Tipp's greatest defeat
Painful loss to Cork last year proved catalyst for gloriously successful new approach
On the Tuesday after Tipperary were hammered by Cork in the 2010 Munster championship, the players and management met up in the Horse and Jockey Hotel. There were no recriminations, only self-examination.
Everyone was free to speak and everyone spoke freely. Players accepted that a few gym sessions had been missed, and the general consensus was that the group had stayed inside a comfort zone and had become casual. Management accepted they had facilitated that as well.
Everyone left the meeting in agreement that they all had at least two or three things to work on, which left close to 100 small things to work on. If they all improved slightly on even half that figure, the squad and management knew they'd be in a good place heading into their next game.
Immediately, Tipp went about eradicating the virus which insidiously contaminated their mindset for the Cork match. In the weeks leading up to the All-Ireland quarter-final, training went better than at any stage under Liam Sheedy's management.
They had developed a new understanding of where they were and what was required every day they play -- the Kilkenny mentality of living in seconds, as opposed to minutes or matches.
What troubled Tipp most about the 2009 All-Ireland final was how much more efficient Kilkenny were with their possession, and that was a key part of their game they needed to develop.
Tipp were wasteful in stages of the second half of last year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway but when the game was there to be decided, they took the correct options with the ball and got the last three scores.
The qualifier route had also clearly helped shape some of the younger players, notably Patrick 'Bonnar' Maher and Gearoid Ryan. After Maher took a wrong option when through on goal against Wexford in their opening qualifier last summer, Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly berated him. After Maher set up Kelly for the opening goal in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Kelly pointed to his temple and shook his fist at Maher.
By that stage, Tipp had altered the make-up and structure of their team from the Cork game. Five of their starting team were U-21s and eight were under 22. Trying to stabilise such a young team was bound to lead to variable performances during the qualifiers.
Prior to the semi-final against Waterford, Tipp weren't as fluent as they had been during their best patches in 2009, but a lot of that fluency depends on confidence. By extension that confidence stems from goals and Tipp had the pace and the finishers to get them. They got three goals against Waterford -- as they had against Galway -- which gave them huge confidence heading into the All-Ireland final.
Tipp's forward play is all about movement and interchanging, and they had the confidence and pace to discomfit Kilkenny by creating an environment that was almost alien to them. Kilkenny are normally able to compress the space to make Croke Park appear like a soccer field, but Tipp were on a different level to any other team the Cats had met in terms of movement up front. In that context, Kilkenny's defenders couldn't play a zonal system when they were chasing the game so early.
It was obvious after 20 minutes that Kilkenny's defensive shape was in tatters, but there were other aspects of Tipp's play in that game which neatly encapsulated the trust everyone had in each other. 'Bonnar' Maher was clearly sacrificing aspects of his game for the team because he was the only Tipp forward who played in an orthodox position.
His primary job was to confine Tommy Walsh. In the 2009 All-Ireland final, Walsh made 20 plays and was the outstanding outfield player. Walsh did throw off the shackles in the third quarter of last year's final but the damage was done by then. He made 10 plays over the 70 minutes but crucially, he only struck the ball out of his hand on five occasions.
The trust Tipp had in themselves and in their system was apparent in plenty of other forms. Brendan Maher wasn't called ashore by the management in the final 10 minutes; it was Maher himself who called for the substitution, signalling to the sideline that he'd emptied the tank.
In his acceptance speech afterwards, Eoin Kelly referred to how the management team had created the environment for the players' "character and personalities to come through". And that was beautifully expressed in the quality of their hurling.
The question for Tipperary at the outset of this season was whether they could take their game to the next level -- especially under a new management. It was obvious that, while there didn't need to be any radical change, the new management would have to stamp their own imprint on the set-up.
For the first couple of months the players struggled with manager Declan Ryan's silence, which was in sharp contrast to Sheedy's management team -- their success had been built on communication. Ryan though, wasn't like that. At first he stood back and watched.
There were no long speeches but Ryan knew what he wanted. The players soon discovered what was expected. After Tipp's second league defeat -- to Dublin -- he culled four players from the panel. One of them, Timmy Hammersley, was a clubmate; another, Conor O'Brien, was a hugely popular figure in the dressing-room. It was a big call to make so early in the season but it made a bold statement, too.
Tipp haven't lost a game since. On St Patrick's Day, Ryan took the Tipperary players for a run up Slievenamon. At the top he spoke to them with passion and directness. Not at length, but with impact. Less than two weeks later, Tipp exploded for the first time this season when they took Galway apart in the league.
