Saturday 24 February 2018

Dermot Crowe: Taste of big time should only whet Tipp's appetite for further stunning success

New champions have endured too much vilification not to push on from stunning success

Tipperary manager Michael Ryan and his backroom staff celebrate their team’s victory over Kilkenny last Sunday. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan and his backroom staff celebrate their team’s victory over Kilkenny last Sunday. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

A few minutes after the final whistle in Croke Park on Sunday last, we got a blast of The Galtee Mountain Boy with its evocative remembrance of Dan Breen and the men of Tipperary's flying column. Slievenamon, the standard Tipp anthem, enjoyed first play on the stadium jukebox, but The Galtee Mountain Boy has a more transportive feel and seemed the ideal accompaniment on a day in which Tipperary were like the Tipp of days gone by. Pure Tipp in other words: defiant and hard and ruthless and unrelenting.

They won virtually every position on the field which in any normal circumstance would have led to an annihilation of the opposition. But Kilkenny, exposed as they were, hanging by a thread, still mustered a gallant resistance. They scored 2-20 and were still firing away even when the cause was lost, not knowing the meaning of surrender. A riotous score of 2-29 to win the final in no way flattered Tipp. Eoin Murphy pulled off one stupendous save from John McGrath, and made two others in the second half to keep Kilkenny in the game.

While their majestic attacking movement will be rightfully acclaimed for years to come, crowned by Séamus Callanan's nine points from play, Tipperary ended their wait for a 27th All-Ireland and broke Kilkenny's grip by bringing a ferocity to every moment which their opponents could not match.

One hundred years after the All-Ireland final of 1916 in which the county first wore their familiar blue and gold, and the impression took hold of Kilkenny for the hurling, and Tipp for the men, this was a performance true to the old core characteristics for which Tipperary had come to be known. That was their foundation. Their half-back line, led by 20-year-old Ronan Maher, catapulted them to victory.

‘John McGrath has supplied the X-factor, the genuine cutting edge up front for Tipperary this year’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

From that platform the forwards thrived and unleashed hell. Kilkenny have suffered massive losses to injury and retirement and the mood in the county in advance of the match appeared pessimistic and subdued. Spare tickets were circulating too freely to suggest that there was much relish of facing Tipperary in their present vulnerable condition, as if they sensed that this was one step too far, and that no amount of genius improvisation from Brian Cody would save them.

They didn't have Michael Fennelly to fall back and help out the defence but even with Fennelly there it is doubtful Kilkenny would have survived with the constant shelling of their full-back line. Had they managed a better return from their half-forwards, the same stream of ball toward their own goal might have been curtailed and given them some more time to breathe. But they were losing positions everywhere. A nine-point defeat is Kilkenny's heaviest in a final since 1964; it could have been double that.

Tipp's inside forwards torched a Kilkenny full-back line that had been a source of ongoing concern. They didn't make life easier for themselves with a series of fumbles and mistakes, some under fierce pressure, in the opening quarter that led to turnovers and offered Tipp scores on a plate. This was the kind of harassment Kilkenny usually mete out to Tipperary and other sides. And this was the worry for Tipp followers in advance: would they be able to produce that kind of aggression and sustained pressure? They answered that emphatically.

4 September 2016; John O’Dwyer of Tipperary celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The scores then flowed and the match turned into a shootout like the 2014 drawn final. In those conditions Tipp were always likely to triumph. While Kilkenny were losing Ger Aylward from 2015, Tipp were gaining John McGrath, and what better embodiment of what they were striving to achieve and promote under Michael Ryan than the young forward, the perfect compound of talent and ceaseless industry. John O'Dwyer's goal summed up the day's contrasting fortunes.


Paul Murphy lost his stick in the challenge and, perplexingly, went back for it, losing vital seconds he couldn't make up for in the ensuing chase. Murphy has been a colossal defender for Kilkenny and a big-day player and it's hard to believe he would have made that kind of call. But all judgment in the Kilkenny full-back line was clouded and dizzy by then. O'Dwyer, after a chequered season, applied a lethal finish, the score that really broke the stranglehold Kilkenny have had over Tipperary since 2010.

In that 2010 final Lar Corbett scored three goals and Eamon O'Shea's intuitive coaching was applauded and appropriately recognised as being invaluably reconciled to the mood and instincts of the Tipperary forward line.

 In Babs Keating's heyday as manager, they had a beautifully choreographed front six. In the 1960s they had Jimmy Doyle and a powerful supporting cast that blitzed teams. But great as that attacking tradition has been, lavishly embellished on Sunday last, no team is worth a penny without the rawboned zeal and zip which Bonner Maher has consistently advertised during the hard times they've suffered over the last six years.

