the second-half, and a shock of major proportions looked on the cards.
And Limerick were full value for that seven-point lead, had hit the ground with an intensity that seemed to catch Tipperary completely off guard but more importantly, they had maintained that intensity right through those 55 minutes.
Their defence was hurling superbly, hooking/blocking/harassing the Tipperary attack to complete distraction, tigerish corner-backs Stephen Walsh and Tom Condon typifying the visiting effort. Midfielders James Ryan and Paul Browne were more than holding their own, while up front teenage championship debutant Shane Dowling was playing like a veteran, aided and abetted by David Breen and Conor Allis alongside him in the half-forward line, the flying trio of Graeme Mulcahy, Kevin Downes and Seanie Tobin doing damage inside.
It was a magnificent team effort from Limerick and the champions were on the ropes — one big punch and it was all over. However Tipperary are champions for a reason with a deep well of self belief and strength developed over the last four years during which time they’ve gone toe-to-toe with Kilkenny. In those final 15 minutes that talent finally surfaced and when it did, a tiring Limerick had no answer.
Onto the pitch came Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, Conor O’Brien, Seamus Callanan and Shane Bourke, to join Shane McGrath who had been brought on in the first half. Oh, what an impact those five had on the game in those final minutes, what an impact made by Bonner Maher especially. He’s been missing for a while due to injury, and though it took him a while to get to the pace of the game, when he did he was like a fox among the hens, creating panic every time he was on the ball.
Maher inspired the Tipperary comeback. He didn’t score but then that isn’t really his forte; he drew two fouls for pointed frees and gave a scoring pass to start Tipperary on a 1-11 to 0-3 run in that final quarter, a run that saw them turn a seven-point deficit to a four-point win.
Even the goal — Bonner it was who won possession and ran straight at Nicky Quaid (did very well overall, the Limerick keeper), drew a crowd of defenders, dropped the ball to the sod (after what seemed an age!), to be pounced on by Brian O’Meara.
Delight at the end then for the huge Tipperary contingent in the 22,068 attendance, heartbreak for Limerick.
And it is heartbreak; forget the patronising, the consolation talk about great effort — this is a game Limerick should have won.
Right from the start they were in control. After 17 minutes they led by three (0-6 to 0-3, the deadly Dowling with five of those points). They were then caught by a sucker-punch, John O’Brien and Brian O’Meara (lovely stick pass) combining to set up Pa Bourke for Tipperary’s first goal — didn’t matter. Back they came again and a goal of their own, rocketed home by Graeme Mulcahy moments after he had been denied by a miracle point-blank Brendan Cummins save, had them back in charge in the 26th minute, four in front (1-8 to 1-4).
Tipp pulled it back to one by the break (featuring a superb O’Meara point — Richie McCarthy did as good a job as any one man could have managed on the Tipp giant), 1-9 to 1-8, but with the breeze now going to favour Limerick, things were looking rosy for the visitors.
Things were looking even rosier 20 minutes after the restart. Six points to start the new half, one each from all six forwards and the game seemed gone from Tipperary. Then came the cavalry and that late charge.
Great showing from Limerick but it must also be said — while Tipperary did so much right on the sideline, Limerick’s substitutions and switches were somewhat baffling, taking off guys who were still full of running (Tobin particularly), bringing out a man who was causing problems inside (Mulcahy), leaving on a guy who had run himself to a standstill (Dowling). If they learn from this, however, on and off the pitch, they will be a force yet this year. Either way they’ll be a force in a year or two.
Scorers for Tipperary: P Bourke 1-7 (4fs, 1 65), B O’Meara 1-2, N McGrath 0-3, S Callanan 0-2 (1f), T Stapleton, E Kelly (f), J O’Brien, S Bourke, S McGrath, C O’Brien, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Limerick: S Dowling 0-8 (4fs), G Mulcahy 1-2, S Tobin 0-3, C Allis, K Downes 0-2 each, D Breen, D Hannon 0-1 each.
Subs for Tipperary: S McGrath for Woodlock (28), Patrick Maher for Kelly (42), C O’Brien for D Maher (49), S Callanan for Ryan (51), S Bourke for J O’Brien (64).
Subs for Limerick: D Hannon for Downes (65), N Moran for Tobin (65), B Geary for Allis (65), T Ryan for McNamara (69).
Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath)
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