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Tipp's year will be over unless they solve the fade-out crisis

 

Michael Ryan was concerned about how the increased demands of a compacted four-game championship programme would impact on players. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Michael Ryan was concerned about how the increased demands of a compacted four-game championship programme would impact on players. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Michael Ryan didn't like the provincial 'round robin' idea in the first place and probably fancies it a lot less now.

"Did the Munster Championship need any tinkering with? I would say 'no', but it has happened so we have to get on with it," he said last December.

Ryan was concerned about how the increased demands of a compacted four-game championship programme would impact on players. Would it require a different approach to training in the earlier part of the year?

"It's uncharted territory for all of us in terms of how we plan the season. It's going to present challenges for our S&C (strength and conditioning) guys," he said.

There was another background possibility too, even if few would have anticipated it becoming an issue for Tipperary, who were pre-season favourites to win the Munster title.

"It also means that two counties in Munster will be out of the championship very early. That will be a shock to the system," said Ryan.

Seven months on, Tipperary's system has been shocked to its core by the dramatic events of the last three Sundays, which have left them without a win heading into their final 'round robin' game.

Now, it comes down to this: if Tipperary lose to Clare tomorrow, they will be out of the All-Ireland championship earlier than at any time since 1998. Even a win might gain a week's reprieve only, depending on how other results go.

Contention

On the positive side, a win over Clare and other favourable results could qualify them for the Munster final.

It's that finely-balanced in a campaign that's living up to all the pre-season predictions that margins would be extremely right in deciding (a) the finalists and (b) third-place, which carries entry to the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final.

What nobody expected was that Tipperary would not win any of their opening three games, yet somehow remain in contention for a top three finish. But then, it has been the strangest of campaigns for Tipperary, one where, quite frankly, nobody has a clue what's going on with them.

Why the final-quarter fade-out against Limerick? Why the chaos of the first half against Cork and the middle-third collapse against Waterford? How did they turn both games around to earn two draws, having wiped out cumulative leads of 20 points?

"If it's just thickness fair enough, we're just thick. We're here to play and we don't give in. Time and time again, matches have been won in the last two minutes or the last 30 seconds," said Ryan following last Sunday's survival heroics.

Nobody can question Tipperary's courage but the issue arises as to why it has become necessary for them to climb forbidding mountains when they should be working in more even territory.

While the perilous positions from which they extricated themselves against Cork and Waterford have highlighted the two sides of the squad's personality, there were examples earlier on which also pointed to a kink in the system.

The opening 10 minutes of the league quarter-final with Dublin in Croke Park in late March were truly bizarre. Dublin, who had beaten only Antrim and Laois in 1B, outscored Tipp by 0-9 to 0-1 and also missed some good chances.

Tipperary were slow and sloppy, looking as they if they completely switched off. Supporters put it down to complacency, a sense that they were always going to beat opposition whose season hadn't really cranked up at that stage.

It was a view that appeared to be vindicated when Tipperary made a quick recovery and ran out easy winners, but what if the opposition had been more resilient? Even Ryan admitted that if Dublin had extended their lead by a few points, they might not have been caught.

Two weeks later, Tipperary suffered a different type of power failure against Kilkenny in the final. They led until early in the second half, before being swatted aside by less experienced opposition, eventually finding themselves nine points behind before Jason Forde scored a late consolation goal.

Ryan talked afterwards of how Tipperary, who were without, among others, Séamus Callanan, Noel McGrath, and 'Bonner' Maher, had looked predicable and lacking variety.

In truth, there was more to it than that, as shown by the changes he made for the opening Munster clash with Limerick. Among them were Brian Hogan for Darragh Mooney in goal and Séamus Kennedy for James Barry at full-back while positional switches took Willie Connors and Billy McCarthy to midfield.

All of which suggested that, for a second successive year, reaching the league final had raised more questions than answers for Tipperary.

They seemed to have sorted out many of them when, despite not playing particularly well, they led Limerick coming up to the hour mark.

But just as happened against Kilkenny, they lost their way and ended up losing by six points. And then came more serious bleeding for even longer periods against Cork and Waterford. Effectively, Tipperary have gone through dreadful spells of varying lengths in five of their last six games, the exception being the league semi-final against Limerick.

And even then, they led by four points after 67 minutes before being hauled back level, taking them into extra-time where they won.

Okay, so losing a four-point lead might not look like a big deal, but in the context of how what happened before and since, it deepens the sense that Tipperary are, for whatever reason, unable to maintain an even keel.

The deeper the hole in which they find themselves, the greater the effort they have to make to get out of it, which adds to the challenge.

They expended huge amounts of energy rescuing the situation against Cork, which may have accounted for some of their problems against Waterford. Losing Michael Cahill greatly added to the latter workload too so the manner in which they fought back was quite remarkable.

Glitch

Of course, the worry for them now is that those exertions may tell against them tomorrow. And even if they don't, have they figured out the underlying cause of the glitch that's causing the fade-outs?

Clare beat Tipperary in the first round of the league and still feel that they should have also won last year's All-Ireland quarter-final on a day when they shot 18 wides.

And yes, Tipperary had a fade-out period too. Clare cut a seven-point deficit to one in the final quarter-final before Tipperary pressed on again to win by three points.

Tomorrow brings Tipperary's biggest Munster Championship game since 2001, the last year when beaten provincial finalists only got a second chance. Since then, defeat in any provincial round has been accompanied by re-entry via the qualifiers or All-Ireland quarter-finals, a route Tipperary availed of quite regularly, including 2010 when they won the All-Ireland title.

There will be no such reprieve if they lose tomorrow. Instead, they face a long summer of inactivity, having started the season as second favourites behind Galway for the All-Ireland title.

It all makes for a nervous day in Semple Stadium.

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