Tipperary's Séamus Callanan scoring a point for his side. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

For that reason it was fitting that he should break through, having liberated himself from all attempts to stall him, and send over the final score, given the fearless competitor that he has been - the man who led the fight when others wilted. The difference now was that they were coming from everywhere to lend assistance. What he brought was now the norm.

Naturally, there is curiosity over why Kilkenny took an hour to make changes or what purpose a bench serves if it is not more utilised at a time like this. We are not privy to Jackie Tyrrell's thoughts as he sat there idle watching a full-back line hopelessly outplayed. Even in formation, Kilkenny left a lot of room in front of their full-back line. But these situations arise when the pressure is as severe as it was down the field and the dominance as pronounced.

Joey Holden never pretended to be Link Walsh or Diamond Hayden and Kilkenny have not had a natural full-back since Noel Hickey. JJ Delaney did a fine job there in filling the gap left after Hickey's retirement. But the hole left since Delaney's departure has never been convincingly filled. Holden had a hard time on Sunday and as a full-back himself, Cody may feel some sympathy for him and his predicament.

He did not have a good day but the man who scored most of his nine points off him has had those afternoons too. The full-back line deserved more protection than it got. It was hung out to dry.

The challenge now for Kilkenny is a lot greater than it was after losing in 2010. Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin may retire. There is no outstanding full-back in club hurling at the moment in Kilkenny.

They may also need a centre-back. Kieran Joyce's recall followed earlier demotion and while he wasn't their worst defender by a long shot, whether Cody still has enough confidence in him there is uncertain. Fennelly's return, if he can rediscover full fitness, will give them a centre-back option, although he prefers hurling in the middle of the field. Filling these central positions is Kilkenny's immediate challenge but they were also short options up front.

Jonjo Farrell's season nosedived dramatically. He played little over 10 minutes in the final two matches of the season, and John Power, too, didn't appear to have the full confidence of the management team a week ago. For all that, Kilkenny look well capable of getting back to an All-Ireland semi-final next year through the direct route. They won't be going away.

Tipperary now face their own challenges. Having failed to build on their victory in 2010, they will be seeking to successfully defend their All-Ireland for the first time since 1965. The difference between now and the aftermath of 2010 is that Michael Ryan is likely to stay where he is. The loss of Liam Sheedy, and the lack of continuity that resulted, affected the team's response in 2011. In the meantime though they continued to produce good players. In 2012, '13, '14 and '15 the county under 21s were beaten by the eventual winners of the competition.

Ryan: Determined to build on victory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

With Kilkenny's injuries and lack of depth, Tipp simply had to win this year's final. The effort was reflected in an exhausted Ronan Maher having to go to bed early on Sunday night, drained and suffering a headache from the day's exertions. With Kilkenny now beaten, they will be leading from the front in 2017. More clipped celebrations are likely and Ryan has been around too many failed expeditions not to realise where some of the pitfalls lie. The time lost in the changeover after Sheedy left in 2010 won't apply this time. One season will run more seamlessly into the next.

Mick Ryan's impact has also been telling. Even though he was familiar to the players from previous spells on both O'Shea's and Sheedy's management teams, he managed to set himself apart and bring his own personality.

"I even see it with Sean Curran from our club," says Eoin Kelly, the 2010 captain, "even his own family did not expect him to be in against Cork in the first [championship] game [this year]. I know that because there was a late scramble for tickets around Mullinahone. Bubbles was probably guessing right up to the Thursday before the final if he'd be selected and he didn't start the semi-final. You have the dressing room then. Eamon [O'Shea] kind of had his team. He didn't divert a hell of a lot away from it. This year you had players wondering and guessing. Sean Curran was flying it by all accounts in training before the Cork game and Bonner Maher was left off; now he hadn't much training done either."

Kelly expects, with the same management in place, easier assessment of where players are in a couple of months compared to the same time 12 months earlier. More control of the process. He foresees curtailed celebration time. And he sees harder pre-Christmas training than they had to endure in 2010 because the system is already in place and the lead-in more structured and stable. Ultimately, they are already in a better place than they were six years ago.

But it comes from the players. And too many of those wearing blue and gold have endured too much vilification and criticism for failing to reproduce in recent years not to be driven to change that next year. If Kilkenny come in their way they haven't the same doubts to contend with nor the naivety which might have weakened them at the start of the decade. They know All-Irelands don't come easily. They know what they need to do.

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