Wednesday 26 July 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Bridesmaids Tipperary can take another step up the aisle

This could be the year Tipperary step out of Kilkenny's shadow

Seamus Callanan who’s found the net an incredible 11 times in his last eight championship matches, never seems to score a goal which is not spectacular, while all of O’Dwyer’s points have an exhibition look about them.
Seamus Callanan who’s found the net an incredible 11 times in his last eight championship matches, never seems to score a goal which is not spectacular, while all of O’Dwyer’s points have an exhibition look about them.

Eamonn Sweeney

You could call it the Richard Johnson problem. Take Tony McCoy out of the equation and Johnson might well be regarded as the finest National Hunt jockey of them all. No-one but McCoy has ridden more winners than Johnson and the Englishman finished runner-up to the Irishman in the jockeys' championship on 16 occasions. Just one man stood between him and immortality.

Sometimes it's a team which gets in the way. Had Mick O'Dwyer not created his great Kerry team in the 1970s, Dublin would have been looking at an unprecedented six in-a-row from 1974 to 1979. And if there'd been no Muhammad Ali perhaps Sonny Liston in the '60s and George Foreman in the '70s would have continued to look invincible and rank among the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time.

In the same way had Kilkenny dropped their performance levels over the past decade it's entirely possible that the current Tipperary side would be hailed as one of the finest ever to play the game.

This almost supernatural ability the Cats have to thwart the Premier at the moment was most graphically illustrated in last year's All-Ireland final. The drawn game was probably the finest decider of all-time and only the most partisan Kilkenny supporter would deny that Tipperary were unlucky on the day, missing two penalties and then seeing that last-gasp John O'Dwyer free tail away by inches.

Had this year's penalty rule been in effect, Tipperary would have won. Or indeed had Hawk-Eye been malfunctioning, because the first instinct of both umpires and supporters was that O'Dwyer's shot had made it. A victory that day would have completely changed the popular idea of Tipp as the team who just aren't quite good enough for Kilkenny.

When Brian Cody's men won the replay, they were destroying Tipperary's hopes for the fifth time in six years. Tipp's one final victory in 2010 may be memorable but it seems a poor enough reward for all the good stuff this particular set of players have played in those years.

No team in final history has scored as much as the 1-28, 1-24 of it from play, Tipperary chalked up first time out last year and failed to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup. In fact, since the return to the 70-minute era only two winning teams, Tipp in 1989 and Kilkenny in 2008, have scored more than Tipp managed that day. A lot of winner-takes-all rhetoric surrounds big games these days but it would be harsh to tar Tipperary as bottlers or chokers after last year's efforts. It's very hard to see what more they could have done to win the final.

Tipp's destruction of Limerick in the Munster semi-final reminded us that if anything they possess even more fearsome firepower than Kilkenny. Their 4-23 that day contained 4-19 from play, 4-13 of which came from the quartet of Seamus Callanan, John O'Dwyer, Jason Forde and Patrick 'Bonner' Maher.

It was reminiscent of how even the Kilkenny defence found this attack unplayable in last year's final. Callanan (pictured), who's found the net an incredible 11 times in his last eight championship matches, never seems to score a goal which is not spectacular, while all of O'Dwyer's points have an exhibition look about them. For all the talk of this being an open hurling championship, Tipperary and Kilkenny can reach a level of performance that their rivals can only aspire to at the moment.

The problem for Tipperary is that unless they can break Kilkenny's dominance they could end up looking like the greatest might-have-been team in hurling history. They've lost three All-Ireland finals in the last six years, the worst such run since Galway did the same thing between 1985 and 1990 (and Galway won two of the other finals they contested then compared to Tipp's one). Right now, they aren't much more than a footnote in Kilkenny's story, their players destined to end up as bit players on nostalgia programmes consecrated to the glories of Shefflin, Delaney and Larkin.

There were times last year when Tipperary looked like the team of the future with 2014 functioning as a kind of last hurrah for Kilkenny's veterans.

Then again, Tipp's breakthrough in 2010 also looked to herald the end of an era. Hot favourites in their next two championship meetings with Kilkenny, they were ambushed both times and then screwed up royally in 2013 and 2014 with games against Limerick which, for all the heroics of the opposition, seemed almost to have been lost in a fit of absent-mindedness.

That's why Eamon O'Shea will have been pleased to see the ruthlessness with which Limerick were dispatched this year. Kilkenny's performance against Galway showed that time is not exactly staling their infinite variety and it seems likely that only Tipperary of the challengers can rise to that level.

The Premier have never really been a favourite of neutrals, something which probably owes a lot to the fact that geographical situation means they share a border with all their major rivals. Tipperary are the team everyone else loves to beat. But this year, after their extraordinary and unrewarded contribution to 2014, only a churl would begrudge them the ultimate reward, even if Waterford are everyone's second favourite team.

If ever a side had unfinished business, it's Tipperary 2015. You'd imagine they'll continue taking care of it today.

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