O'Connor calls Tipp 'bottle' into question
EDDIE O'CONNOR shoots straight from the hip – as usual.
After exchanging initial pleasantries, Kilkenny's 1993 All-Ireland-winning captain wonders out loud: "Is the monster dead?"
Saturday night in the Nowlan Park bear-pit will tell all. Tipperary's former All Star wing-back Eamon Corcoran "genuinely believes" that Kilkenny can be beaten there, but O'Connor (pictured right) lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1993) has his doubts.
"Tipp have the hurlers, but have they the men?" he asks. "I don't know whether they have or not. Will Tipp have the bottle in the Nowlan Park cauldron of fire?"
When the chips were down in the final 20 minutes against Limerick in the Munster semi-final, Tipperary were found wanting.
The impact of Tipperary's subs was minimal after John O'Dwyer hit 1-3. The Killenaule dynamo didn't touch the ball in those last 20 minutes – neither did Brian O'Meara.
Eoin Kelly touched it once, the same as Conor O'Brien. And Lar Corbett's only contribution, on the Mackey Stand side, saw him fumble the sliotar out over the touchline.
So four forwards had been introduced by Eamon O'Shea in this period and they touched the ball twice between them.
Tipp were getting the ball in, but the problem was that it was coming out just as fast.
As Limerick came on strong, Tipp went from the 17th to 31st minutes of the second half without a shot on target, with Shane McGrath and Kelly horsed out over the line by Limerick tacklers. Tipperary were over-run and their character was called into question once again.
Tipp were together on a weekend away in Galway when it emerged that they would be playing Kilkenny.
Holed up in their hotel base, Corcoran believes that strength in numbers would have helped the reality to sink in.
"They were in a room together when that result came out," he says. "If you're on your own, the doubts could creep in.
"Kilkenny this, Kilkenny that. But imagine the 30 lads all together in a room with Eamon O'Shea at that moment."
The story goes that O'Shea left his players to it shortly after and left ownership of the situation in their hands. Now, it's time for Tipperary's players to challenge O'Connor's view of them.
"Skill-wise and ability-wise, there's nothing between Kilkenny and Tipp," Corcoran insists. "Tipp hurlers have everything, but it's that bit – winning their own ball – Kilkenny have beat us on that. It's down to the team that's picked."
And that's why it should be horses for courses in attack as far as Corcoran is concerned. His personal choice of six starting forwards boasts a blend of ball-winners, experience and youthful enthusiasm.
"I would be looking at John O'Brien, Larry (Corbett), Bonner (Patrick Maher), Eoin (Kelly), Bubbles (John O'Dwyer) and Noel (McGrath)," he says.
Behind them, O'Shea has a big call to make on captain Shane McGrath, who has struggled with his form this year.
And in Corcoran's view, it might be time for change alongside Brendan Maher in the middle of the park. "It's a toss-up between Shane McGrath and James Woodlock at midfield," Corcoran argues.
"James struggles when he has time to think and give perfect ball, but this type of game will suit him.
"You don't need to be the most stylish hurler in the world on Saturday night. Shane has an engine, but this might be a game for Woodlock more so than a Croke Park game. I remember league games at Nowlan Park and Woodlock played quite well."
Tipp's players are also anxious to banish the 'soft' tag that they have been labelled with. And Corcoran reluctantly accepts that the accusation carries some merit.
"The one thing you can control is your work rate," he says. "The ball might go left or hop off a helmet, but you can control the hooks and blocks.
"My mindset before going out on the field was about how hard I would work, that I had to make my own luck. Players go out and don't seem to be getting in the hooks and blocks and that frustrates the life out of people.
"And then you have Henry (Shefflin), man of the match against Galway last year, even though he might not have struck the ball four or five times outside of frees.
"But it's that hooking and blocking – supporters will always forgive you if they see you working hard. But they will never forgive you if they feel that you're not putting it in.
"That's why I feel we can put that to bed once and for all next Saturday night," concluded Corcoran.
Maybe they will, but then again, maybe O'Connor will be whistling a similar tune.
"I call a spade a spade and I would be disappointed in them (Tipp) for the last number of years," O'Connor adds.
"They came on the scene in 2010 and had a lot of very good underage players, some tremendous players, as good as anywhere. But I would question their bottle. They're only as good as their last match and they were four points up against Limerick and folded.
"They were beaten by Kilkenny in the league final, so you must question their bottle for a war – because that's what it's going to be on Saturday night."