Sunday 17 December 2017

Tipp following Cody's template as they look to leave old rivals in their wake

Steven O’Brien of Tipperary in action against Tadhg de Burca of Waterford during last month’s Allianz League clash - O’Brien has been in impressive form so far this season. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Steven O’Brien of Tipperary in action against Tadhg de Burca of Waterford during last month’s Allianz League clash - O’Brien has been in impressive form so far this season. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Sunday morning last, Michael Ryan's father asked his son if Tipperary would "be trying to win" against Clare. It was a question that tickled Tipp's manager, communicating as it did some sense that the All-Ireland champions' approach to this National League might just carry a thread of subterfuge.

The modern Tipp/Clare relationship may no longer be powdered with the enmity of the past, but it simply isn't plumbed for pulling faces either.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"Yeah, you can take it we'll be trying to win!" Ryan responded to his dad, laughing.

Time moves faster when you're the hare being coursed and it's clear that Ryan has had Tipp primed for early season landmines in this League.

In doing so, he has maybe recognised an uncomfortable truth about Tipperary. So many ponderous winters have passed into history with the county's hurling cognoscenti desperate to figure out how to make Tipp teams harder.

Ryan's view seems to be that the first thing to do is make them more humble.

So they have wintered better in the presence of Liam MacCarthy than any team in the county has done since their untouchables of the early 1960s. Unbeaten in 11 months, there's a faint relentlessness about Tipp now. Something has shifted in how they see themselves.

Entitlement

John Leahy believes that Ryan's biggest achievement may have been to rinse any sense of entitlement from the dressing-room. The three-time All-Star reflected this week: "Michael has created something in Tipperary that I think maybe hasn't been part of our nature for the last 25 years.

"By that I mean he and his management team are taking off high-profile players and the players are accepting it. It's as if he's got the message across that this is a long-term goal to continuously challenge for All-Irelands. Not just win one, then go missing for a while.

"Every player in the Tipp panel now understands that their position can't be taken for granted."

That panel currently extends to 41 players, and each fresh victory mandates Ryan to explore the depth at his disposal even further. Just six players have started all three League games so far, and plenty of hands have been raised by men who seem energised by an atmosphere of opportunity.

Now, ordinarily, the arrival of Kilkenny into Thurles would signal a resounding challenge to that atmosphere.

But the dynamic of hurling's fiercest rivalry feel as if it's been reconfigured here. It is Kilkenny who the harsher questions follow now and yet, as Tipp officials extend a welcoming hand to Brian Cody and his charges at the big blue gate tonight, they might also word a message of gratitude for creating the template that Ryan now follows. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Kilkenny might recognise a lot of themselves in what they encounter from the home team.

And, for Cody, that's not entirely good news.

Seven-time All-Ireland winner Brian Hogan was pitch-side for Tipp's first-round destruction of Dublin and was taken by the conditioning and confidence of the men in blue and gold for a February fixture. Through Hogan's ten-year inter-county career, Kilkenny would never once have doubted their ability to match Tipp, but he does wonder if their minds might just carry a few shadows tonight.

"I think for Brian, he wants to make sure first and foremost that the team is competitive" suggests the O'Loughlin Gaels man. "He won't tolerate going down to Thurles and being bullied or pushed around. He'll want his players to front up because being competitive is the basic requirement. Once you get that in place, you can start working on the other aspects of the game.

"Now that's a big ask because you've got guys in there who are only in their first or second season and, potentially, you could be looking at the likes of Richie Leahy going in on a Padraic Maher.

"But ultimately, that's irrelevant to Brian. His view is, if you're good enough to be in there, then it's up to you to stand up and make yourself count."

Last weekend's defeat of Cork did, at least, subdue some of the more alarmist noise untapped by a first Nowlan Park loss to Waterford in 13 years and a subsequent Ennis hammering from Clare. Yet there remains a sense that Kilkenny are in the midst of a profound defensive rebuild too, one referenced largely by last September's experience against Tipperary.

