Sunday 22 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Tipperary are as aesthetically pleasing as any hurling team I can recall

‘For sheer sustained excellence from general play, I’m not sure there’s been an attacking performance in an All-Ireland final like Séamus Callanan’s last Sunday’. Photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile
‘For sheer sustained excellence from general play, I’m not sure there’s been an attacking performance in an All-Ireland final like Séamus Callanan’s last Sunday’. Photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Tipperary's performance against Kilkenny was one of the greatest ever given by a team in an All-Ireland hurling final. And Séamus Callanan's was one of the greatest ever given by an individual. Both displays were so good it's almost impossible to exaggerate just how extraordinary they were.

Perhaps these seem like large claims. There is always a danger of getting carried away in the immediate aftermath of a final. For a few weeks at least it occupies such a large space in the collective imagination that the merits of previous deciders can pale unfairly into insignificance. There's also the undeniable fact that we live in an age of hype where whatever has happened most recently is often ascribed a significance far exceeding its actual worth.

Still, I'm pretty sure that Tipperary's, and Callanan's, achievements will stand the test of time. They should look every bit as good in 2056 as they do in 2016. Take that winning total of 2-29 for example. Only two teams have scored more in a 70-minute final and they both - Kilkenny when scoring 3-30 against Waterford in 2008 and Tipperary when hitting 4-24 against Antrim in 1989 - had the benefit of playing against opponents who completely froze on the day. It meant the pressure was largely off the winning attack from an early stage. Tipp's 2016 total on the other hand was amassed in a match whose outcome was in doubt till the closing stages.

Callanan's ten points from play is similarly remarkable. There have been bigger totals from play in a final, though not many, but no-one has ever hit double figures points-wise before. The achievement is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that very few of Callanan's scores were gimmes and that he created quite a few of them for himself. For sheer sustained excellence from general play I'm not sure there's been an attacking performance like it in an All-Ireland final.

Perhaps it's not all that surprising that Tipperary gave one of the greatest winning performances in final history. Because two years ago in the drawn final against Kilkenny they certainly gave the greatest performance by a team which didn't win. For that matter Callanan's performance when scoring 3-4 from play against Galway in last year's All-Ireland semi was surely one of the finest ever by a player on the losing team in a major match. The ingredients for an explosion were there, it just needed someone to apply the match.

That someone turned out to be Michael Ryan. Initially there was a lot of talk about Ryan being a manager who'd bring back a traditional steeliness to Tipperary, who was going to build a team to counter Kilkenny's specific strengths and adopt a more direct approach. If you read between the lines it was being suggested that Ryan was going to get rid of all that fancy-pants skilful stuff encouraged by Eamon O'Shea and inject Tipp with distilled essence of Hell's Kitchen.

Had Ryan actually done this he'd have been heading up a dead end. In fact, nothing would have pleased Brian Cody more than to see a Tipperary side who focused on Kilkenny's strengths rather than their own and engaged the Cats in a physical battle.

There'd only have been one winner of that encounter and they'd have been wearing black and amber. Instead Tipperary played the same kind of thrilling, open hurling which lit up Croke Park in 2014, only better.

'Steeliness' is to Tipperary what 'swagger' is to Dublin, a venerable cliché which does them a considerable disservice. Just as the constant insistence on the style and artfulness of Kilkenny hurling has obscured the physical toughness which lies at the root of all their successes, the stuff about Tipperary's style being rooted in physicality ignores the fact that they are the ultimate artists of the modern game. For the past six or seven years nobody has been as stylish and utterly exhilarating in full flow as the Premier County. In that period Tipperary have had the most exciting set of players in the game, but underachieved because of a variety of factors: a propensity for getting edged out in tight finishes, a tendency to get caught on the hop early in the championship, a certain lack of defensive rigour. For all the praise of Tipp's rearguard last Sunday, it's worth noting that the 2-20 scored by Kilkenny is, 80-minute deciders aside, the second highest ever scored by a losing team in an All-Ireland final, surpassed only by Galway's 2-21 when losing to Cork in 1990.

