Sunday 22 April 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Tipp's trip through the qualifiers might do no harm, but they have to stop leaking scores

Tipperary’s Noel McGrath comes under pressure from Colm Spillane, Shane Kingston and Bill Cooper during last Sunday’s clash. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tipperary’s Noel McGrath comes under pressure from Colm Spillane, Shane Kingston and Bill Cooper during last Sunday’s clash. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

Thurles last Sunday. The day's running order laid out on page five of the match-day programme: 3.25 Corcaigh Sinsir amach ar an bpairc; 3.28 Tiobraid Arainn sinsir amach ar an bpairc. High in the press box on the Old Stand side of the field, it struck me looking out that well before their side was scheduled to appear, the entire Cork management team were out on the field. I did a double take.

Kieran Kingston - check; Diarmuid O'Sullivan - check; John Meyler, Pat Hartnett and Pat Ryan - check, check, check. Yeah. They were all out there. Unless someone tells me otherwise, that means the Cork players had the dressing room to themselves for at least the last four or five minutes before they took the field.

Good sign for the Rebels, I thought. Up for it big time.

I remembered reading an interview a few years back with Gary Keegan, who Kieran Kingston invited into the Cork back-room team earlier this season. One of the things he referenced was a time when the Irish boxing team's high performance unit were underperforming. No stone was being left unturned, but in their analysis, Keegan and head coach Billy Walsh concluded that it had reached the stage where too much was being done for the boxers. They needed to step back and allow the boxers to take more ownership and responsibility themselves. Paring things back and empowering the athletes transformed things and results started to improve.

Irrespective of whose call it was - and it shouldn't be overplayed either - to me there was no clearer indication of Cork's intent. They meant business, and credit to the Cork management for getting out of the players' way and giving them the latitude to take ownership of the performance and drive it on themselves. As Conor Lehane intimated afterwards, for those who haven't really delivered in the last couple of years "the farting around was over". It certainly was and the result is that they have blown the entire championship, and Munster in particular, wide open.

As impressive as Cork's performance was, the big plus to emerge was how well their debutants acquitted themselves. It must have taken a leap of faith to start all five, but as the manager pointed out, the team was picked on form, not age, and they repaid that faith in spades. The fearlessness and lack of inhibition they played with was typical of what an infusion of youth can bring to a team.

Colm Spillane and Mark Coleman were outstanding at the back. Shane Kingston and Luke Meade made huge contributions up front and Darragh Fitzgibbon ran himself into the ground in the middle of the field. Readers of this column know how highly I rate Brendan Maher, but he was relatively anonymous for large parts of the game, which speaks volumes for how well Fitzgibbon played.

Yet, it could have been so different if Noel McGrath or Maher had converted either, or both, of the two really good goal chances Tipp created when they knifed through the heart of the Cork defence inside the opening five minutes. They go in, and Cork are second guessing themselves, making switches and tactical adjustments, and it's an entirely different game.

Tipp were converting those chances 12 months ago, and Seamus Callanan will feel too that he should have put away the goal opportunity he had on the stroke of half-time. The goal Tipp did score came from a moment of absolute genius by Callanan. People may not realise how good the pass he gave to John McGrath - who didn't have to break stride to take it - actually was. But that's not where Tipp lost the game. They scored 1-26, all but five points from play. It's the haemorrhaging of scores at the other end of the field that's killing them. Considering how parsimonious the defence was a year ago, it's hard to explain how things have gone awry at the back to the extent that they have.

What last Sunday's defeat does is buy Michael Ryan time to figure out where exactly it's going wrong. Tipp won't play again until July 1 and they will have players coming back from injury. At this stage it's a stretch to see them regaining the fire and energy levels likely to be needed to retain their title.

And yet listening to how gutted the players were afterwards, the loss to Cork may be no bad thing. If anything, their All-Ireland chances have arguably improved, and what an impetus it now gives to the qualifiers in the first two weeks in July.

As impressive as Galway were in the Allianz League final, last Sunday's events in Thurles now mean that form legitimately comes into question - at least in terms of Galway's prospects for later in the year. It's impossible to see Dublin having enough firepower to live with the Tribesmen in Tullamore this afternoon. I made the point last week that Mark Schutte's decision not to join the panel was another in a line of major setbacks to the Dublin cause. I also alluded to the pointlessness of focussing on the players who aren't part of the Dublin panel, when we should be concentrating on the ones who are. The unfortunate reality, however, is that Dublin are nowhere close to full strength with the reported number of injuries they have suffered in recent weeks.

Dotsy O'Callaghan, Cian Boland and Fintan McGibb are all apparently out, but the latest news that both Dara O'Connell and Eoghan O'Donnell are also carrying injuries deals a grievous blow to their chances. O'Donnell was outstanding in the league and O'Connell's mobility will be sorely missed in the middle of the field. Ger Cunningham's resources were threadbare enough as it was, but they simply don't have the strength in depth to replace players of that calibre.

In most circumstances, the defence - with Cian O'Callaghan, Oisín Gough, Liam Rushe, Chris Crummey and Shane Barrett on board - would appear capable of coping, even if O'Donnell is ruled out. The problem is I don't see enough strength or ball-winning ability further up the field for them to be able to hold out considering the type of pressure they're likely to come under.

Galway were extremely lucky to escape out of Croke Park with a draw two years ago in Ger Cuningham's first year at the helm. They made no mistake in the replay in Tullamore. With Conor Cooney back on board, I don't see them slipping up today.

If the Laois hurlers needed any motivation ahead of their home quarter-final with Wexford, they have been given plenty of it with all the talk there has been about the looming Kilkenny-Wexford showdown on June 10. There were only four points between the sides when they met in the league earlier this season and Laois at home in Portlaoise have shown themselves to be a tricky proposition. Ask Galway and Anthony Cunningham after the near heart attack they suffered just four years ago.

I was in Portlaoise for two of Laois's earlier games this year, and with Charlie Dwyer, Ross King, Neil Foyle and Stephen 'Picky' Maher up front, they have a decent attacking unit. The issues were how poorly they defended. Matthew Whelan - who missed those games - returns, and Dwyer has been relocated to centre back, which should help to shore things up further.

Under Davy Fitzgerald's stewardship, Clare handed out a couple of bad hidings to Laois in recent years in the qualifiers. This Wexford side don't carry the same attacking threat, but they're still operating at a level above Laois and I can't see too many nervous moments beyond half-time for their supporters travelling to the Midlands.

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