Costigan out to turn Tipp into genuine dual force
A MOUTH-WATERING rematch between last year's All-Ireland finalists will start the National Hurling League in some style at Semple Stadium next Saturday.
Yet the fact that Tipperary's footballers are lining out there tonight, against Kildare, is even more significant.
Playing Division 2 NFL in the 'home of hurling' heralds the arrival of big-time football for the Premier County.
Fielding a football team in the second division, as well as a hurling team in the top flight, marks Tipperary's emergence as a considerable dual force.
In the past two seasons their footballers have moved up two steps on the NFL rung, taking Down's scalp in last year's Division 3 final.
Now they are really rubbing shoulders with the big boys. They opened with a narrow defeat in Portlaoise last week, and will be hosting teams of the calibre of Kildare, Meath and Donegal, as well as travelling to Armagh and Down.
It's exactly the sort of toughening up they need before taking on Kerry in the first round of a tough Munster championship draw that then yields Cork for the winners.
And it's some turnaround since 2005, when their footballers didn't win a single game in Division 2B of the NFL.
Captain Robbie Costigan doesn't remember too much about the 2005 NFL, but he does recall that the 2005 season ended with their historic Tommy Murphy Cup victory in Croker.
That psychological boost and the arrival of irrepressible Kerryman John Evans to coach them two years ago have definitely contributed to their progress.
What is often overlooked, though, is the production-line that has seen Tipperary contest the last three Munster U-21 finals.
"I've been there since 2002 and I'm 27. Eamonn Hanrahan has just retired and I think only Kevin Mulryan has been there longer; otherwise we've a very young team," Costigan explained.
The U-21s have yielded young stars like Barry Grogan, Chris Aylward and Brian Fox, and players like Sean Carey, Peter Acheson and Ciaran McDonald are still only 21 or under.
Tipp's success is certainly inextricable from Evans, who famously, insisted on his arrival that they play their home games in Semple, rather than the traditional football strongholds like Ardfinnan or Clonmel.
"John just fills up a room; he lives, eats and breathes football and that's seeped into everyone everyone around him," Costigan enthused.
He still chuckles at the suggestion that their steep progress has made it "sexy" to play football for Tipp now, but acknowledges that it certainly helps in recruiting players who would otherwise veer towards hurling.
"We've guys on the panel now from Knockmore and whereas the panel before would have been very South Tipp-orientated, we now have players from the West, Mid and North," he said. "We get the best of stuff from the county board and are well looked after and it does seem to be the case now that fellas really want to play football for Tipp."
The big challenge now is to hold onto their Division 2 status.
"We saw Wexford and Fermanagh going up and then coming straight back and that's what we need to avoid," Costigan noted.
"We've tended to have a good League campaign every second year, but it's consistency we need now.
"Division 2 is going to be a lot tougher physically, we know that, and we got a bit of a culture shock even in the early stages against Laois because they seemed more powerful than us."
Tipperary went 10 points down in their Division 2 opener and only lost by two; Costigan is aware that slow starts have been a recurring problem, even last year.
"Against Limerick and Sligo last summer we had the same problem. We went eight or nine points down by half-time and only lost by a point or two. We just can't be giving ourselves that much to do," he said.
- FIVE-time All Star Eoin Kelly will captain the Tipperary senior hurlers for the season.
The news was confirmed at Thursday night's squad session, with the Mullinahone clubman taking over from Toomevara's Willie Ryan.
Having appeared in the Waterford Crystal Cup this season, Kelly appears to have put a persistent back problem behind him and is ready to lead the team from the forward line.
Killenaule's Declan Fanning has been appointed vice-captain.