Tipperary slipping back into chasing pack
Published 28/02/2012 | 05:00
The No 1 position in world golf came under pressure over the weekend as Rory McIlroy came within two holes of claiming top spot for what many keen observers of the game believe will be for a long time to come.
In contrast, the top spot in hurling didn't even come close to being threatened.
In fact, those who came away from Nowlan Park on Sunday evening could easily have determined that Kilkenny are now in as dominant a position in the game as they were three years ago, when they took their hurling to a new level in a sequence of League games that left opponents like Tipperary, Galway and Clare bruised and battered as they responded to a defeat by Waterford.
The strength of the position Kilkenny find themselves in again isn't all down to themselves either, it should be pointed out. They've remained steady and consistent, out in front of a peloton that is beginning to bunch up behind them with no one prepared to organise the chase properly.
Cork made a significant move last Saturday night with their most productive League win since beating Kilkenny two years earlier; Galway's youthful enthusiasm spoke of promising days ahead, while the same could be said for Clare. But Dublin, Waterford and Limerick all took steps backwards.
Arguably, Tipperary hit the reverse gear with most venom of all, their eight-point reversal double that of last year's All-Ireland final, but similar in how the scoreboard distorted the true reflection of both games.
Perhaps, it's too early to suggest that Kilkenny have put so much distance between themselves and the chasing pack again.
However, when Tipperary landed the All-Ireland title in September 2010 and followed it up with the most impressive All-Ireland U-21 final performance for many years against Galway in front of an adoring home crowd six days later, the talk of a new order was rampant. That hasn't happened.
Twelve months ago, Kilkenny took the first steps to quickly re-asserting their authority with a seven-point League win at Semple Stadium. This year they stretched that margin to a comfortable eight.
Admittedly, Kilkenny had 12 of the team from last September and Tipperary had just over half -- which was similar to their 2011 League meeting when 10 of the Kilkenny team that would play last September featured, to Tipperary's seven.
But the Tipperary players who secured glory 18 months ago and vowed to be more like Kilkenny in future years have stalled; the seven-goal heroics against Waterford look more than a little misleading now with the benefit of hindsight.
Inevitably the spotlight is falling on Declan Ryan's stewardship, but three games ago, prior to their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, that issue wasn't on the horizon.
Perhaps he doesn't buzz with the same energy along the sideline or in the dressing-room as his predecessor, but can that explain back-to-back defeats to Kilkenny?
Those defeats have changed the complexion of everything, and the imperious air that Tipp carried in the wake of that double All-Ireland success has dissipated.
The scale of Tipp's latest reversal and, more importantly, their performance at Nowlan Park cannot be attributed to the absence of Lar Corbett alone. Lar and the League have never been perfect bedfellows. Over the last three years, since his re-emergence as one of the top forwards in the game, his League credits have been more miss than hit.
Invariably injury has thieved Tipp of his talents in the earlier part of the year, but Liam Sheedy was prone to sparing him from game to game during the months of February, March and April. Of the 22 games that Tipp played in the group stages of the League from 2009 to 2011, Corbett started in 10, came off the bench in two more and didn't feature at all in another 10.
In the 12 games he played a part in over that period, he mined just one goal, against Galway in 2009, a stark contrast to his return in the Championship over the same period. So League hurling has never really been his thing.
But human nature being what it is, Corbett's absence has to be preying on the minds of the other Tipperary players. Not all of them are certain that he will return before this campaign is done and dusted.
In recent years, one of the strengths of this Tipperary team has been the manner of their response to moments of adversity. When they shipped three goals against Cork in the 2010 Munster Championship they embarked on that run through the qualifiers that eventually led to the dethroning of Kilkenny.
When they were hit for five goals in the 2009 League massacre at Nowlan Park, their response was to win the next three matches against Dublin, Limerick and Galway, then engage with Kilkenny on a far more meaningful and competitive level in a wonderful League final at Semple Stadium that went to extra-time, then make an All-Ireland final appearance that would provide the foundations of belief for the following year.
They're at a crossroads now that they never expected to be at 18 months ago. They can only look over the border and admire the hunger, the drive and regiment of their neighbours and now nemeses again.
The great succession is very much on hold.