Tuesday 28 March 2017

Well-tutored players ask all the right questions and find all the right answers

Tipp's performance in victory was a mirror image of Kilkenny's from last year, says Jamesie O'Connor

A number of years ago, the former England manager Graham Taylor returned to the helm at First Division side Watford, the club where he initially made his name before going on to bigger things with Aston Villa and subsequently the English national side.

After a great season which culminated in promotion, the manager happened to spend some time on the west coast of Ireland at a time when hurling had really captured the public's imagination. Later that summer, before their first game back in the Premiership, Taylor apparently showed his players some footage of what had been another epic and enthralling hurling championship.

After the clips had been shown, a number of words appeared on the screen. "Commitment. Honesty. Teamwork. Unpaid". I suppose the purpose of the last word was to communicate the message that if amateur players could show those levels of bravery, honesty and a frequent willingness to put their bodies on the line for their team-mates, surely the pampered, well-paid professionals sitting in front of him could do the same.

I don't know whether it struck a chord with the Watford players at the time or not, but those of us privileged enough to be in Croke Park seven days ago saw commitment, honesty and teamwork on another level. Everything that is great about the game of hurling: the speed, the skill, the athleticism, the raw courage and ability to field the ball in a forest of hurleys, not to mention the selfless devotion to the cause, intensity, savagery of commitment and sheer sense of atmosphere and occasion that ensues when an audience is captivated by the spectacle unfolding in front of it, was there last Sunday. It was absolutely rivetting. As Richie Bennis, whom I met on the way out said, what other sport could compare to it.

Was I aware of what the game had in store for us? On the Friday beforehand, I rang Eamon O'Shea, the Tipperary coach to wish him luck. No one had a bigger influence on my career as a player, and the huge debt of gratitude I owe the man can never be repaid. The friendship and listening ear he provided, as well as the wisdom, advice and confidence he imparted, first as a coach in UCG and later as a confidant when I played with Clare, played no small part in whatever success I was lucky enough to enjoy. The movement, freedom and intelligence with which the Tipp forwards played last weekend, and in fairness over much of the last three years, had O'Shea's handprints all over it and Lar Corbett in particular has been effusive in his praise for what the Kilruane native has done for his game.

Before making that call, I felt Tipp had a chance to win, but that too many things had to go right for them to come out on top. Getting off the phone, I was buzzing with anticipation. I expected Eamon to be positive. He always is. But I couldn't believe how bullish and confident he was about Tipperary's chances.

When he told me they were going to attack Kilkenny from the off and pose questions of the Kilkenny backs that no other team had yet to ask, I knew we would get a real contest. Even so, and wavering as I wrote, I still played it safe and tipped Kilkenny to edge it in these pages last weekend.

In fairness to the Tipp players, they responded emphatically to every question that needed to be answered to make victory possible. The full-back line, supposedly the Achilles heel of the team, was superb. The defence denied Brian Cody's men the early goals they have hit all year. They matched and exceeded Kilkenny's workrate, intensity and physicality in the tackle all over the field. They delivered a better team performance than last year, led from the off, converted goal chances they missed a year ago and forced Kilkenny to chase the game.

I wrote last week, that in last year's final, two things ultimately won Kilkenny the match. The first was their economy in the use of possession and spread of scores on a day when no one Kilkenny forward was allowed to cut loose. On a greasy day, 11 of their players contributed to the scarcely credible 2-22 tally they somehow managed to amass. The second was the contribution made by players coming off the bench. The subs hit 1-2 from play, the eventual five-point winning margin.

Last Sunday, ten Tipperary players scored, including the goalie. Against the best defence in the game, they had six wides in 75 frantic minutes and, incredibly, only one in the manic opening period. Even that was forgivable in that it came from Noel McGrath bearing down on goal when his kicked effort flew wide. Given the pressure the Kilkenny backs bring to bear, that's a seriously impressive statistic and a testament to the discipline and composure the Tipp forwards showed on the day.

With Seamus Callanan whipping over two points within minutes of his introduction, Benny Dunne contributing a great point and likewise Seamus Hennessy, the Tipp bench did what Kilkenny's did last year, and proved that it truly is a 20-man game with the sustained intensity these sides are now playing at.

Before wrapping up on Tipp, it would be remiss not to mention the two elder statesmen of their attack. No player featured more in last Sunday's papers previewing the game than Lar Corbett. Yet no player made a bigger contribution on the day. To score three goals from play in an All-Ireland final is Roy of the Rovers stuff and hopefully a lesson to the modern player and indeed manager, that players giving interviews and playing well in the big matches need not be mutually exclusive. As for the captain: Eoin Kelly earned the respect of his peers a long time ago. His three early frees helped settle his team. He never stopped working and to hit seven from eight on a treacherous day for free-taking was the perfect answer to those who have criticised and doubted him.

On that note, it shouldn't be forgotten the unbelievable negativity that the Tipperary players and management encountered at times this summer, particularly from within their own county and especially in the wake of the debacle in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. From the high of last year, judging by the crowds at the matches I attended, the Tipp supporters deserted this team in droves. Sparse enough crowds attended the Wexford and Offaly matches, and remember there were only 27,500 souls in Croke Park for the season-turning quarter-final victory over Galway. The genuine supporters were there that day. I sat beside one of them, and it's a lesson to the players how fickle fans can invariably be.

The final couldn't have been the contest it was without Kilkenny. They showed a lot of class in defeat. To keep coming back the way they did -- down six points and losing Henry Shefflin inside 13 minutes; conceding the two killer goals early in the second half -- spoke volumes about them. You couldn't but have respect for them, and the way JJ Delaney, Michael Fennelly and Jackie Tyrrell defiantly drove them forward when the game appeared to be going away. It meant Tipp could never relax.

Tipperary's victory will have given hope to Galway, Cork, Waterford and the rest, but whoever wins next year's All-Ireland will still have to beat Kilkenny somewhere along the way.

Sunday Independent

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