Ryan suffers in Tipp's new-found pessimism
Published 27/02/2012 | 05:00
Ten minutes after two, Tipperary lined up under the scoreboard by the Ted Carroll Stand, settling into a guard of honour for the All-Ireland champions.
Two hours later, they might still have been motionless in that respectful chute. Tossed about like bean-bags in a game starkly misrepresented on the scoreboard, this was poor from Tipp. If they weren't quite deferential towards a Kilkenny team hurling with senses scalpel-sharp, they didn't ask too many pressing questions either.
Tipp need young hands in the air, but there were few of them visible here. Adrian Ryan lasted only 35 minutes in an overwhelmed attack; Brian O'Meara got the full 70, but fared little better. Pa Bourke's chance to stake a claim never developed beyond the tidy accumulation of frees.
Too often, Tipp drove high and long into their forwards and, against men like Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney, that's a bit like distributing food packages in a stockbroker belt. The last team to beat Kilkenny in the air probably hasn't much hair or teeth today. Trying it just isn't clever. So five months after handing the Liam MacCarthy back to their stripey nemesis, Tipp didn't look like a team that has wintered with a plan.
That had to be the most jarring worry for Declan Ryan. Kilkenny's stickwork was slicker, their movement infinitely more coherent. But they looked hungrier too, which was inexplicable. As Tipp spooned clearances towards the slate-grey heavens, only their opponents seemed willing to brave fingers under the dropping ball.
Ryan, to be fair, didn't seek to sugar-coat the forensic.
"Very disappointed with that performance overall, absolutely," he confessed. "It just looked like Kilkenny are a couple of steps ahead of us there at the minute, about two or three years ahead of us overall. The most disappointing thing is our lads have been training particularly hard in pre-season. But Kilkenny just looked a lot sharper."
It will sate few nerves in Tipp to hear their manager talk of being "two or three gears" behind a team they dethroned as All-Ireland champions in 2010. But an odd pessimism seems to have infected the county since September. Lar Corbett's work commitments aside, this is a team that seems to have shed confidence like snakeskin.
True, only eight of yesterday's starters began the All-Ireland final, whereas Kilkenny had a dozen. But body language spoke volumes. Twelve minutes in, Richie Power's penalty had Brian Cody's men seven points to the good and, presumably, a few Tipp supporters shuffling uneasily in their seats at the grim prospect of a reprise of '09.
That day, Kilkenny had 17 points to spare as they went through the group stages of the National League accumulating great mountains of scores and grinding supposedly big opponents to powder. Hurling itself seemed in peril. But Tipp regrouped to hit them with a kitchen sink in that year's league final and the game, since, has been adorned with three wonderful All-Ireland finals between the counties. On yesterday's evidence, it's a moot point if we'll see their like again.
Noel McGrath sniped a couple of gorgeous scores but there was never a sense that Tipp had their teeth in this contest. Kilkenny lorded possession and brought the ball into contact rather than drive it forward on a prayer.
If one player symbolised the difference between the sides, it was Eoin Larkin. He ran at Tipp with that trademark, jinking stride that had all manner of alarms wailing in front of Brendan Cummins. No-one hurling today draws back men into worse positions than Larkin.
TJ Reid had a mighty game too, seeing a slightly out-of-sorts Padraig Maher re-sited on the other wing, but TJ could learn from Larkin's economy in possession. He scored a single point yesterday when he might easily have stroked 2-4. Richie Power and Micheal Rice, too, hurled with the fury of men who have nothing won. Which, of course, is the genius of Mr Cody.
There is an emotional neutrality to how Kilkenny approach their business. A kind of humdrum ruthlessness. Halfway through the second half, the difference in the teams was caught in microcosm.
Awake to the futility of another high delivery, Brendan Maher set off on a barrelling run. The further he ran, the thicker the traffic closing all around him. Eventually, Maher was circled by maybe eight stripey shirts, not a single Tipp man offering support. Flummoxed, he tossed away possession.
That was the general tenor of it. Larkin's 41st-minute goal effectively closed the deal and, while John O'Brien spurned a late goal chance for Tipp and the impressive Shane Bourke put his hand up with three smart points, they were always a team just about side-stepping humiliation.
Corner-backs Donagh Maher and Michael Cahill should ship no blame, but that's about the extent of the positives for Ryan. Next up, it's Clare in the Waterford Crystal Cup final, then Galway arrive for round two of the league.
As the days brighten, questions will become more strident.
"The pressure is on Tipp now to perform the next couple of times we go out," Ryan agreed.
A cold breeze then in the rib-cage of the Munster champions. For Kilkenny, winter is already but a memory.