Tuesday 20 February 2018

Free-flowing Tipp must shut up shop to overthrow Kingdom

Underdogs must curb attacking instincts and keep it tight at back or be punished by a Kerry team with five All-Stars, writes Damian Lawlor

Steven O'Brien is a key man at midfield for Tipperary who hardly ever wastes a ball. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Steven O'Brien is a key man at midfield for Tipperary who hardly ever wastes a ball. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Damian Lawlor

The last time Tipperary beat Kerry in the championship was 1928. That tells you all you need to know about the task facing Peter Creedon's side this afternoon.

Forget the talk about Tipperary being on the verge of a breakthrough, a win today would still rank as one of the biggest shocks of the modern era.

There can be no denying that the current Tipperary side has evolved into a top-12 team, but the fact remains that they have been soundly beaten in four of the past five years after locking horns with Kerry. Two years ago at Fitzgerald Stadium was perhaps the greatest hammer blow, with Tipp being wiped out by 17 points.

This time around, they come to the table a lot steadier, with a more settled look and buoyed by two of the finest youngsters in the game - Steven O'Brien and Colin O'Riordan. They enjoyed a steady Division 3 NFL too, although privately the management would admit they could have been promoted.

A fortnight ago, they destroyed Waterford, and while nothing should be read into that win over a poor opponent, the truth is that previous meetings between those two teams were almost always tense affairs. Tipp have surged further ahead. That result is just another measure of how far they have gone. Still, that was only Tipp's second provincial win at senior level in 12 years.

To have any chance against Kerry, they will have to tweak their normal game. They like to attack and, against Laois in the qualifiers last year, we saw how good they are as an attacking force. They looked good on the surge too against Galway next time out. The problem was that they conceded heavily on both occasions. They cannot afford that today. They are a fine team to watch and a breath of fresh air to the game, but if they do not shut up shop, it will not matter how much they score because Kerry will punish them.

But Creedon is likely to stick by his principles, figuring that if they pull back 15 men behind the ball, they will get beaten by six or seven points and will have no chance of winning. And they rightly maintain that they would have a hard sell in trying to attract growing numbers of players to come into Dr Morris Park and practise mass defending for an hour-and-a-half three times a week.

You have to admire Tipp for that stance, but with five All-Stars from last year in Kerry's ranks - and Colm Cooper match-fit again - it will be some job to beat them going 15 on 15.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Cian O'Neill were at Tipperary's opening round win but will not have learned much from it. The only positive from a Tipp perspective is that they won commandingly without Colin O'Riordan having to lead the way. And that is the journey this team is on.

While the whole country is talking about O'Riordan, Steven O'Brien has diligently worked his way up to the same level and hardly ever wastes a ball. And today other players like Ciaran MacDonald and Robbie Kiely could be more influential than O'Riordan and O'Brien. McDonald will likely mark the Gooch, while Kiely is a useful and tight defender himself. Brian Fox's role in this game will also be crucial - he has all the goods in his locker needed to transform defence into attack in a split second. Michael Quinlivan, too, must provide a real goal threat, which he is capable of doing. There will not be that many opportunities to punish the Kerry defence, and when the ball comes his way, it has to stick.

Tipperary have learned a lot since that 2013 destruction - a result that definitely threatened to take the wind out of the county's sails in terms of the progress they seemed to be making. Losing to Tyrone in the All-Ireland under 21 final, while heartbreaking, will in time prove to be another valuable lesson picked up along the way.

Whether today is too soon for those lessons to be learned and used to good effect remains to be seen. If it was Cork, Tipperary would have a much better chance today.

It says a lot that the team are looking forward to playing Kerry in the open confines of Semple Stadium. In previous years, the football board would have taken the game out to Clonmel and closed in the sidelines to try and keep the Kingdom at bay. Those days are long since over. It just remains to be seen if the pretenders can one day soon overthrow them.

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