At heart this Tipperary team likes to open up and blaze away regardless. That's why the combined total of 61 points last Sunday is the second highest in 70-minute final history, falling one point short of the total in the drawn final two years ago. This sense of adventure and lack of caution makes Tipperary as aesthetically appealing as any hurling team I can remember.

The single least appropriate word to describe them is 'cagey.' They are worthy winners of an outstanding hurling championship.

How odd it is to recall, after a magnificent All-Ireland final and three tremendous semis, that for the first half of the hurling championships the prophets of doom were in full voice. Hurling, we were told, had taken a defensive turn. The sweeper system was a tactical innovation which attacks were finding impossible to counter. Hurling, and imagine Hurling Man's devastation when he heard this one, was becoming just like football.

These arguments were conclusively disproved when Tipperary demolished Waterford's sweeper system in the Munster final, proving that there are no defensive tactics in hurling which can negate the power of a really outstanding attack and heralding the beginning of the championship proper. The new era was over before it had even begun.

Had it ever begun? I'm inclined to think that we sometimes overstate the role of tactics in hurling, and perhaps in Gaelic football too. A kind of 'soccer envy' is perhaps at work. Yet the very thing which makes hurling uniquely appealing, its extreme speed and fluidity, renders meaningless most of the tactical terminology imported from other games. Earnest enumeration of turnover ball, plays and percentages means very little in the context of a game as unstructured as last Sunday's

When hurling is really good it often devolves into a series of individual duels. Seán ó Riada once wrote that the personal utterance is at the heart of Irish traditional music. The same can be said about our most traditional game, one which maintains a far greater space for the gifted individual than that afforded in more regimented sports.

Hurling is a team game but not a systems game. It is an improviser's rather than a tactician's game and all the better for it. After all, one reason there's so much talk about systems and formations in soccer is that often there's nothing else going on worth talking about.

What the All-Ireland final ultimately boiled down to was the fact that the Kilkenny full-back line could not make any shape at marking Séamus Callanan, Bubbles O'Dwyer and John McGrath and was utterly destroyed. Every time the ball went in the direction of the Kilkenny goal a score looked likely. There was little Brian Cody could do to counter this. Tipperary had already shown that they would make equal amounts of hay against a sweeper system.

He had very little on the bench. Two years ago the Kilkenny defence teetered on the brink of a similar humiliation before pulling things round in the replay. But then they had JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell in the full-back line, two all-time greats enjoying a gutsy last hurrah, whereas last Sunday they had Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast who wouldn't have got within an ass's roar of a place on Cody's Kilkenny at its 2006-2009 peak.

Tipperary's full-forward line finished with a tally of 2-15 from play, something I don't believe any front trio has previously managed in an All-Ireland final. The collision of the challengers' strongest line playing at their very best with the champions' weakest playing below par produced a massive mismatch.

Spare a thought for Eamon O'Shea who deserves some retrospective credit for going within inches of tumbling Kilkenny two years ago. Perhaps the difference this year is not so much in Tipperary but in Kilkenny. Few people would deny that the current Kilkenny side is weaker than the one of two years ago. O'Shea's side of 2014 would have blown Cody's of 2016 out of the water. Sometimes managers need a bit of luck with timing.

It's hard not to feel now that had Galway not intervened in last year's semi Tipp would have reached the promised land 12 months earlier. The Tribesmen, as they did on the last occasion Tipp went on to beat the Cats in the final, came within a couple of points of screwing it up for their neighbours again this year. But it's hard to imagine Galway kicking on and beating Kilkenny in the final or, for that matter, Waterford doing any better against Tipperary than Kilkenny did last Sunday.

Hurling got the final and the champions it deserved. In the most beautiful game, Tipperary are the most beautiful team.

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