Thursday 22 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Tipp are back big time - Sheedy's gamble has changed the landscape'

Old guard reward manager's faith in them and show Bubbles hasn't burst for Premier

John O'Dwyer of Tipperary in action against Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork
John O'Dwyer of Tipperary in action against Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork
Rising above: Tipperary’s Patrick Maher climbs above Cork duo Darragh Fitzgibbon, left, and Mark Coleman to win possession. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

If Tipperary keep playing like this, they'll win the All-Ireland. There's a long way to go, but at Páirc Uí Chaoimh the Premier County hit heights only Limerick and a top-form Galway can possibly match. They're back big time.

Tipp's 2-28, 2-24 from play, bears a striking resemblance to the 2-29, 2-23 from play, that they bagged when winning the 2016 All-Ireland final. Maybe that's not entirely surprising, with 13 of yesterday's starters having played in the decider where Tipperary set a new standard for attacking excellence.

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It was as though the two intervening years, a disappointing 2017 and a catastrophic 2018, never happened.

Nothing summed up Tipp's renaissance like the performance of John O'Dwyer. Four or five years ago there was no more dangerous forward than the artist usually known as Bubbles. When he hit 1-5 in the 2016 decider a couple of weeks before his 25th birthday the Killenaule man looked set to become one of the game's greats.

Yet last year O'Dwyer was a peripheral figure, subbed, then dropped as Tipp slid miserably out of the Championship and he totalled three points from four games.

He seemed bemused and unhappy, as though waiting for something to magically restore his best form. The whole Tipperary team looked like that. It was as if they'd suffered a power cut.

Now Liam Sheedy has switched them back on and no-one has been more dramatically recharged than O'Dwyer.

His seven points from play mirrored the six against the same opposition in the 2014 All-Ireland semi and made you wonder once more how any defence can possibly be expected to curb a forward with his range of talents. A hunger not evident last year was obvious when he powered through a challenge to score in the 14th minute. Fourteen minutes after that came a superb score from the left wing and in the 51st minute one from out on the right.

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When Seamus Harnedy gave Cork brief hope with a great goal five minutes from time, O'Dwyer provided an immediate riposte, springing up to win a high ball, sidestepping and finishing unerringly. If a racehorse improved this much in one year his trainer would be up before the stewards.

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O'Dwyer also provided the cross-field pass which gave John McGrath the opportunity to score Tipp's decisive second goal. There was a ruthlessness about McGrath's finish, a determination to go for goal when fainter hearts might have chosen a point, which has been typical of Tipperary at their best over the past decade.

That decade began with an All-Ireland masterminded by Sheedy, whose return to the helm is not without its reputational dangers. Cyril Farrell, Ger Loughnane, Babs Keating and Jimmy Barry-Murphy all found that past glories do not guarantee present success.

A returning manager can be accused of living in the past and Sheedy made a rod for his own back in this respect by sticking with the old guard who'd struggled in the last couple of years.

He was effectively saying there was nothing wrong with the players available; the problem was with the performances those players were giving.

Sheedy was dead right. Yesterday's victory was built around performances by players whose recent Championship form led to exaggerated reports of their inter-county demise.

In the case of Brendan Maher, even Cork must have believed the hype because the amount of puck-outs Anthony Nash landed down on the right half-back suggested belief in some exploitable weakness.

It was a huge miscalculation. Invincible in the air, Maher gave his best performance in years and capped it with an inspirational individual point seven minutes from time. The performances of the Borris-Ileigh star and his namesakes Ronan and Padraic gave an affirmative answer to that old question about whether there's life in Mahers.

At midfield Noel McGrath was imperious, while Seamus Callanan reminded everyone that it's only three years since he gave one of the finest All-Ireland final displays in history. It seems bizarre this side could not win a single game in last year's round robin.

Yesterday they did to Cork what Kilkenny repeatedly did to Tipp in the first half of the Noughties, overcoming the pace and exuberance of a side on the way up by dint of superior craft and nous. This win gives Cork's Munster titles of the past two years a somewhat provisional look, as though the crown has merely been on loan till Tipperary got their act together.

This was a game they simply had to win. Sheedy's decision to gamble on the resurgence of the old stagers meant he hadn't really worried about blooding youngsters. Had his gamble failed it's hard to see how Tipp could have salvaged anything from the season.

Thriller

But their return to form entirely changes the landscape of this year's Championship.

Their journey back to full health was aided by Cork's wide-open, toe-to-toe approach to the game. This made for a thriller, but more physical and tactically craftier teams like Limerick and Clare may pose trickier problems.

You have to go back to the 2011 provincial final, when Tipperary put seven goals past Waterford, for the last time a team scored a bigger total than 2-28 in the Munster Championship. How much this owes to Tipperary attacking power and how much to Cork defensive frailty will soon become clear.

Tipp's problems in coping with Pat Horgan offer some consolation for their rivals. Nobody will ever mistake the current Tipp full-back line for Hell's Kitchen, but overall this was the most impressive start made by any team since the round robin system began.

When Tipperary play like this there's nobody like them. It's great to see them back to their best. Unless, that is, you're an inter-county hurling defender.

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