Henry Shefflin: Leadership deficit must be addressed if Tipperary are to get over the line
The missing inches in big games need to be found by a strong cohort of senior players
When Noel McGrath came off the bench in last year's electrifying All-Ireland semi-final and scored that point with scarcely a minute of normal time left I remember feeling, apart from delight for Noel personally, that it will mean more for Tipperary than just the one-point lead it had given them.
Given the personal journey he had come to be where he was, I felt it was a seismic moment in such an epic encounter and that Tipp would take their cue from their heroic figure doing what he did and go on to lock the game down.
They didn't score again.
Instead, Galway equalised and had ample opportunity to lead before Shane Moloney delivered the killer blow.
Once again that bit extra to get them over the line was missing.
Why couldn't Tipperary seize the momentum from McGrath's point to see the game out?
I'm sure it's a question they have asked themselves over and over since last August and it's a question that has just as much relevance on the cusp of another Munster Championship.
These narrow defeats are really beginning to stack up on them.
To me, it has been a slight leadership deficit, the ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck in the moments after a score like McGrath's, to do something that kills a game. If it's something a little cynical then do it, just enough to retain the momentum you have been given at such a critical passage in a match.
In the four minutes that followed their last point, plenty of experienced Tipperary players had opportunities to influence play but there were left wondering if they did the right thing.
Leadership, in that respect, isn't coached. It comes with experience... think Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll and Roy Keane. A lot of these Tipperary players have experience but real leadership is still open to question.
Think back to that image of Eoin Kelly in the 2010 All-Ireland final tapping his helmet, encouraging cool heads in the aftermath of one of their second-half goals. But Kelly is no longer around to provide that assurance, that calm disposition.
They have players who can make a ball talk. They are, with Kilkenny, in my view, the most skilful team around.
When the pressure is on and they have a man hanging out of them, their touch can be fabulous. Take a player like Jason Forde, who is in and out of the team, and look at his ability to control a ball.
Younger players have really progressed; Ronan Maher at centre-back, John McGrath up front, Forde, Cathal Barrett has really established himself and Michael Breen found a niche at midfield during the League.
These players will get Tipperary in a winning position time and time again. But it's the senior members who must get them over the line.
Pádraic Maher, Séamus Callanan, John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer, Brendan Maher, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher and Noel McGrath. That's a cohort of really strong, talented hurlers who provided such an injection of youth and promise in 2009 and 2010 but now must provide that leadership to bring these agonising defeats to an end.
It's a defining year for them. I found the manner of Michael Ryan's appointment as Tipperary manager somewhat strange. That it was officially known 12 months in advance seemed unprecedented.
After the year that transpired, where they again came out on the wrong side of tight games like the All-Ireland semi-final and League semi-final, I thought over the winter that Tipp could have benefited from a fresh voice. He had been there for six or seven years as a member of two different back-room teams and maybe something new might have been the way to go.
That said, he's made some subtle changes and some well-known faces have moved on. And maybe I'll be thinking different in September.
Last year's Munster Championship was my first as a spectator and it disappointed me. The opening game between Limerick and Clare didn't live up to my expectations and it followed on from there. But I'm excited about the coming weeks and months. The last time Cork and Tipperary took such a back seat in people's minds was the mid-1990s with the emergence of Clare and Limerick.
Now, Waterford are in the mix and Cork have been cut adrift in terms of expectation and that will suit them fine, just as it suits Tipperary and Kilkenny to have question marks placed against them so publicly.
That inner belief is always there, no matter who is putting on the jersey. Those three counties expect success. Even Cork in their present state, bereft of tangible underage success for so many years, expect. It doesn't matter how bad it went for the previous years, they always have that bit of cockiness that says 'yes, we can do it this year.'
Personally, I don't think they can but I'm interested to see what sort of defensive shape they put on it this year. Not once in six League games did they concede less than 20 scores, something the other fives counties managed at least once.
Jonathan Glynn's early goal for Galway in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final is a recurring vision in any discussion on Cork's defence. That can't happen again.
They tried variations last year with Mark Ellis sitting off the centre-back position and Brian Lawton filling in but some of it was reactive to what their opponents were doing. Tipp won't present them with any such conundrum.
I had great respect for Diarmuid O'Sullivan as an opponent, he was never an easy man to have on your shoulder, and I'm sure he and his colleagues will have invested much time in getting their defensive structure right. But they may not have the personnel.
What I do expect from Cork is a serious backlash. Fittingly, one came against Kilkenny in their fourth League match after they had lost successive games to Galway, Waterford and Dublin, the Dublin defeat in Croke Park really putting pressure on.
That level of performance, when Kilkenny required late goals to win by a point, is what they must at least aspire to again.
I've said before that they have three real quality forwards in Patrick Horgan, Séamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane.
But Tipp have that quality too and a bit more and, in their own back yard, I expect they'll get the job done.
One thing I like about how Ger Cunningham has shaped the Dublin team is their athleticism. Maybe they've taken their template from their footballers but to me there is a striking amount of pace in the team now. Eamonn Dillon, for one, is a player I'm looking forward to seeing more of. He's a rocket. Mark Schutte is in that category too.
In recent years Dublin have gone better in Parnell Park than Croke Park but I'd say Cunningham is trying to change that. If you don't have athleticism in Croke Park you're not going to win there consistently. That applies as much in hurling as it does in football.
As a player, I used to love when the shadows would fall from the Hogan Stand as a match moved in to a late Sunday afternoon in summer. There might be 20 minutes remaining but it's amazing how much bigger Croke Park seemed then.
Players tire, teams lose shape and I think back to Eddie Brennan exploiting that. That's why I'd like to see Colin Fennelly really burn it up some day because he has that pace.
Cunningham remarked during the week that he feels he's putting his stamp on it but one thing I'd wonder about with Dublin is why Danny Sutcliffe is not playing.
To win you must have everything and everyone pulling in the same direction. I'm not sure of Danny's reason for leaving but that makes me doubt them.
It's a huge game for the managers and teams of Dublin and Wexford. Neither are likely to beat Kilkenny but there's confidence to be gained that can sustain them for the long haul.
Wexford will always feel that keeping ahead of Dublin is a barometer of their well being. But their League results don't lie. That's one thing about the structure of these divisions in hurling and football, you can't hide.
They have fallen away badly in the two years since taking out Clare and negativity has taken hold in the county again, I sense. And they'll miss Lee Chin's drive. I felt they deviated from their normal game by deploying Diarmuid O'Keeffe as an extra defender at times last year, robbing Peter to pay Paul because I feel O'Keeffe and Liam Óg McGovern added something with their ability to take on defences the previous year.
With Conor McDonald they have the option of going long and working off the breaks around him. It's a simple strategy but it works for them. .
But Dublin's athleticism tips this in their favour.