Back-door route has made Tipp stronger - Ryan
Published 30/08/2010 | 05:00
The longest summer Michael Ryan ever put in as an inter-county hurler was 1994, the year Tipperary were tumbled out of the Munster championship semi-final by an emerging Clare side.
For Ryan -- a selector to Liam Sheedy for the last three seasons -- the back door, for all its imperfections, has been a godsend to the game of hurling -- and clearly to Tipperary in 2010.
Having had first-hand experience of its benefits after the disappointment of losing to Cork in the first round of the Munster championship, he knows the GAA can never now look back to the way it once was.
The "humbling" 10-point defeat to Cork brought them to their senses, stopped them from dining out on their contribution to that magnificent All-Ireland final the previous September and presented them with a blank sheet of paper.
In Ryan's playing days defeat in Munster carried far greater resonance and in that sense the sacred status of the Munster championship may have been blemished.
"Here in Munster we love our Munster Championship, but it doesn't buy you a place through to the final as Waterford found out and as we found out in 2008," he said. "That's the benefit of extra games.
"When I was playing I remember being knocked out in '94 by Clare and it was the longest, hardest summer I ever put down. It's great it doesn't end like that for the current generation of inter-county players because they put in too much effort and they deserve another bite at the cherry."
That 10-point reversal, he admits, could have forced a change of management and even shone a light on the systems they have in Tipperary.
"If that was pre-1997 that was knock-out hurling and they were gone. That's what they would have been remembered for in 2010 and that's the hurling we grew up with, any of us who are of that time, and that's the benefit of the back-door system.
"You can almost afford one blip in your province -- it's a single lifeline, you can't do it twice. It would have been a travesty for us because they have put in a great effort for us since we got involved in 2008.
"It would have created a lot of problems in Tipperary and you would have been wondering is our system wrong or are our players wrong or is our management wrong," said the former corner-back from Upperchurch-Drombane.
Ryan is sure of one thing, however. The four games they have played since losing to Cork have made them a better team -- not just better than they were in the earlier part of the season but better than they were in 2009.
"I certainly believe we are better than last year," he said. "I don't tend to focus too much on what the opposition do. For us we are going out to improve by concentrating our efforts on our squad because that's all we can control.
"I certainly believe that we are better and we have a more even panel. We have more headaches when we sit down to pick a panel and that's the best barometer of where we are this year."
They didn't need to be too radical after their hammering at Pairc Ui Chaoimh despite the nature of the defeat. Gearoid Ryan and Patrick Maher were added to the half-forward line, David Young came into midfield, the rest of the switches were positional.
"It was a very humbling day and we had no answers for Cork. Cork got it all right on the day and we seemed to get it all wrong. As the game wore on we had less answers and less appetite for the fight -- and that was concerning at the time," the 40-year-old reflected.
"In fairness to this bunch, once we got a chance to regroup -- and we had a five-week break and a lot of soul searching can go on in five weeks -- a few lads jumped up to the plate and won jerseys and thankfully we have done enough since."
Playing their part in another absorbing final won't wash with the Tipperary public this time, Ryan readily acknowledges.
"There's a natural expectation (to win). Throughout the county there would have been a sense of great pride in the performance levels last year. That's fine when you're building a team and building momentum.
"The value of this Tipperary team went up considerably after last year, but ultimately the test is if you can win an All-Ireland and if you can reach the pinnacle. There's no joy in being No 2."
Does he feel that Tipperary can play much better than the level they reached last September?
"Of course. There were a couple of incidents, game-breaking moments, in it," he said. "We would have, without going into it, highlighted where we could have played better. I'm sure Kilkenny would have said that they could have played a whole pile better and not let it go down to three or four points or whatever it was.
"You're always looking for a better performance and we're aware that we'll need a better performance this year to try to close it out. The common perception is that this team can't be beaten."
But in Tipperary there is a hardening of belief in themselves and what they can achieve, fuelled by young men who know what it's like to win major titles.
"We have five U-21s on this team at the moment and what you get with those guys is incredible belief. They haven't suffered a whole pile in their hurling careers just yet. These guys are winners -- they believe they are winners and you can't buy that."