Tuesday 24 April 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: John McGrath's extra bit of class makes all the difference for Premier

Tipp newcomers excel as loss of key on-field generals takes heavy toll on Cody's troops

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

Jamesie O'Connor

'The champions are feeling the heat - getting no time, getting no room, getting no comfort at all. And just as they were 12 months ago, coming to this stage of the All-Ireland final - Kilkenny - are in a game." The prescient words of Sky Sports' Mike Finnerty on commentary, as referee Brian Gavin blew the half-time whistle last Sunday.

Having lost so many positional battles all over the field, I wonder what was going through Brian Cody's mind going in at the interval. He had to be concerned. Tipp had matched and surpassed Kilkenny's aggression and physicality. They were comfortably ahead in the hook, block, tackle count, the key statistic when it comes to winning big matches. All six of their starting forwards had scored from play inside the opening half-hour, and Séamus Callanan, Tipp's key marquee forward, was on fire. Strange and all as it seemed, to be only two points behind, given Tipp's dominance, was a relatively good position to be in. In our studio, JJ Delaney, while anxious at how Kilkenny were playing, was thrilled the deficit was as small as it was. Tipp had shot seven wides inside the first 20 minutes alone, and could have been out of sight.

Neither Richie Hogan nor TJ Reid had been able to exert any real influence, something that rarely happens for 70 minutes, and Cody would have time to get the defence together and figure out a way to cut out the ocean of space Tipp were creating in front of their full-forward line.

Twelve months ago, the Cats had been in a similar hole, and came out and unleashed hell after half-time. Ditto in this year's Leinster final. Galway had no answer on either occasion. So, in the 42nd minute, when Richie Hogan's sleight of hand released Walter Walsh to begin the move which ended with Kevin Kelly scooping it into an empty net to put Kilkenny in front, it must have felt like déjà vu.

What must have been going through the Tipperary players' heads? 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014! Demons aplenty there. As recently as their league encounter this spring in Nowlan Park, Tipp had out-hurled Kilkenny for long spells, only to have their pockets picked at the end. Late goals meant that once more they came away empty-handed, and, worse still, with another Kilkenny dent in their psyche.

A lesser team would certainly have panicked, or lacked the belief to summon a response. But you knew from the body language on the field that Tipp weren't backing down. Callanan continued to cause mayhem, and when Bubbles O Dwyer rounded Paul Murphy in the 48th minute, he had no interest in tapping it over the bar. JJ was urging his former colleague to take the Killenaule man down, but for some reason, having dropped his hurley in the initial tackle, Murphy reached to retrieve it and Bubbles was gone. Goal.

A minute later, after a sublime touch, Bubbles was in on Eoin Murphy again, with a glorious opportunity to strike the decisive blow. The angle was tight and Joey Holden was closing, but Bubbles fancied himself and pulled the trigger. It was a bad decision. The rapidly advancing Murphy deflected the shot out for a '65, with Callanan in an acre of space on his own on the edge of the square. He practically danced a jig in frustration; livid at not getting the pass and the tap-in goal that would have followed.

Not taking the goal chances when they presented themselves against Kilkenny, sunk Tipp in the 2014 final. I'm sure that thought, that you have to put Kilkenny away when you have your boot on their neck, crossed Callanan's mind as he jogged out to take the '65.

And make no mistake about it, Tipp's hands were around Kilkenny's throats. Three minutes later, Murphy had to pull off another excellent save, this time from Jason Forde, when Tipp were through again, and Kieran Joyce did well to block John McGrath's follow-up effort with his leg. To get nothing out of that passage of play would have hurt, but Paudie Maher soared over Walter Walsh to catch the resultant clearance, and when he fired it back over Murphy's head to put Tipp five clear it gave the crowd and his team-mates a huge lift.

Entering the last 15 minutes. Kilkenny now needed goals, and urgently.

Minutes later, a moment of magic from Richie Hogan almost supplied one. Taking a pass from Colin Fennelly, he threaded an exquisite stick pass, that took out three Tipp defenders, into Kelly's hand 14 yards out. Darren Gleeson came charging out and bravely got his body in the way. But Kelly should have stuck it, and it would have been game on again.

As it turned out, Tipp weren't going to be denied. Yet another turnover in the Kilkenny defence and in a split second Noel McGrath had picked out his brother John, who billowed the net to seal the deal, 2-25 to 1-19. And still Kilkenny kept coming. As they were in 2010, refusing to surrender, defiant to the last. After Colin Fennelly had an effort blocked, Richie Hogan lashed the breaking ball into the roof of the net, to immediately cancel out McGrath's effort. Just four minutes later, with only five minutes remaining in normal time, Murphy had to pull off arguably the save of the year to deny John McGrath after another bit of magic engineered a goal opportunity out of an unpromising situation.

If you ask me what the key difference was with Tipp this year, it's John McGrath. True, the other newcomers made huge contributions, and gave the team a harder, and more hard-working, edge. Ronan Maher and Séamus Kennedy were outstanding in the half-back line last Sunday, and Dan McCormack got through a huge amount of work. Michael Breen too, although substituted after half-time, has had a great season. But McGrath has supplied the X-factor, the genuine cutting edge up front. At key moments in all of Tipp's matches this year, he has produced flashes of brilliance that have unlocked defences. Teams now have to worry about a forward every bit as lethal, and maybe even more so than Bubbles and Callanan. That's a sobering thought for Waterford, Clare, Galway, Kilkenny and anyone else hoping to knock Tipp off their perch in 2017.

A couple of final thoughts. It was a lucky day for me the evening I walked into Eamon O'Shea's office in the economics department in NUIG, and asked a guy I'd never met before to train the Fitzgibbon team. He won't want any bouquets thrown in his direction - and that's not for a second to take anything away from Michael Ryan - but you could see his fingerprints all over the way the Tipperary forwards played.

The movement, the skill, the freedom to express themselves, the willingness to go for it; it was the way you'd want your forward line to perform on the big stage - 2-29 in the All-Ireland final, most of it from play, and the opposition goalie pulling off three stunning saves. To watch them, and especially Callanan, play the way they did will have been enormously satisfying for him.

What about Kilkenny? Beaten in arguably 13 positions, and yet when 25 points had been the magic winning number all summer, they still posted 2-20, and had at least two other really good goal chances. The replay with Waterford may have taken more out of them than we imagined. It also meant a week less to prepare, and Michael Fennelly was an incalculable loss.

Cody has shipped a bit of criticism for not doing more to protect his full-back line. But I remember the first half of the drawn final in 2012, when Galway had created similar space. It wasn't until Henry Shefflin came out to centre-forward that things altered. He orchestrated the changes on the field, roaring at his wing-forwards to get back out the field, and restoring the defensive structure that Kilkenny rarely deviate from. With the players they've lost, it's understandable that some of that on-field generalship has gone with it. Therein lies some of the reason why the game was played on Tipperary's terms. But what a game it was. A fitting way to end the year.

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