Ryan knows Ennis won't be gentle on Tipp team struggling to find top gear
Memories of when they ruled the hurling world re-ignite as old foes resume battle
Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30
The old sectarian edge has left this page now but, for Michael Ryan, you suspect a hurling journey to Ennis will always have the feel of crossroads business.
Tipperary's recent history is narrated chiefly through their relationship with Kilkenny but, in Ryan's time as a player, the measuring stick was Clare.
Together, they set the late '90s ablaze with games that were franked by many energies, but maybe none more compelling than a seismic distaste for one another.
And the language deployed commonly went to the heart of it.
Like Ger Loughnane stiffening his team for that famous Ennis League game in '95, telling them that Tipp wouldn't be coming down simply to win, but "to make a holy show of us".
Anthony Daly and Seanie McMahon taking up that baton in the dressing-room, declaring it time for Clare to be "laying down the law in our town".
Read Daly's book, specifically his harvest of memories from school days in St Flannans and Tipp students walking "around like they owned the place".
Or him recalling Loughnane in '97, "like a madman in training" as he reheated that image of Nicky English's alleged laughter at their expense four years earlier, Loughnane promising that "this is the day we are going to bury them!"
Think of '99, and the sound of English's (now managerial) voice in the adjoining dressing-room, purportedly talking about wounded animals and an obligation for Tipp to "kill, kill, kill". Think of the toxic U-21 Munster final that followed that same year.
Or of Daly himself recalling the collision in '01 (his last Championship) just four weeks after Tipp beat them in the League final and how he himself was "like a timebomb waiting to go off".
Read Brendan Cummins recall, in his autobiography, of a Clare team ruthlessly conditioned to go for Tipp's throat with his observation that: "I can only compare them to a bunch of animals left out of a cage." To be fair, Cummins acknowledges too that Clare had "brilliant hurlers", but you get the gist.
For a time, Clare-Tipp WAS hurling. It boiled with an enmity you could reach out and touch and, if some of the narrative became wild and almost dangerously unhinged, anyone with a functioning pulse could not but feel seduced by it.
Ryan and Davy Fitzgerald are products of that time. They embraced its energies unequivocally because, for both, hurling was always a game to be played on the edge of control.
There was not a hint of pacifism to how either regarded the rivalry back then and now, as managers, Clare-Tipp will still bristle for them with the sense of something personal.
Clare have, thus far, ticked every important box in this League, securing promotion back to the top tier and beating Limerick last time out in what was always going to be the marquee 1B fixture. That they have done so without access to their most coveted player, Tony Kelly, will no doubt add to the sense of fulfilment.
There is a feeling too that the recruitment of Donal Og Cusack and return of Paul Kinnerk as selectors have helped Fitzgerald freshen the emotional dynamic within a group that has under-achieved since the All-Ireland win of 2013.
But what's Clare's next move?
That might seem a peculiar question to ask of a county without a National League crown since 1978 but, with David McInerney and Shane O'Donnell now added to an extended injury list, Fitzgerald might consider tomorrow's likely prize of a semi-final meeting with Kilkenny something of a double-edged sword.
Clare's Munster Championship semi-final against Waterford on June 5 already has the makings of a pivotal Championship fixture and their manager has made no bones of the fact that that is the date dominating his thinking.
It certainly isn't in his DNA to be equivocal about a game with Tipp, but Fitzgerald may well see tomorrow's contest as one in which he can, perhaps, experiment without fear of failure.
O'Donnell and McInerney are two of only six players who started every League game and both will, barring injury, start on June 5.
That said, Clare have not yet found a way of re-igniting O'Donnell as the goal-scoring full-forward who so ripped Cork to shreds in the replayed All-Ireland final three seasons back.
This has partly been to do with their system of pulling supplementary bodies to the middle third, allowing opposing defences double-team the Ennis youngster.
However, O'Donnell's scoring return of a paltry 0-1 from five League games has to be regarded as disappointing too (albeit Fitzgerald believes he gets scant protection from the refereeing fraternity).
In his absence, Clare have the opportunity to explore a different attacking route tomorrow, albeit Fitzgerald may be more concerned by the challenge of structuring a defence denied the re-assuring presence of McInerney.
Last January, addressing a Tipperary supporters' function, Ryan made clear that he wouldn't be unveiling any long-term strategies in his time as manager.
Having served as a selector under both Liam Sheedy and Eamon O'Shea, he understands how little appetite there is in the county for woolly, aspirational rhetoric.
"I'd be very conscious I've been around here for six years," he told them. "I may well be guilty of being there for too long but I won't overstay my welcome. It will either be successful or I'll move out of the way and let someone else at it."
Ryan did not stand on ceremony as a player and the broad view is that his priority as manager will be to put out a team, if not in his image, at least one true to his values.
The directness of Tipp's approach during their opening-round destruction of a tepid Dublin team in Thurles was, accordingly, interpreted as some kind of profound philosophical change.
But Conor Kenny, who excelled on the edge of the 'square' that evening, has since been cut from the squad and Ryan is smart enough to know that the focus on relentless forward movement, so championed by O'Shea, probably remains a smarter route for this Tipp team to take than relentless aerial bombardment of forwards ill-equipped to deal with it.
What he will demand, presumably, is better self-sufficiency on percentage balls or, to put it more bluntly, a greater willingness for Tipp's forwards to scrap for dirty possession.
The McGrath brothers, Noel and John, have started every League game so far and their availability adds potency to an attack that, tomorrow, links 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer up with a returning Seamie Callanan for the first time this year.
Jason Forde looks set to return too for the first time since his impressive 1-5 return against Dublin. That said, 'Bonner' Maher's absence will explore, in others, that very willingness to get hands dirty.
Ronan Maher is making positive waves at centre-back and Michael Breen has been a revelation in midfield.
But Tipp still lost the game Ryan most wanted to win (their 14th defeat to Kilkenny in 19 League games against Brian Cody) and were out-smarted down the home-straight next time out against Waterford.
One imagines, he might just welcome another shot at the Cats before Championship, not to mention the opportunity presented to deliver Tipp's first League since 2008.
Conversely, the implications of defeat to a Clare team probably short half a dozen of their likely Championship 15 would be a set-back to the straight-talking Ryan.
The terms of engagement are unlikely to be gentle in Ennis then, but it wouldn't be an authentic Clare-Tipp battle if they were.
Tipperary look like the ones with more to lose.