Thursday 17 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Forward power can Tipp balance'

John O'Dwyer of Tipperary in action against Conor Gleeson of Waterford
John O'Dwyer of Tipperary in action against Conor Gleeson of Waterford
‘Tipperary have had the best set of players in the game for a few years. But they were inclined to be a bit easy on themselves’. Photo: Ray McManus. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

With two rounds of the Munster hurling championship completed, it is incumbent on all responsible commentators not to jump to any conclusions whatsoever. We must remember that the competition is still at an early stage, that the All-Ireland is a marathon not a sprint and that all results must be seen in the context of the season as a whole.

Bollocks to that. We're not writing a government white paper here. Speculation is one of the great joys of the season, And, young though the campaign may be, it's probable that we've already been furnished with vital clues to the solution of the whodunnit.

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Last year the top three after two rounds turned out to be the top three at the end. The first fortnight of the championship suggested that Limerick were serious contenders, that Cork were the best team in the province, that Tipperary were in deep trouble, that Waterford weren't going to figure and that it was hard to make head or tail of Clare. Subsequent events disproved none of these suggestions.

So what do we know now? For one thing, that Liam Sheedy has lost none of his managerial skill. He is a serious man and has passed on this seriousness to a team which had of late seemed a bit frivolous.

Tipperary have had the best set of players in the game for a few years. But they were inclined to be a bit easy on themselves. Careless Tipp performances were excused by noting that they had "a lot left in the tank." By the time they made an ignominious early exit from last year's championship it was clear this tank must have been the size of a reservoir to hold everything Tipperary had left in it.

That big performance everyone knew Tipp were poised to unleash in 2018 turned out to be as illusory as Godot. We should perhaps have paid more heed to their supine league final performance which, like a similar no-show the previous year, presaged championship problems.

The notion of Tipperary as a team inclined to idle was at the root of the predictions before last week's meeting with Waterford that the Premier might find it difficult to give a big performance for a second week in a row.

That they didn't is significant. There was a ruthlessness about the demolition job Tipp hadn't shown in a while. Most encouraging for Sheedy was that while against Cork, most of the damage had been done by Noel McGrath, John O'Dwyer and Séamus Callanan (1-14 from play between them) against Waterford the way was led by Jason Forde, Michael Breen and John McGrath (1-16 from play between them.)

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This whack-a-mole quality typified Tipp at their best in 2016 and makes them a uniquely potent attacking force. The 2-28 they scored against Cork was the joint highest score in the Munster championship since Tipp hit 7-19 in the 2011 Munster final. Last Sunday they bettered that with 2-30 against Waterford.

Tipperary's defence is not flawless, but that might not matter if the attack keeps functioning. After all, the 2-20 scored by Kilkenny in 2016 was the second highest total conceded by a winning team in a 70-minute All-Ireland final.

If Tipp play to their full potential they should win this year's championship. The big question is whether Sheedy can keep them at it now they've hit the front.

Should Tipp return to past habits Cork are best placed to take advantage. The virtual writing off of the Rebels pre-championship was odd. Last year they probably played the best hurling of anyone and threw away the semi-final through a combination of lost concentration and physical exhaustion. Like Tipperary in 2015 and Galway in 2016, they looked like a team whose turn would soon be at hand.

Criticism of their performance against Tipperary ignored the fact that probably no team would have stuck with Tipp in that mood. Cork still played well enough to have comfortably defeated the Clare and Waterford teams who'd met earlier that day.

Looking at the likes of Pat Horgan, Seamus Harnedy, Daniel Kearney, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Alan Cadogan last Sunday was to be struck by how many good championship displays these players have given in the last couple of years. Cork have a very high level of basic competence and only a sending off and a miracle save have denied them consecutive All-Ireland final appearances

Their defence remains far from impregnable, but the move of Eoghan Cadogan to full-back has been a help and in John Meyler's introduction of Sean O'Donoghue, Niall O'Leary and Robert Downey you can see a good back-line of the future taking shape. We should witness one more Cork-Tipp showdown before the season is out. Maybe even two.

It's now apparent that Limerick are not the new Kilkenny. But they're probably not the new Clare 2013 either. Their 2018 triumph was the furthest thing from a soft All-Ireland.

After they'd won the All-Ireland, there was much talk about Limerick's tactical sophistication which ignored the frantic unstructured denouements of their final three victories. Whether forging past Kilkenny, pegging back Cork or holding off Galway, there was something marvelously off the cuff about Limerick.

Last Sunday, Limerick's hurling had a self-conscious quality. They were like a rock band keen to prove they've added maturity to the raw excitement which made them famous, but falling flat on their faces in the process. Limerick may need to forget that they're All-Ireland champions. They are fortunate to have Clare at home and to be finishing against a Tipp side who might be through by then.

The Banner remain the championship's great mystery. Other teams may be inconsistent from one match to another but last year Clare oscillated wildly within the confines of a single 70 minutes. Sleepwalking out of the championship against Tipp, they suddenly produced a fantastic comeback. In danger of humiliation by Galway they mounted one of the season's great revivals. Their two defeats by Cork mixed the irresistible and the incompetent.

Clare may well be undervalued. They should, after all, have beaten Galway in both semi-finals last year. But their failure to do so, especially with the champions on the ropes in the replay, indicated a certain flakiness. Their two best players, Tony Kelly and Peter Duggan, epitomise this nature. There are no more entertaining hurlers than Kelly and Duggan, but the very instinctive quality of their play makes them susceptible to misfires. At his best, Kelly is unmarkable. But when the radar is even slightly off, no great player has been so prone to missing the target.

When the two boys are on top form and John Conlon and Shane O'Donnell are rampaging in the full-forward line, Clare can look unstoppable. But they have been hamstrung by the tendency of their defence to concede colossal amounts of scorable frees. More than any other team Clare benefit from a referee not given to fussiness. They are equally capable of winning the All-Ireland or not winning another game this year. Next Sunday's home tie against Tipp will tell a lot.

One Waterford man has greatly enhanced his reputation in this year's championship. Unfortunately that man is Derek McGrath. The former Deise manager wrought miracles, not least in bringing a limited team to within four points of an All-Ireland title. Yet there were constant lunatic suggestions that this managerial genius had somehow held the team back with his cautious tactics. His departure would apparently set the Deise free to dazzle us with attacking flair.

Ahem. McGrath's great insight was that Waterford start from a lower base than their Munster rivals and must get everything tactically and physically right in order to compete. They're not competing this year and even the likes of Jamie Barron, Kevin Moran, Austin Gleeson and Tadgh de Burca seem sadly diminished. Munster's weakest link will probably be saying goodbye after next Sunday's meeting with Limerick.

But maybe there's one kick left in them. Last year it was round three, with the classic draws between Cork and Limerick and Waterford and Tipp, which lit a fire under the championship that didn't go out for the rest of the summer. Things have been subdued so far by comparison but may build to a grand crescendo yet. Look at that final day on June 16 with Clare hosting Cork in Ennis and Limerick travelling to Thurles. How's that not going to be great?

So let's have fun and draw lots of premature conclusions. It's later than you think.

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