Tipp had tried to take their precise game to the next level in 2010 but that day, they hinted at a more direct game, with an even greater awareness of space and off-the-ball movement. They just toyed with the Galway defence, racking up 4-23. It was a portent of things to come.
When Tipp met Cork in the first round of the championship, their confidence and composure was the difference between the sides. Cork made 48 more plays than Tipp, but Tipp were far more efficient in converting their shots into scores. In the last 20 minutes, Tipp had eight shots at the target and they nailed every one.
That composure and confidence was apparent again in the Munster semi-final against Clare. When Clare opened up a six-point lead early in the game, Brendan Cummins and Paul Curran had a brief discussion. The main thrust of the exchange was that they just needed to keep focused at the back because they knew it was only a matter of time before their forwards would unleash up front.
When they eventually did, the venom in their bite was lethal, with three goals in four minutes.
In the Munster final, their primary tactic was to get the ball into the full-forward line as quickly, and as often, as possible.
When they did, the pace of their attack created havoc in the space. Over the 70 minutes, Tipp played 33 long balls (inside 35 metres) into their attack and, amazingly, won 23, which yielded a dividend of 4-13.
Waterford's defensive cover was in shreds. When 'Bonnar' Maher broke through and fed Seamus Callanan for his goal, there wasn't a single Waterford defender inside their own 45-metre line. The decision to station Michael 'Brick' Walsh at full-back also completely backfired because he had no presence in the area he was supposed to be safeguarding, especially when Tipp are always looking to have two players breaking onto the 'D'.
The other characteristic of the Tipperary forward-line though, is their workrate. Against Cork, 'Bonnar' Maher was highlighted for the hustling role he played in two of the goals but, for the Tipp attack, it is a collective endeavour. In the match, Tipp forwards executed 11 turnovers compared to four by Cork.
Tipp's forwards are always prepared to make the runs to get themselves into the positions where they can do most damage. However, the whole team has bought into the level of workrate that is required to firstly reach the standard Kilkenny had set, and secondly to play at the level Tipp have now attained.
Against Waterford, Tipp won the overall hook/block/tackle count 25-20; 85pc of the teams which win that statistical category win the match. And Tipp have consistently done well in that category since last year's defeat against Cork.
Tipp are playing with a real swagger now, a confidence which comes from winning an All-Ireland. They are playing a game that suits them, but the confidence they have in their system of play is huge. So is the trust they have in each other.
Once a management team and the players are at one, that trust and confidence creates a level of enjoyment which allows players to express themselves. It also creates selflessness, where players make the runs for each other, and which creates the openings for Tipp to do most of their damage up front.
Corbett and Kelly have taken ownership of how the team plays now, but coach Tommy Dunne has done a fantastic job in getting the balance right between allowing the system to develop and slightly tweaking their style.
Everyone is comfortable in their role now. Before last year's All-Ireland final, coach Eamon O'Shea spent some time with Corbett and Callanan at the Drom-Inch pitch at The Ragg. Corbett, who is always testing people, asked O'Shea what he would say to him if a high ball dropped and, instead of catching it, Corbett pulled on the ball and missed it?
O'Shea responded by saying that if he thought it was the best thing to do at the time, what could he say? It was his decision. He was in the best position to make that judgment.
It summed up perfectly Tipp's attitude and approach: all the players know that even when they make the wrong decision, they know they're working towards the right decision. That is the secret of all good teams.
When Sheedy, O'Shea and Michael Ryan walked away after last September, the concern within the squad at the time was that the change may be too seismic given the structures they had developed from within. The reality, though, was that the group needed to be challenged. If the former management were still there, they would have had to find another way of challenging them differently, which would have been difficult in a fourth year.
This team now is seeking to be the best they can be, but what ultimately defines good teams is success and titles. When Tipp won an All-Ireland 10 years ago, the average age of that team was under 24, but they disappeared without winning another trophy. This team, though, has a completely different mentality.
O'Shea remembered talking to Kelly at the end of last year and telling him that they had to win that second All-Ireland. Yet it was Kelly who was leading the conversation. From day one this year, the whole squad's goal is to win successive All-Irelands for the first time since 1964-65.
"That's why this year is so important for us," said Padraic Maher in March. "Tipp haven't won back-to-back All-Irelands in a long, long time and we want to try and achieve that. That's a huge motivation for us. It's about time that we take the mantle off Jimmy Doyle and these lads and get our own names up there."
Whatever happens now, Tipperary have done their utmost to achieve the two-in-a-row. The nightmare of Pairc Ui Chaoimh was only 15 months ago. But it seems like a lifetime ago now.