No gimme for Tipp but don't expect crowds to be pulled in
Players deserve better than half-empty venues on big championship days, writes Jamesie O'Connor
Last September, not long into the school year, an exchange student from Germany joined my fifth year economics class. Martin was from near Dresden, liked sport, supported Borussia Moenchengladbach, and being an affable guy, settled into life in Ireland pretty quickly. Obviously it had something to do with the fact that some of the lads he became friendly with were into it, but as the year progressed he developed an interest, that gradually evolved into a fascination, with hurling.
Chatting after class one evening, he told me the speed and physicality of the game, as well as the skill levels required to play it well, enthralled him. In fact, he raved about how great he thought the sport actually was.
Before he left, at the end of May, the lads made a presentation of a mounted miniature hurley to him. While I'm not so sure he took home any great knowledge of or love for economics, I do know he returned to Germany with new friends and a genuine appreciation and affection for our national game.
In Thurles last Sunday, looking around at the near-empty terraces, and vacant banks of seats, it struck me that despite the best efforts of the Munster Council, and they have worked genuinely hard at addressing it, we have to be doing something wrong when a kid from Germany can be captivated by the game, and yet we can't get 15,000 at the first round of the Munster championship.
I understand that there are mitigating factors: the financial pressures many people now face, the back-door system and the sheer convenience of live television coverage, to name just a few. But with only a similar number anticipated to be in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick this afternoon, there must be scope for some innovative thinking about how we go about marketing and selling our games. That's especially the case with the unique product we've got.
Maybe there's a need to take another look at the economics; the pricing, the marketing and promotion that generates the interest levels and thus demand, because the players more than anyone, with the effort they're putting in, deserve better than the half-empty stadiums we're likely to continue to see until the provincial finals.
Expecting Limerick to be in Thurles taking on Clare or Cork on July 14 might take a leap of faith, but it's not as far-fetched a notion as conventional wisdom might imply. True, the respective form graphs from the league tell a cautionary tale. Tipp's largely restorative and positive campaign where both Clare and Galway were put to the sword, and there were two great battles with Kilkenny, was perfect preparation for the rigours of the coming months.
On the other hand, against significantly weaker opposition, where Limerick were rarely tested, you'd have to question what, if anything, John Allen has learned about the depth in his panel. The failure, after topping the table, to secure promotion, and thus regular meaningful competition against the elite next spring, was a massive setback. And it's not as if they didn't have the chances to put Dublin away in that promotion play-off, especially in the first half.
However, that was then and this is now. Today would always have been the primary focus of John Allen and his players, especially with Tipperary having to come to the Gaelic Grounds, a venue that hasn't always been a happy hunting ground for them. That they had Tipperary on the rack in this fixture 12 months ago, seven points ahead with just 17 minutes left, and failed to finish the job off should furnish the Limerick players with the belief that they can win. The pain of that defeat should also serve as extra motivation. After putting in a massive effort in the opening 55 minutes, they ran out of gas, couldn't sustain the required level of effort, and Tipp scored 1-10 in the last quarter to rescue what had been a dire situation.
Allen alluded afterwards to the superior depth Tipperary had on the bench and that was certainly instrumental in turning the game around. Subs Shane McGrath, Seamus Callanan and Shane Bourke all made important contributions, but the introduction of Bonner Maher was what ultimately saved them. Without his impact – foraging for ball, rampaging through the Limerick defence, drawing frees, setting up scores, including a central involvement in the crucial goal which only came with six minutes left – Tipp would not have clawed the deficit back.
The other significant factor last year was the aerial dominance of Conor O'Mahony and Pádraic Maher, especially on the Limerick puck-out in that critical final quarter. When the need was greatest, the drive and leadership shown by that duo (I think they won something like 11 of the last 12 Limerick puck-outs) laid the platform for the late revival.
