Thursday 23 May 2019

Colm Keys: 'Tipperary buck average age trend by putting faith in their tried and trusted'

Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy. Photo: Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Prior to last year's championship, former Kilkenny hurler Michael Fennelly tried to align the new format with his aching body. The thought of four games in five weeks rattled every sinew and joint in him.

"If I was still playing it'd be a nightmare for me, it's a younger man's game. I see the age gap going down more. Even 28 or 29 is getting a bit old now," he suggested.

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Fennelly's contention stood up a few months later when Limerick landed the All-Ireland title for the first time in 45 years with a starting team whose average age was 23.6.

Their goalkeeper, Nickie Quaid, was the oldest at 29 and Graeme Mulcahy was 28 but the rest were in their mid to early 20s. Limerick's collective age was just a few years more than Clare's in 2013, when their average was just 23.

The tendency for All-Ireland champions to be trendsetters has certainly not filtered across the border from Limerick to Tipperary if the age profile of the first starting championship team of Liam Sheedy's second coming is anything to gauge by. From one to 15 their average age worked out at 27.5, higher than any of the All-Ireland champions of the last 10 years.

Even Kilkenny, who under Brian Cody tended to incubate younger players when their resources were more plentiful, didn't reach that figure.

The 2012 team came close (27.3) and the 2009 team also broke the 27 mark (27.1). The average age of the last five winning teams in black and amber was 26.3.

Tipperary's last two All-Ireland-winning teams, in 2010 and 2016, have come in at 25.1 in both years. The option to integrate some of the All-Ireland U-21 winning team was there ahead of last weekend.

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Jake Morris, Mark Kehoe and Cian Darcy were introduced as replacements, Ger Browne, Robert Byrne, Dillon Quirke, Brian McGrath, Barry Hogan and Colin English were all part of an extended 40-man squad named last November with a league campaign in mind.

But of those only Morris and Byrne saw regular action during the league, Byrne being one of six players to start all six games, between midfield and half-back, along with Padraic and Ronan Maher, Seamus Callanan, Noel McGrath and Michael Breen.

Any suspicion that Sheedy was somehow going to take a wrecking ball to the old guard was dispelled with his league selections.

In all he used 29 players, starting just nine different forwards, but injuries did impact with Dan McCormack missing the remainder of the campaign after starting the opening two games.

For the last two games, against Cork and Dublin, McGrath and Breen were paired together at midfield while John McGrath, Callanan, Niall O'Meara, Jason Forde and John O'Dwyer started up front, similar to the shape the team took last Sunday.

Experiments were largely confined to just a few positions and even then it was modest.

Sheedy had come back to rejuvenate and recalibrate and some of that faith was repaid on the opening afternoon.

Brendan Maher, one of three 30-year-olds to start, had played just a handful of minutes in the league against Dublin in the quarter-final after recovering from a cruciate ligament rupture but was still restored to wing-back.

By comparison to Tipp's opening game of last year's Munster championship against Limerick, when Brendan and 'Bonner' Maher, Callanan and Breen were among those omitted, there were just seven survivors.

Naturally, age was an irrelevance when Sheedy spoke after Sunday's Páirc Uí Chaoimh game.

"The day someone tells me that someone at 29 years of age is too old to play in championship hurling, that's contrary to what I think," he said.

Goalkeeper Brian Hogan was the only current student to start, an exception rather than the rule in the modern inter-county game.

Brendan Maher, Callanan, Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath are among an ever-decreasing band of hurlers who can source their championship debuts back to the last decade.

Naturally, there will be rotation over their three remaining weekends of action in the next five weeks.

Even Limerick's John Kiely acknowledged that he'd have preferred to have used more players in last year's campaign.

But his opening hand underlined that when it comes to it this season, Sheedy won't be straying too far from the tried and trusted, irrespective of birth certs.

Irish Independent

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