THE problem with the do-or-die drama of championship is that the result of a single game can – sometimes in a split second – turn mediocre to majestic, and world-beaters into also-rans.
In the wake of what was by far the best game of the season, I was surprised to hear so many pundits and supporters queuing up to write off this current Tipperary squad as a championship force and to label them hurling’s great underachievers.
It was after all, virtually the final strike of three minutes of injury-time, of 70-plus minutes of pulsating hurling that condemned them to a one-point defeat in an All-Ireland semi-final. Add to that, the superb performance of Colm Callinan between the Galway posts and that they were a Hawkeye decision away from winning the 2014 decider, and the prophets of doom seem to me to be way off the mark.
To an extent it exists in all sport, but the prophecy of doom tradition thrives in the GAA because it won’t be until next May that we’ll find out if Tipp are genuine contenders for the MacCarthy Cup next year or not.
The gentle sparring session of the pre-season competitions and the shadow-boxing of the Allianz League will only serve to fuel speculation until the sliotar is thrown in for the opening of the Munster Championship.
This is shaping into yet another one of those articles on championship restructuring that have been much in vogue in this year of mismatches, but it’s not. It’s merely an antidote to the GAA tradition of writing off teams, where a good result covers all cracks and defeat conceals all positives.
It should also be noted that Seamus Callanan would almost certainly have scored a fourth goal had he not been hauled to the ground by John Hanbury, while Lar Corbett’s snapshot could also have rippled the back of the net.
I wonder too that if Callanan hadn’t been so on fire on Sunday, would he have been sought out so often? It might seem ridiculous to even question the tactic given his return on the day, but there were long-range scores there for the taking, which would have made the difference at the final whistle.
Anthony Cunningham came in for major criticism for not moving Mannion off Callanan but Mannion was also winning his share of the battles too and, when the change did come, Hanbury was also cleaned out. However, the issue for me was the change in gameplan that Callanan’s aerial success brought about. In the Munster final, Tipp hit diagonal ball into the corners, and when that didn’t work, started to pick off scores from range.
On Sunday, there was little variation from the long ball to Callinan and the Tipp half forwards seemed to win very little breaking ball that wasn’t won by Callanan on the edge of the square – and that is a nutshell has been Tipp’s issue in the Eamonn O’Shea era. Against the intensity of Kilkenny, and when they have come up against a back line that has hooked, blocked and hassled in the way that Galway did on Sunday, they have fallen just short.
A couple of years ago – maybe three or four – a slightly giddy Brian Hogan was interviewed during the MacCarthy Cup winner’s banquet. He gave a not very good (although amusing) impersonation of Brian Cody at a Kilkenny training session. Basically he was making the point that Cody’s advice to his forwards started and finished with ‘win your own ball’.
O’Shea has just failed to unearth enough forwards who can win their own ball – or at least maintain possession in the face of the level of intensity that Galway brought to Croke Park on Sunday.
Certainly there will be a few retirements from the Tipp squad, but there are also some top class hurlers to come back into the equation that were missing this year. Michael Breen, John McGrath, Michael Cahill and a fully fit Shane McGrath will ensure that Tipp will stay a championship force for new manager Michael Ryan.
Another Ryan may be possibly leading his side out for the last time this weekend when Kevin takes the Antrim u-21s to Thurles for the All-Ireland semi-final clash against Wexford. Recollections of the upset of two years ago have obviously done the media rounds in the past few weeks but it’s hard to predict another ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ smash and grab at Semple.
Two years ago, Wexford beat Kilkenny by a goal after extra time in the Leinster final. This time round, they beat Kilkenny by 17 points. In 2013 Antrim beat Derry by 6-22 to 0-6. This year, just five points separated the sides. There’s no such thing as a ‘straight line’ form guide, especially at underage level, but if the Offaly and Kilkenny games are anything to go by, the Antrim rear-guard are in for a busy afternoon.
The high ball which paid dividends for Antrim two years ago is unlikely to reap the same rewards on Saturday if Liam Ryan’s performance at full back in the Leinster final v Kilkenny is anything to go by, and Jim White in the half back line looks about six foot six.
Antrim’s best chance of success may be low ball into Conor Johnston and Saul McCaughan but at the other end, they still have to deal with the likes of Conor McDonald and Cathal Dunbar.