From Allen's perspective, those lessons won't have gone unlearned. The questions about the team's fitness in 2012 will surely have been addressed. If the weather is as warm as expected today, stamina will be required, especially for those playing in the middle third, but I don't see it as being an issue.
In addition, while form or lack of it obviously dictated team selection, it's also surely a nod to last year that Limerick appear to have significantly more strength in depth on the bench. Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes, Niall Moran and Conor Alliss all played significant parts last season, and will all surely be on the pitch when the final whistle is blown. It's no coincidence either that it was only when Downes was replaced last year that O'Mahony thundered into the game, and Nicky Quaid will hardly be aiming too many of his puck-outs in Maher's general direction either.
Furthermore, with Declan Hannon, Graeme Mulcahy and Seán Tobin in the full-forward line, Limerick have plenty of pace and class, where they can hurt Tipp most. It was noticeable that Eamonn Cregan made the observation last week that there's no point in having that talent inside if the ball isn't being delivered. Clare were guilty of not utilising their best forwards often enough last weekend too, but if Limerick don't get this trio on the ball, it's hard to see where the scores are going to come from.
With Eamon O'Shea at the helm, and everybody on the Tipp panel feeling better about themselves, there's a danger that the players may fall into the trap of assuming today's result will take care of itself. I don't ever recall an easy match in the Munster championship, especially not against Limerick, and definitely not in their own backyard.
This is no gimme. Cregan also stated that he was sick of moral victories, and that no real progress was being made. The Limerick players will want to prove him wrong. Tipperary better be prepared for it.
While much has been made of the improvement in attack that O'Shea seems to have wrought, if anything it's defensively where Tipp have looked to be sounder than last year. Part of that can be attributed to the increased work rate further out the field, especially by the forwards, which has made a big difference to the quality of ball the Tipp defence has had to deal with. Obviously, Brendan Maher's return to the form that made him one of the hurlers of the year in 2010, and Shane McGrath's sojourn abroad, which seems to have recharged his batteries, have also helped. Paddy Stapleton's return has made a big difference to the full-back line, and Kieran Bergin's emergence is another positive.
Meanwhile, up front, the cohesiveness and goal threat that made them so dangerous under Liam Sheedy seems to have returned, and if that's the case, then even without Eoin Kelly and Lar, the Limerick defence will struggle to keep them out this afternoon.
Sometimes you just know from watching a team that there's a level of seriousness and intent about them. There's a noticeable difference about the Tipperary team this year. This is a group that's tasted success. They've had two years where they will feel they underachieved and they've also unfinished business with Kilkenny.
Of all the banana skins in their path, this is potentially the slippiest. But, with the quality and calibre of player they have, provided the attitude is right, I expect them to safely negotiate it.
The days when Brian Whelahan, Johnny Dooley and Co regularly took Kilkenny's scalp are a distant memory now and it's all of 15 years since Offaly last registered a championship victory over the Cats.
Unfortunately for Offaly, Kilkenny's sheer professionalism, and the reminder of what can happen when you sleepwalk into a championship match as they did against Galway in last year's Leinster final, doesn't create grounds for any real degree of optimism this afternoon.
With Michael Fennelly and Henry Shefflin unavailable, and Walter Walsh and Cillian Buckley on the bench, that they can still field a half-forward line of Eoin Larkin, Richie Power and TJ Reid shows the luxury of riches and ball-winning ability they still have at their disposal. And as long as Lester Ryan and Michael Rice continue to dovetail well in the middle of the field, everyone from 10 to 15 will be looking over their shoulder, and keen to perform. As a result, there's no one likely to be going through the motions, which is bad news for Offaly. We won't even talk about the Kilkenny defence.
Ollie Baker has picked a strong physical side, and Offaly supporters will hope their team produces a performance; get off to a positive start and give it everything they have.
Unfortunately, that will only take them so far. When it boils down to it, Kilkenny are fitter, faster, stronger, better. Much better; and with this management and players, the final scoreboard usually reflects it.