Sunday 8 December 2019

Henry Shefflin: Time for some of Munster elite to confront their fears

Michael Breen’s midfield partnership with Brendan Maher proved key for Tipp. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Michael Breen’s midfield partnership with Brendan Maher proved key for Tipp. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin

Coming away from Thurles last Sunday there was a spring in the step of the locals that, to my mind, hadn't been there even when they reclaimed last year's Munster title.

Last week I spoke about a team's connection to its people and I've felt that hasn't been as strong as it has been in the past.

Put it this way, we know across the border in Kilkenny how vocal Tipperary supporters can be for their own team and against others!

But in recent times I've felt that a small bit of the fight has gone out of them, that there's an element holding back and saying, 'We're not quite sure'. A disappointing end to last year's championship campaign followed by an indifferent league didn't help.

But on Sunday I got a real sense that their people are beginning to really warm to this Tipp team, to how they are playing and how they are going about their business under Michael Ryan.

They won a Munster semi-final playing with 14 men for most of it and, in truth, they never looked like losing it. Maybe that's as much down to the fear that rippled through Limerick's performance for so long. But that word 'steel' is being attached to Tipperary more and more and with good reason. Earlier in the season I challenged the strength of Tipperary's core leadership and, while bigger tests lie ahead, to win as they did against Limerick emboldens the pillars in their team.


What's more, they are developing leaders in every line. I've really liked Cathal Barrett as a defender for some time and he, for one, has a mature head on young shoulders. He has now become such an important cog in a defence that is athletic, mobile, fast and, above all, settled.

Leaders will thrive best when they are playing in their best positions, I'm thinking of the likes of Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan from my own team who were most comfortable when playing in fixed positions. Brendan Maher is a real leader and is now, in my opinion, in his best position, forming a very complementary partnership with Michael Breen, who is more attack-minded, as we saw last Sunday, allowing Brendan to gravitate towards defence.

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He has filled a couple of different roles in recent years, from half-back to extra midfielder but there is clarity for him again and I feel he's benefiting.

No one doubts the hurling ability of these Tipperary players - they can make the ball talk. That their work-rate in attack appears to have improved to the point where they can disguise a numerical shortage as they did on Sunday gives them added impetus.

Limerick's cautious use of Gavin O'Mahony as the extra man didn't help them. He sat between the full-back and half-back lines and picked up a lot of ball to Seamus Callanan's left but for me he was too far back in that first half, the legacy obviously of conceding those early goals. That didn't change after the break - in fact it got worse as that fear of further concession took an even tighter hold of them.

Limerick had to chase the game harder to make the numerical advantage count by playing the extra man in the middle third where he could offer support for the overlap, draw defenders or hit a few long-range scores.

You wonder how much their prolonged absence from Division 1A is now impacting on them when these situations develop. They played with too much fear and the only goal chance they really had was the one they scored.

In every sport the underdog must be more ambitious, must be more willing to have a go. There was a lesson there for everyone in how the Irish soccer team went after the result against Italy.

You don't see that much from Ireland but when the moment demanded it they went for it and prospered. They made four changes and in doing so stripped away some of the mental baggage inflicted by the 3-0 defeat to Belgium four days earlier. That's quite a recovery from such a defeat and shows that in the right frame of mind the response can be quick.


The importance of a manager in this context can't be overstated in setting the right terms and attitude and making effective changes.

There are a few teams heading for next weekend's first round of qualifiers who can absorb some of that. It's time for them to throw off the shackles and have a go.

It's a big week for Cork hurling and the greatest prize may not even be a qualifier win over Dublin in Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday night.

Before that their U-21s are in action in a Munster quarter-final against All-Ireland champions Limerick on Tuesday, while their minors play Tipperary in a semi-final two days later.

Make no mistake about it, these are huge games in the context of how poorly their underage teams have been performing over such a long period of time, the effect of which we are now clearly seeing.

No county needs a sign for the future more than Cork this week. Don't underestimate the impact a win on one of these nights would have, even for a county of Cork's size. I had a well documented discussion with Dónal óg Cusack on the 'Sunday Game' after their exit to Galway last year and he laid the blame at the door of the Cork County Board for their failures.

You can't help feeling that the divisiveness between 2007 and 2009 is now washing up on the shores in terms of the current dip in the production line. How much time and energy was expended into fighting corners during that period? Did good people pull away, scarred as a consequence?

As manager, Jimmy Barry-Murphy was able to paper over some of the cracks but even he felt it last year.

None of this is Kieran Kingston's doing of course but he'll be feeling a little pressure to deliver a home win in Páirc Uí Rinn. He has to restore some of Cork's principles and stick with them, get them playing with confidence, peppered with that little bit of aggression and arrogance even that they thrive on.

That said, I still feel Clare have most to lose by not gaining some momentum in the qualifiers.

They exploited Kilkenny and Tipperary's absence from the latter stages three years ago to win an All-Ireland title. That's not going to fall for them this year.

The fitness of John Conlon and David McInerney will have improved but Clare really need to start tapping into their strength and playing their leaders in the right areas of the field.

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