Sheedy urged to stick to his guns ahead of Munster finale against Limerick
Michael Ryan could hear it in Tipperary this week, a gusting, schizophrenic breeze, rippling between bullishness and anxiety.
Small worries seemed to bleed out of every second conversation. Was it possible the hurlers had been, maybe, too good too soon. What had they really beaten? And how would old legs hold up now as the great race inevitably quickened? Maybe, Liam Sheedy might even have a decision to make for Thurles tomorrow.
With the All-Ireland champions coming to town and Tipp's place in the Munster final already virtually secure, was there a case to be made for playing poker?
Few understand better than Ryan hurling's capacity to thieve rationality from sane people. The All-Ireland-winning manager of 2016, his prior experiences as a selector to Sheedy and, subsequently, Eamon O'Shea, allied to a decade of wearing the blue and gold, have educated him on all there is to know about Tipp's relationship with expectation.
He stepped down after last year's championship, essentially, because he sensed, for the players to meet that expectation, they needed new energy around them. And a returning Sheedy has provided it in spades, three big Munster wins in succession rinsing away the gloom so palpable after a run of just two victories in Tipp's previous 11 league and championship fixtures.
Men who looked jaded a year ago are hurling again with the venomous self-expression that devastated Kilkenny in the '16 All-Ireland final.
Ryan believes Sheedy's return has stirred the perfect storm in Tipp and that, even with the possibility of facing Limerick again in a provincial final two weeks from now, his old friend will throw the full deck on the table in Semple Stadium tomorrow.
"I don't think he has a big decision to make at all," he explained this week. "What's gone well for Tipp so far? The players going for it, nothing more, nothing less. Striving to be the best team on the pitch.
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"You know all the concerns that people might have aired before this championship in terms of Tipp being an ageing side, well the performances have belittled those theories. Our boys look in incredible shape. I'd say the S&C has been extraordinary. We're not thinking or hearing or seeing fatigue of any description.
"I mean I know this is a conversation doing the rounds in Tipp. What should they do on Sunday? And Liam's job will be to make sure it doesn't seep into the boys. Because nobody's asking what Limerick have to do. Maybe us being on six points, it's a little bit inevitable.
"But there is no switch you can flick on and off in these situations. Absolutely not. And, anyway, what's the best way of avoiding Limerick down the line? Beat them. Send them on their merry way towards the likes of Galway, Kilkenny, Wexford or Dublin on that side of the draw.
"You may not see them again."
The perception of Tipp as an ageing side is rooted more in mileage covered than digits on any birth certificates. Only three of their established starting 15 (Brendan Maher, Pádraic Maher and Seamie Callanan) have yet reached 30 while the average age of the side that beat Clare so convincingly last day out was 26.
Limerick's average age against the Banner was 24, scarcely a generational gulf. But six of Tipp's starters have a decade or more of senior inter-county in their legs, all of them outfield players. Only Graeme Mulcahy ticks that box with Limerick.
There is also a perceived imbalance in squad depth. Already at different junctures in this championship, John Kiely has been able to leave out four of last year's All-Ireland final starters - Diarmaid Byrnes, Dan Morrissey, Darragh O'Donovan and Seamus Flanagan - without any conspicuous weakening of their first 15.
Tipp, by contrast, have yet to definitively explore the pedigree of their bench.
Len Gaynor, that great wing-back of the Sixties who managed Tipp to an All-Ireland final in '97, agrees there may be some cause for concern about that depth. "We have still to find out are these guys (on the bench) good enough," he reflected this week.
"We don't know yet and you'd be a bit concerned about that alright. But Tipp's physical conditioning seems to have gone to another level. Age-wise? I don't know. But at the fitness levels they've reached now, we haven't seen age-profile making a difference. Limerick might seem to have some kind of edge because they are younger and maybe livelier.
"But you can't beat experience either and you get experience through age. Unless the weather was baking hot and the ground rock hard, I don't think age will be a problem. And Tipp look a new team really in terms of attitude. There's new life about them and I wouldn't think they're at the height of their powers yet. The way they're playing, I'd say there's a good bit to go in them yet. But likewise with Limerick and Galway and Kilkenny and Cork too. They're all gathering momentum."
Gaynor agrees with Ryan's assessment that Tipp should meet tomorrow's challenge full-on.
"Even though, technically, the result mightn't matter in terms of making the Munster final, it will matter psychologically," says the Kilruane man. "Both teams will be testing each other out to see who's going to come out and be the top dog."
Tipp's extraordinary scoring returns of 2-28, 2-30 and 3-21 have been franked by the perpetual movement of an attack clearly carrying the Eamon O'Shea stamp. Incredibly, only 0-14 of that 7-79 total was accumulated through frees and '65s. But, since losing to Cork, Limerick's defence was taken for a modest combined total of 0-23 in the games against Waterford and Clare.
And their ability to swarm defence will present Tipp with more quarrelsome questions than they have faced up to now. But Ryan believes that Sheedy and his men just need to keep trust in what they're doing.
"Every single one of us went to Cork the opening day more than a little concerned," he says. "We didn't know would Cork get at us. That was certainly my fear, but they didn't. And not once have I seen these guys vulnerable since outside of the normal ebb and flow of games.
"Last year left me with an open mind about getting through these games with relatively unchanged starting fifteens. Clare hardly changed their team throughout 2018; Limerick much the same.
"So you can get through it as long as you get decent breaks and Tipp are getting those. And, remember, winning changes everything. Confidence is just running through their veins. So what does Liam do?
"Whatever the formula is that keeps these boys feeling good about themselves, that keeps confidence high, you keep that going. And what's that? Winning.
"It's the greatest tonic on earth for sports people."