Michael Verney: Tipp display new-found mettle to flourish against the odds but Déise await
Premier defence lays foundations for impressive win as Treaty malfunction
They don't have the stomach for the fight. When push comes to shove and games are there to be won, they don't stand up to be counted. They're a nice skilful team but when the ball is there to be won they don't throw their bodies on the line.
These are just some of labels which have been thrown at this Tipperary team since failing to repeat their 2010 All-Ireland success but they went some way to banishing demons of the past in a rain-drenched Thurles yesterday. At least for now, anyway.
When John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer received his marching orders for lashing out at Richie English at the end of the first quarter the odds looked stacked against the Premier going 56 minutes with just 14 men but if anything, it looked more like they had the extra man, particularly in the closing half, as bodies continuously swarmed around Limerick players.
They were like men possessed; hooking, harrying, chasing and never letting Limerick settle or gain a foothold in the game. At half-time they led by three with a nice breeze at their backs but questions lingered.
Would they be able to sustain the effort of 15 men with just 14? Would Limerick wear them down as the game wore on? Dressing rooms can be a funny place and when the odds are stacked against you, defiance can often be the only cure and it certainly was for Tipp in Semple Stadium.
Michael Ryan left it in their hands at the break, and they answered that responsibility emphatically. They were facing into 35 minutes down a gifted attacker but you'd hardly have guessed it as leaders came to the fore in every line.
"Half-time in those circumstances is not normal. The players took it over, in truth, and by the time I needed to speak it was literally wishing them well for the second half," the beaming Tipp boss said afterwards.
"These guys are mature. We all acknowledge that. The core have been there since 2009-10, playing for Tipp. They've a lot of experience, and a lot of hard experience. The work-rate and attitude were super, and we were all the time waiting for bodies to tire, but they continued to find more in themselves."
One man who certainly found more was man-of-the-match Michael Breen, who fired two first-half goals in quick succession, and his emergence has helped quench doubts over the retirements of key midfield personnel like James Woodlock and Shane McGrath.
The Ballina powerhouse adds enormous physicality, something Tipp have been crying out for, and his opportunism in front of goals gives them an added X-factor as he was lightning quick to capitalise on defensive hesitancy and put them on the front foot.
His second goal, a rebounded finish after Nickie Quaid thwarted Seamus Callanan, was underpinned by the sterling work of the heartbeat of the Tipp attack, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher. His ability to win exchanges he has no right to boggles the mind.
First, he sent Gavin O'Mahony over the sideline with a combination of a hook and raw hunger. Then he illustrated the class which he has added to his game to majestically pick the sliotar in a crowded house before offloading to Callanan.
Callanan ploughed a lone furrow at times, something he'll have to get used to with Waterford awaiting in three weeks' time in the Munster final, but he looked sharp while the McGrath brothers were vital cogs throughout.
Noel fired three second-half points and thankfully looks back to his best while John's contributions can't be measured in scores alone. His ability to pick passes under pressure, get vital flicks and bring players into games is a breath of fresh air.
They were aided by a Limerick defence which opened up like the Red Sea at times and while confident and assured when on the ball, O'Mahony was anonymous at times as the sweeper with Tipp's angled deliveries rendering him redundant.
Tipp's foundations were built on a rock-solid back six with the Treaty's only realistic goal chance coming in the dying minutes when Tom Morrissey finished expertly after Darren Gleeson parried a Kevin Downes pile-driver from distance.
Downes and Morrissey were second-half subs made by TJ Ryan as they struggled to make inroads into a Premier defence where Cathal Barrett, James Barry and Padraic Maher stood tall time and again.
A misfiring attack, which was reliant on Shane Dowling's free-taking throughout, puzzled the Limerick boss while handing Tipp early "unforced errors" was a "killer blow" to their charge.
"We needed to get to a situation where we got level or tried to get ahead of them and put them under huge pressure and that didn't materialise. We ended up with them dictating the game," Ryan said.
"Their backs gave no platform to our forwards at all. We had six forwards playing, we brought in three forwards, we just couldn't get to terms with them. Between us not taking our chances and not creating enough, and Tipp defending very well, that was the difference."
There were signs against Cork that Tipp's defence was going to be a meaner proposition under Michael Ryan and tigerish corner-back Barrett believes communication lines have been improved which helped snuff out repeated Limerick efforts.
"I thought they'd come out all guns blazing, as Limerick do, but maybe it's a credit to ourselves that we didn't let them. Maybe Limerick did come out with a bit of fire but maybe we just stopped them," he said.
"If you listened out on the field you probably wouldn't hear us but we're constantly on to each other, like 'mark this man', 'mark that'. We're always talking - that's a good thing we've brought in this year."
Simple but effective policies. Tipp boss Michael Ryan won't be losing the run of himself, however. They're one step closer to retaining their Munster crown, and their place in the last six is assured, but bigger challenges await.
"Let's not get carried away. We've to play a Munster final against a team, as far as I'm concerned, who are the most serious opponents in Munster, if not Ireland. They're up there, Waterford," he said.
Scoring three goals against the same opposition may require a novena. "It's a completely different proposition. They've a fantastic defensive unit and they'll take us the full of our time in terms of planning and organising ourselves," he said.
"We're delighted to be in the final, and the manner - it was special, because it was difficult, but they're always difficult."
It was difficult and Tipp have struggled with difficult in the recent past so that's another obstacle overcome. But bigger and badder ones await.