Thursday 27 July 2017

Hard to see depleted Dubs living with Premier quality

Complacency is the greatest danger to Tipperary, writes Jamesie O'Connor

Jamesie O'Connor

It seems a long time ago now, and many's the battle they fought in the interim, but 1993 was the first occasion today's managers crossed swords in a big competitive game.

Anthony Daly was full-back on the Clare team that was absolutely demolished by Tipperary in that year's Munster final. With Declan Ryan pulling the strings at centre-forward, a potent Tipperary attack ran up a massive 3-27 tally in an 18-point victory.

Yet, just four weeks later, and red-hot favourites for the All-Ireland, Tipperary were out of the championship, well beaten on the day by what was, on paper at least, an inferior Galway side. While the Tribesmen paid them no respect and hit them with an intensity they simply weren't expecting, complacency as much as anything else was Tipp's undoing. With one eye on Kilkenny in the final, their heads weren't where they needed to be and on the field they paid the ultimate price.

As a footnote, if you told Declan Ryan coming out of Limerick that evening that it would take him eight years to get back to Croke Park on the first Sunday in September, and in the meantime Anthony Daly would have trousered two All-Ireland medals, he would have laughed at you. Yet, crazy and all as it seemed, that's what happened.

Eighteen years on, the parallels with 1993 are numerous. Kilkenny are waiting in the final. A landslide Munster final victory has been achieved, and once more Tipperary have a forward line that, when in sync, as it has been for most of the last three seasons, is capable of cutting teams to ribbons with a style and panache that (provided you're not on the receiving end of it) is a joy to watch. The worry for Declan Ryan is that once more complacency is potentially Tipperary's biggest enemy.

With Dublin's crippling injury list, and the respective form lines of both teams, on paper there can only be one winner. But sport if anything is unpredictable, and in boxing terms, if Tipperary fail to come to the fight ready to fight, they could very well have their noses bloodied.

Weakened as they are, it's debatable as to whether Dublin have the power to administer a haymaker. Nonetheless, they have taken Tipperary's scalp in the league in each of the last two years, have the size and athleticism to match them in the physical stakes and, with nothing to lose, make for potentially dangerous opponents.

The fact that Daly has a couple of All-Ireland semi-final appearances as a manager with Clare in 2005 and 2006 under his belt is another help to Dublin's cause and that experience allied to Daly's bullish and confident nature is invaluable, given that his side are in uncharted territory.

In selector Richie Stakelum he also has someone in his backroom team who understands the Tipperary mindset, and no doubt will have had his finger on the pulse of what's been happening within his native county. As a result, we can rest assured that Dublin will be prepared, and with the level of thought and planning they've put into today, Tipp are unlikely to have things as easy as they did on the second Sunday in July.

In fairness to the Dublin management, whatever criticism could be levelled at them after the disappointing Leinster final performance, tactically they got it spot on in that crucial quarter-final match against Limerick. The weaknesses in the heart of the Limerick defence -- Brian Geary's obvious lack of pace, and Seamus Hickey's inexperience at full-back -- were clearly identified, and by selecting Alan McCrabbe at centre-forward and Ryan O'Dwyer on the edge of the square, they picked the team to go after them and got the match-ups right.

In addition, when Limerick withdrew corner-forward Graeme Mulcahy out the field to play as a third midfielder, Dublin were quite content to keep an extra defender at the back, and have him picked up by one of their own forwards. With the cushion of O'Dwyer's first-half goals, and Limerick chasing the game and needing a goal, the relative stalemate that ensued around the middle of the field played into their hands, and while they might have been hanging on at the end, it was all about the result, and taking that giant step forward.

Identifying weaknesses in the All-Ireland champions' make-up is an entirely different matter, but Dublin still have to make every effort to dictate the terms of engagement. They simply can't afford to play the game on Tipperary's terms because if this turns into the free-flowing shoot-out the champions would like it to be, their superior firepower means they could wipe the floor with the Dubs.

In that regard, the template of how not to play against Tipperary is available from the Munster final. Obviously Waterford made key mistakes in picking Brick Walsh out of position at full-back and handing a young and inexperienced Jerome Maher the thankless task of picking up Lar Corbett. But their biggest faux pas was electing to go man to man with the Tipperary attack.

