Tipperary a team who have forgotten how to win
When it comes to the crunch in recent seasons, O'Shea's men have been unable to close the deal
The anatomy of a team that just can't seem to close a deal when it really matters.
Nowlan Park, league final, May 5, 2013 – after falling four points behind to Kilkenny courtesy of a brace of Michael Fennelly goals in the opening 20 minutes, Tipperary claw their way back to draw level by the 50th minute, 2-10 to 0-16. But rather than squeeze, they release and lose the last 20 minutes by 0-7 to 0-4.
Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, Munster semi-final, June 9, 2013 – John O'Brien's goal elevates Tipp into a commanding four-point lead on 50 minutes and they straighten for victory. But they fail to stem the tide of five unanswered Limerick points and lose the last 18 minutes by 0-7 to 0-1.
Nowlan Park, second round qualifier, July 6, 2013 – Tipp lead by a point on 42 minutes with Kilkenny under pressure in their own backyard once more when JJ Delaney scrambles to block a goal-bound Eoin Kelly shot. Kelly misses the subsequent '65', Kilkenny seize the initiative and close out the rest of the game by 0-10 to 0-6.
Semple Stadium, league final, May 4, 2014 – Tipp lead Kilkenny by 1-11 to 0-8 after 27 minutes and 1-14 to 1-11 after 47 minutes but have to scramble a late equaliser to force extra-time. Inevitably they lose another tight Kilkenny contest.
Semple Stadium, Munster semi-final, June 1, 2014 – that awful feeling of deja vu returns as they release their grip on a three-point lead to lose by two in the last four minutes.
It's only when you piece together the evidence above that you realise the rut that this Tipp team have got themselves into.
They can of course point to their last-round league victory over Dublin in March, by the required margin that blew them off course for the relegation play-off that they were headed for, as testimony to an ability to grind out an important win. But in the greater scheme of things, it doesn't carry the same weight as a league final against Kilkenny, or any of Eamon O'Shea's three championship defeats as manager that have all followed a remarkably similar trend.
Tipp are not a team in crisis but clearly suffer a crisis of confidence when they get into these winning positions.
There is a distinction.
It won't be lost on them that had 'Bonner' Maher managed to offload to his right, where Seamus Callanan was unmarked, when he scorched through Limerick's defensive heart on 55 minutes – instead of driving on as he did – Tipperary would probably be preparing for a Munster final now.
Nor is there any sense that they require an extensive personnel or positional makeover.
In their last three league games they looked to have found the right formula for team selection, especially the spine. Shifting Maher out of centre-forward last Sunday is not something they will reflect on with satisfaction, while Kieran Bergin didn't generate anything like the momentum he had against Kilkenny, but Brendan and Padraic Maher are surely still the best available combination at centre-back and full-back respectively.
The accusation that Tipperary don't have sufficient numbers of players who can win their own ball has intensified on this latest performance.
On Saturday, former manager Babs Keating raised the question of the ability of the Tipp forwards to "survive a physical battle," a question mark he said had been hanging over the team since 2010.
In the bear pit conditions dictated by Tom Condon, Seamus Hickey, Richie McCarthy and Wayne McNamara, Keating's assertion was justified here.
Yet the statistics don't overwhelm Tipp in any way. They won 16 out of 30 of their own puck-outs and took 12 of Limerick's 30, just four off Limerick's total of 32. In outright tussles, aerial and on the ground, where there was no clear advantage off the delivery, they certainly edged the first half.
When Tipp lost to Cork in the Munster quarter-final in 2010, just over three months out from their All-Ireland triumph that year, the landscape was completely different.
They were coming off the back of that wonderful 2009 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny and were still a team on the up.
Four years on, the erosion of confidence is so palpable.
Brendan Maher recently spoke of all the withering criticism directed at the team since the 2012 All-Ireland semi- final as moulding them into a tighter bunch.
But insulating themselves from the flow of conversation after such defeats is becoming increasingly difficult.
O'Shea re-iterated what he has consistently said over the last 18 months, that his team would recover, that they would be competitive, that they would repair.
But they have had to circle the wagons so often over the last two years that you wonder where they can turn to now or if his words will fall on deaf ears.
"His main message was that we have to turn this thing around and we have to get to the bottom of how we're not able to get over the line," said Tipperary chairman Sean Nugent yesterday.
They may get some respite from the qualifier draw, with a choice of five potential Leinster opponents up next, possibly Kilkenny among them if they fail to beat Galway.
But is it the respite of an easy draw they need now or just the tonic of win against a meaningful opponent when their back is to the wall?
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