Sunday 22 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Slaughter of innocents as Tipperary devour a Cork team caught in identity crisis

Use of sweeper not enough to rescue Rebels as league form is confirmed

Cork manager Kieran Kingston can’t hide his disappointment. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork manager Kieran Kingston can’t hide his disappointment. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So this inky May day forever under siege from wind and hail, threw up a Munster Championship opener that amounted to the slaughter of dolphins.

Tipperary have been known to grow careless with big leads, but they could have seen this one out with blindfolds. All the dire admonitions following Cork out of an abject league came to sit heavily on their shoulders here, the Rebels trying to play the game on terms that - palpably - make so many of their traditionalists queasy.

Tipp swept down upon them like buzzards on a fresh corpse, their manager Michael Ryan declaring after: "It wasn't perfect, but it was damn good."

And that it was, albeit you had to suspect that Brian Cody and Davy Fitzgerald, both observing business from the stand, slipped home last night without any major shift in their thinking of what it will take to make their summers memorable.

Hurling is demanding things of its old gentry just now that they're not all entirely comfortable with. It isn't so much disregarding history as taking it down from the altar. Decommissioning any impulse for genuflection.

The new game sets trick questions. It uses a different grammar. Until mid-championship last year, Cork turned their collar up against the grey weather of sweeper systems, then surrendered to the fashion. It was a hurried change of philosophy, never looking entirely enthusiastic or natural. This was meant to be different.

William Egan was handed the brush here and, when he ambled into easy possession twice in the opening 80 seconds, perhaps Cork imagined they had cracked the code.

They'd made a point of walking onto the field like the Scottish rugby team once did to spook their English guests before a Grand Slam game at Murrayfield. And 'The Rock', Heaven help us, even took to wearing shorts. Tipp? They went bursting out past the photographers' bench, before having to double back like a bus after overshooting its stop. In the stand, we were all body-linguists, desperately trying to second-guess which entrance was the bluffer's.

But soon enough some harsh old truths had been re-affirmed here. Fundamental among them was one reminding us that, without the ball, systems are just maths.

Tipp became a biker gang laying waste on genteel hill-walkers and, pretty soon, the much-trumpeted Cork ambush had been declared stillborn. Even with Egan's assistance, Damien Cahalane could not come to grips with the luminous threat of Seamus Callanan. Worse, John McGrath and 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer were wreaking early havoc on their would-be jailers too.

So Cork's sweeper system proved no more than a re-positioning of deck-chairs on a doomed vessel.

Sixteen minutes in, Tipp's half-backs all but leaning on their hurleys, the home side led 0-7 to 0-1. As a contest, the event was already sterile.

For Ryan, the efficiency with which Tipp absorbed Cork's early windmills with something close to indifference had to feel like a statement.

"We knew Cork had us in their crosshairs for a very long time," he agreed. "Forewarned is forearmed I suppose, so we were ready. We were very, very wary of what we were going to face here. We knew we had to be right on our guard from the off."

Cork built a team to protect against the concession of goals and they achieved that. But their attack looked hopelessly threadbare against a team for whom James Barry operated in desultory comfort as a spare man behind his dominant half-backs.

Tipp led 0-14 to 0-5 at the mid-point, all of the guessing long since concluded.

Ryan would choose the word "functional" to describe their hurling and, on occasion, they did spray careless ball down on top of Egan. But, by and large, their game was ratcheted to a selfless intensity that Tipp's opponents simply could not summon.

Cork selector Pat Ryan confessed to the media afterwards that they had worked their way through 60-70 players already this season and were confident they hadn't lost the players through a wretched league. He said they'd fully expected to pitch up in Thurles on the front foot.

"It's very disappointing from our point of view" Ryan agreed. "We expected a better performance and it just didn't happen."

Any positives?

"No, not really," he sighed candidly. "In modern hurling, work rate is the key and we didn't work hard enough." They'd been worried about leaking goals, but lost the game in the middle third. "We weren't expecting a performance like that."

Tipp just cantered away from them after a mini 0-4 to 0-0 Cork revival between the 40th and 50th minutes during which Egan seemed to be seeking permission from the line to take up an orthodox midfield siting.

The view of the Tipp players seemed to be that the game followed precisely the terms of engagement that they had been told to expect.

Padraic Maher, a colossus beside his brother Ronan and impressive SHC debutant Seamus Kennedy, observed: "We knew what way they were going to be playing and set up for it the last few weeks. They were running around a lot and trying to create space."

A few, brief early skirmishes seemed to come from Cork's desire to be seen to stand up physically and Barry Kelly was kept busy with some early bookwork.

But, by and large, once that early heat was spent, Cork had nothing.

As Tipp midfielder Michael Breen observed: "They came out and hit us hard and we knew that was going to happen. We just had to weather the storm."

They did that and more in the end, Tipp easing through the gears towards a semi-final against a Limerick team that, for all its chequered history, has never been short of natural dander when tossed into combat with Tipp.

Ryan, clearly, would not choose it any other way. "There's no denying a win in a Munster Championship is essential," said the Tipp manager.

"We didn't want to be in a situation where we were going to have to wait for draws and wait for qualifiers. It's not part of the plan. The plan for us is just to try and keep winning match by match and get the most we can out of this Munster Championship, including competing in the final and winning the final.

"We're very open about what our aims are here and that is to keep winning."

Irish Independent

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