Tipperary's troubles are reaching the point of no return
When Clare last defeated Tipperary in the hurling championship 15 years ago, the win was a break in the sequence of Tipp victories that had run to three by the time an injury-hit side fell short at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Afterwards Cyril Lyons, whose side had reached the All-Ireland final the previous September, declared himself surprised that they were dismissed by many of the pundits.
"We were told we had the worst forward line in the country," said Lyons, in the aftermath of a match in which, after 19 minutes, Clare had accelerated into a 2-4 to 0-1 lead. But it was the high point of their summer and by the end of the year Lyons would be gone from his position, that win not enough to save him.
His Tipperary counterpart, Michael Doyle, suffered badly from the fallout after Clare's win, but they were still in the championship. Through the qualifiers they got to the All-Ireland semi-finals, where they took a heavy beating from Kilkenny and not long afterwards Doyle was gone following a vote of no confidence from the players. He lasted one season.
A shock defeat to Clare in 1994 ended Babs Keating's first and most successful spell in charge of Tipperary, and if they were to lose to Clare for the first time in 15 years today it could spell the end of Michael Ryan's tenure as well. The sheer weight of disappointment of going out of the championship on June 10, less than two years after winning the All-Ireland in style, might be too much for Ryan to survive, even if he wants to.
He has been involved with Tipperary for three seasons as manager, and previously spent two separate three-year terms as a selector with Liam Sheedy, enjoying an All-Ireland win in 2010, and Eamon O'Shea who he teamed up with in 2012 before succeeding him as manager after the 2015 season. Failure to win today, victory being the bottom line if Tipp are to have any chance of staying in the championship, could see Ryan step down having given nine seasons out of the last 11, a remarkable time commitment.
For Tipp to win they need to rediscover a performance that has eluded them in the round robin so far, with each point garnered being the result of improbable comebacks, and bountiful luck, most notably the most recent escape against Waterford. They were less fortunate in that match in losing Michael Cahill to a second yellow card which was an extremely harsh judgment when the player was justifiably challenging for the ball. Even so, Cahill is not picked to play today.
If they are eliminated it will be the earliest departure from the championship for Tipperary since they lost to Waterford in a Munster semi-final in Cork in 1998. How this new format will be judged may be more accurately calculated when the last ball has been struck rather than now, midstream, when the superlatives are flying about like a sliotar on good summer ground. If Tipperary's season ends today, the focus will be on the players and management, but it is inevitable that there will be question marks about a county of Tipp's profile departing so soon.
The absence of Tipp from the knockout stages of the championship, a county of that stature, will create a groundswell of opinion questioning the microwaved nature of this new format, from customers used to a more gradual oven cook. The same will obtain irrespective of what two Munster counties fail to make it beyond this or next weekend. The eulogies to the hurling we've seen in recent weeks may soon have a counter-argument from the disenfranchised.
The year Tipp last exited the hurling championship at this time of year, 1998, was the same year Clare last won a Munster title. Not winning one didn't diminish the All-Ireland win in 2013 but their record in their own province in the last 20 years has been dreadful. A good result today could set them up ideally for a final-round shot at Limerick in Ennis next weekend. Losing places them under considerable pressure. So far there has been promise, but more defeat, in Cork, and a big win over a numerically disadvantaged and injury-stricken Waterford in Ennis. If Clare want to make a statement in the province then today against Tipp in Thurles is the place to make it.
In short time the book of evidence is starting to stack up against Tipp. In the league final against Kilkenny they managed only one point from play, from John McGrath in the 38th minute, in the whole of the second half. After defeating Kilkenny in the 2016 All-Ireland final, a point when the worm appeared to have turned in their slanted rivalry with that county, the league final marked a 14th defeat out of 17 knockout matches against the Cats for Tipp.
Michael Ryan spoke of their stubbornness in eking out results in recent matches, but you have the impression that he is clutching at straws, striving for something to hold on to. That is understandable too for his belief in his players has to have a basic level of conviction that they can turn things around. Whatever is happening in the inner sanctum it is not translating into the kind of form that Tipp delivered for most of 2016 and a good bit of 2017. In the league final they bombed against a Kilkenny team containing six players who hadn't played senior championship hurling and another, Richie Leahy, who had only minimal championship exposure as a sub the previous year against Waterford.
Of the Tipp team that started the league final, none of the full-back line starts today, with Alan Flynn, James Barry and Cahill all on the bench. Of the first seven from the league final - the entire defence and goalkeeper - only Paudie Maher remains. There are only seven survivors in all. The frequency of matches was always going to mean rotation but that doesn't explain the level of transition in Tipp in a relatively short time.
It is like Michael Ryan is fiddling with a Rubik's cube, spinning the colours and hoping that some day they will all align.
Sunday Indo Sport