Because Tipp's unhindered delivery of ball to a lethal full-forward line flew in the face of everything Cody has held dear about collective responsibility. With others failing to apply pressure out the field, his full-back line perished.

Two of that line, Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast, are struggling now, potentially reduced to back-up status as Kilkenny seek a more obstinate defensive spine. Trouble is, for now, the search has served to undress the team at half-back as Padraig Walsh plays as a No 3 and Cillian Buckley as a midfielder.

The Walsh experiment seems the more committed, with the Tullaroan man starting all three League games to date there. Cody worked this trick before when turning JJ Delaney from the country's most revered No 7 into an All-Star No 3.

But the switch is no simple compute, requiring a major philosophical rewiring of the player in question.

Hogan, who has hurled in both roles, says flatly: "The psychology of full-back is huge. There are times in the position when you have to be able to forget about the ball to a certain extent. It's the old adage: if you don't puck a ball at full-back and there's no goals conceded, you've had a great game. But if you clear ten balls and two goals go in, you're useless!

"Like, there's very few guys love playing full-back. If you gave JJ the option, he'd have taken half-back any day of the week. Padraig is probably the same.

"That said, he's a bit like the brother (Tommy). He's such a pure hurler, he could do a job anywhere. He's someone who can influence a game hugely when he's on the ball too, a lot of his club hurling is played at centre-forward.

"And that's the difficulty for Brian. Will you lose his influence out the field? I mean you've two All-Star wing-backs now and neither of them is playing in the wing-back position at the moment.

"We all have our view on it. Having looked at the way Padraig hurled last year, you'd love to see him out there again. But it's a bit like JJ. Was there a better half-back in the country? No. But when Noel (Hickey) finished up, he went back for the team and, next thing, JJ was an All-Star full-back."

The evidence suggests that Cody is in the market for a new centre-back too and, with such uncertainty surrounding his defence, they may have their work cut out this evening against a Tipp attack in which John McGrath has carried on seamlessly from last autumn.

Seamus Callanan's season has yet to get up and running, with just one start so far, but the form of Steven O'Brien has caught the eye, the player faithful to Ryan's liking for strong, self-sufficient half-forwards.

Living in the border territory of Mullinahone, Leahy believes the energy around Tipp-Kilkenny is shifting and expects it to be reflected in a home victory this evening.

"It's definitely changing" he suggests. "In fairness to Kilkenny, what they've achieved over the last 20 years was incredible. But their teams were packed with leaders through that time, players like Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Eoin Larkin and JJ Delaney. They're struggling to find that quality now.

Confidence

"Like, if this was the old Kilkenny coming to Thurles, I'd see it as a massive test for Tipp. But it's not the old Kilkenny. They look to me as if they're not hurling with confidence, whereas there's huge confidence in Tipp.

"The way I see it, James Barry, Ronan Maher, Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher and John McGrath are probably the core of this Tipp team now. We haven't seen much of Seamie Callanan yet.

"But these men are the core of what Tipperary are about. And they're beginning to look the standard-bearers. To prove we're worthy of that status, though, I do think we need to win back-to-back All-Irelands.

"So we can't get too carried away from a Tipperary perspective."

Hogan's view is that, for now, Cody's search is, above all, for character in the players before him. And he believes that most will have had a welcome lightness to their stride this week because of the victory against Cork.

"It can be difficult enough coming in and playing at this level because of the expectation that is always there" he says.

"And, against Clare, they weren't at the races. I know Ennis is a hard place to go to, but Clare probably bullied them a little bit too. And that's the thing that would irk Brian more than anything.

"Anyone who knows him will understand that the basic thing for him is being able to stand your ground."

Kilkenny will set out to do that and, probably, more in Thurles this evening. We can take it that Tommy Ryan won't need to ask his son of Tipperary's intentions.

Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport