Saturday 22 October 2016

Tipp's summer at the crossroads

Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30

Eamon O'Shea
Eamon O'Shea

In his autobiography, 'All in my Head', Lar Corbett says that he was 27 before he learning how to play hurling "properly".

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It's quite a statement given he had, by then, won an All-Ireland, but Corbett maintains that he was always somehow at odds with the game until Eamon O'Shea walked into a Tipperary dressing room.

Players googled O'Shea's name when Liam Sheedy added the Kilruane man to his management ticket, their search uncovering an academic CV that completely subsumed his hurling qualifications.

O'Shea was never a shooting star as a player. True, he'd won an All-Ireland club title with McDonaghs and hurled county with both Tipp and Dublin, but nobody ever had a poster of him on their bedroom wall.


Yet, for Corbett, this professor of economics changed everything. How? "I often saw Eamon as a conductor in charge of an orchestra," wrote Lar. "Only an expert would know if one of the violins was out of tune or one of the horns had hit a false note.

"My mind was blown every time I spoke with him."

O'Shea is credited, essentially, with liberating Lar Corbett. A highly-strung player cursed with brittle hamstrings, the Thurles forward became virtually unplayable in the summers of '09, '10 and, to begin with, '11. Tipp's unorthodox forward movement licensed Corbett simply to trust his intuition.

For an innately free spirit, this felt like the removal of leg-chains.

But hurling keeps changing personality and, just now, there seems little room for the easy self-expression that Tipp carried to the 2010 All-Ireland. Today, you must earn the right to spontaneity. Denial of space is the new gospel and those who fail to follow fall prey to a kind of chortling intelligentsia.

Hence a Cork management team that delivered last year's Munster title now finds portrayal as some kind of gathering of lost soldiers.

A corner-back's miracle denied them the All-Ireland in 2013, but - apparently - everything they adhere to now is hopelessly quaint and innocent. This column suspects anyone looking to confer a dunce's cap on Jimmy Barry-Murphy probably needs a little educating themselves, but there's no denying the game has reached a compelling point of intersection here.

For there was something almost machine-like in the efficiency of Waterford's two big, recent victories over Cork.

Clare won an All-Ireland under Davy Fitz by playing a game that, right to the foothills of glory, had their own people tossing programmes away in vexation at the coveting of control over gallery-pleasing dander. And Kilkenny, the daddies of them all, have somehow mastered the illusion of looking free and easy whilst more tactical than Kasparov at a chequered board.

Now O'Shea and Tipp make their championship bow in a game likely to ask familiarly awkward questions of, not just their hurling, but their stomach-lining. Tipp's track record away to Limerick isn't a confident one and, having lost to them in successive seasons now, they go to the Gaelic Grounds under pressure.

So what, tactically, does O'Shea do? Just as Tipp and Cork would - we assume - never appoint an outside manager, there is a view that neither could stomach corrupting a game plan with supplemented defence either. To do so would, supposedly, be to lower the elegant game to some kind of ugly, 15-man trigonometry.


But is it viable for Tipp to set up conventionally tomorrow? Can they really afford to trust in the purity of their hurling against opponents that, of late at least, have proved more resilient?

No question, the idea of pulling an extra defender back would stick in traditional Tipp throats, particularly for children of the Sixties who grew up worshipping one of the greatest county teams of all.

But O'Shea has never won a Munster Championship game as Tipp manager and it will be a surprise if TJ Ryan doesn't work off some version of the Waterford template tomorrow, not to mention that deployed by Brian Cody in last year's All-Ireland final replay. The denial of space is a recurring problem for this Tipp team.

Hurl them 15 on 15 and, chances are, you will get a great spectacle and lose. Limerick won't do that. Chances are nobody will in 2015.

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