Brendan Maher: 'We’ll keep playing the Tipperary way'
Maher insists Premier will stick to traditional principles
At the final whistle to bring the 2015 Munster hurling final to a conclusion and deliver Tipperary a first title in three years, Brendan Maher felt no overwhelming sense of elation. At least not what he might associate with such an occasion.
There was satisfaction, for sure, at a job done well but the over-riding feeling was more one of relief that they had negotiated the Waterford web.
A Munster final without goals, with so much congestion in his 'middle third' neighbourhood and knocking balls up and down the field into the hands of spare defenders like a baseline tennis rally may have thieved a little of the buzz normally associated with such a landmark day.
"Even the atmosphere that day was unusual," he recalls. "When the final whistle blown it didn't feel like it was a big win. It was a five or six-point gap.
"For myself personally I was given a man-marking job on Kevin Moran so I was barely looking at the ball. It was an unusual game but that's what you have to do to win."
If you listen closely you might just catch a tiny hint of resignation in his voice. Maher is equipped with the skills to be the prototype modern hurler but he's a traditionalist at heart.
The hard pragmatist in him will deal with the sweeper and traffic. But it will be reactive, he says, not pro-active. The idea that Tipperary would be on the front foot with such a style sits uneasily with him.
"As a player you want to be involved in good, open conventional hurling, 15 v 15, beat your own man," he says.
"That's the ideal situation but you have to give credit to the other teams as well that are playing to their strengths. Tactically they are very aware, they are using their strengths very well and it's working for them.
"You know you're going to be involved in those type of games. Henry Shefflin passed a comment that it was nearly harder to have the ball than not have it which is interesting from him looking on."
In recent weeks Maher's former manager Liam Sheedy suggested that the crowds will drift from the game if the age of sweepers and bodies flooding midfield really catches hold. That was prior to an electrifying League final replay between Waterford and Clare which may have shifted opinion again.
"It could be a possibility," Maher agrees. "Maybe it is a factor that people aren't as enjoying the game as much, I don't know. It's hard when you are a player, you don't tend to dwell on things or get involved in that outlook.
"We're trying to keep the traditional approach, we are very traditional in Tipperary, we believe in simplistic hurling.
"But you have to acknowledge that the game is evolving and we have to be able to adapt to different systems that have a sweeper or extra defensive set ups. When you are faced with it, you have to change your style of play to overcome it. You have to strike a balance."
The concept of deploying a seventh defender is not one he can see happening in Tipperary.
"I don't think it's in our nature, it has never happened before. If it does happen it will not be by choice, it won't be our style of play. But it will be a reaction to someone else," he says.
"Our style of play won't change. It will still be conventional hurling, try and move the ball quickly and try and use our skill levels as much as possible.
"We believe in our system and our style of play and we believe that's the right style for us to play. We're not going to play a system that we don't believe in or we don't want to play so we'll impose our stamp on it.
"We don't want to be remembered as a team that copied someone else. We want to put our own Tipperary stamp on it, hurl the way we want to and express ourselves as much as possible."
Tipp put their title on the line against Cork in Semple Stadium on Sunday with question marks over their physical and mental capacity to win tight games resurfacing again.
Do they need to bring a harder edge?
"I don't think it's as simple as that. I think it's maybe combining a balance of playing to our strengths," says Maher. "We need to do that more and not get bogged down in trying to be over-physical. I think we're as physical as any team.
"There is a perception out there that because we have skilful hurlers that they're not physical. But we wouldn't be contesting Munster finals and an All-Ireland final if we weren't physical enough. There is definitely something we need to work on, finding a balance with being able to cope with different teams. I wouldn't say it's just a case of getting more physical and that's it."
After a spell as a centre-forward/third midfielder under Eamon O'Shea in 2015, new Tipp manager Mick Ryan has restored Maher to a more conventional midfield role from where he did arguably his best hurling in 2010. He likes the certainty of that.
"It can be frustrating when you are moved from one place to another because it's quite hard mentally to approach a game, to focus," he says. "That's something I have discussed with Eamon and with Mick, they're happy to say that they'll settle on a position.
"The downfall of being versatile is that that (losing focus) can happen and it has happened me before."
Despite needing a Seamus Callanan hat-trick to stay in touch with Galway in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Maher believes Tipperary are not far off reaching their undoubted potential once more.
"I think we're very close," he says. "We've been involved in some very close games, very close in '14 again, All-Irelands in 2011 and 2009. I think we're doing a lot of things right."
Maher has overcome an injury he picked up in an internal practice match that caused some controversy when he missed a subsequent club match later that week.
He feels the inter-county season could benefit everyone from being condensed.
"I think the inter-county season is spread out too much, there are big gaps there between games, especially in hurling," he says. "It's different in football because there are more teams.
"If we could go the direct route we'd have gaps of four weeks, four weeks, five weeks, three weeks. A game every two weeks would be ideal for us as players."
Litany of one-point pain hints at Tipp flaw
Tipperary won last year’s Munster Hurling Championship but in the last three competitions they have exited, they have done so by one-point defeats. It feeds into the perception that they have trouble seeing tight matches home.
Earlier this year they lost a League quarter-final to Clare in Ennis by 2-13 to 0-18. In last year’s All-Ireland semi-final Galway edged them out by 0-26 to 3-16, another classic encounter that they again came out on the wrong side of. Their 2015 League campaign ended in a Nowlan Park semi-final when Waterford pipped them by 1-19 to 2-15.
Over the last two-and-a half seasons Tipperary have suffered 12 defeats in League and Championship, five of which have been by the minimum margin, including this year’s regulation League game against Waterford (1-18 to 1-17) and the 2014 League final to Kilkenny after extra-time (2-25 to 1-27).
Over the same period they have won quite a few tight games but none by one point.