Their forwards are constantly on the move up front, so the Waterford defenders were dragged all over the field and the spaces created as a result ensured the potential for carnage was always going to exist. That said, Waterford were so naive in the opening half and left themselves so open that regardless of who the opposition were, they were going to be riddled. With the potency of the Tipperary attack, it just meant the toll exacted was as high as it was. As an example of how easy Waterford made it, when Bonnar Maher slipped the pass to Seamus Callanan for Tipp's third goal, incredibly there wasn't a single Waterford defender inside their own 45-metre line. That's hard to believe and Dublin are unlikely to be as accommodating.

Of course the Waterford full-back line's cause wasn't helped either by the dominance enjoyed by the Tipperary half-backs and midfielders and their willingness to get the ball into the danger areas as quickly as possible. But Tipperary also did an excellent job of getting their best forwards on the ball in the right places and taking Brick Walsh away from the very areas he was supposed to be safeguarding, something Dublin have to be mindful of this afternoon.

So how do they go about counteracting this Tipperary attack? Obviously, they have to deny them the space Waterford afforded them in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. That may be easier said than done, but as a starting point Dublin have to protect the space in front of their own goal and ensure they have as many sky blue-shirted bodies as possible in their own half of the field. The likelihood is they will play an auxiliary defender to patrol the area in and around their own 'D', and employ a zonal system to ensure there is some semblance of shape and structure to their defence. With Corbett and Eoin Kelly in the form they are in, and with the goal threat they present, it's imperative that those two are marked tightly. If the Dublin defenders know help is at hand, they can attack the ball more aggressively, but keeping a clean sheet early on is vital for them to have a realistic chance.

This system also places a premium on the Dublin half-forwards and midfielders to track back and work hard in defence when Tipperary have the ball. If that doesn't happen, they will just rack up the points, and it will be death by a thousand cuts, at the hands of Callanan, Noel McGrath, Gearóid Ryan and the other sharpshooters further out.

At least in the battle for primary possession, while Conal Keaney is a grievous loss, Dublin have players with the ability to get their hands on the ball. In Keaney's absence, Liam Rushe and Ryan O'Dwyer will both need to have productive afternoons, and it'll be interesting to see where Dublin deploy them to maximise their influence on the game. However, winning possession is one thing. Finishing it is another and whatever way you try to analyse this game, Tipperary simply have far more weapons and forwards in form and operating at the top of their game than Dublin do.

In that sense, it's a real pity that Dublin are effectively down a third of their first-choice starting 15. What would Anthony Daly give to have a full hand to play from? The loss of such key defenders as Tomás Brady and their captain Stephen Hiney was bad enough. However, to be shorn of the services of Keaney, whose leadership, ball-winning ability and sheer presence on the field had made such a difference to the team, was even worse. The injuries suffered by Oisín Gough and David Treacy last week compound things even further and I can't ever recall a team as depleted heading into a game of this magnitude at this stage of the season.

Losing Treacy is another hammer blow because he looked like getting back to the form he displayed a couple of years ago and his availability would have given the Dubs an added dimension up front.

By contrast, Seamus Hennessy apart, Tipperary appear to have a full panel to pick from. The only surprise is that Brendan Maher remains on the bench. They will surely need last year's young hurler of the year on the field if they make the final, and considering they only brought him on for the last seven minutes of the Munster final, he needs game time under his belt. It may be an indication of the strength in depth they have, and how well John O'Keeffe is going at wing-back, but Maher must be chomping at the bit to get on the field, and his appearance at some stage is inevitable and probably the final piece in the Tipperary jigsaw.

Regardless of what happens this afternoon, it has been a great year for Dublin hurling. In what has been by and large a very disappointing hurling campaign, they have been one of the few real positives to emerge. Hopefully, they will bring all the passion, energy, commitment, physicality and intensity that they know they have to play with to have any semblance of a chance, and be in Tipperary's faces from the off.

In the last four, they are in bonus territory now, and as all the pressure and expectation is on Tipperary, they really have nothing to lose. If they can hang onto Tipperary's coat-tails and find a way to stay in the match until the last quarter, it could get very interesting, especially considering that Tipperary have yet to win a really tight game this year.

Unfortunately, with the form Tipp have shown, the reality is that a win looks beyond Dublin. The All-Ireland champions have grown in confidence and appear to be operating at an extraordinarily high level.

The collision course they appeared set on with Kilkenny from a long way out looks like materialising, and the season may yet be rescued by a final we should be relishing in three weeks' time.

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