Saturday 16 December 2017

'Bonner' the driving force in Tipperary resurgence

Powerhouse attacker gives O'Shea every reason for summer optimism despite latest Cats blow

Tipperary's Patrick Maher. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Tipperary's Patrick Maher. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It's entirely understandable that Eamon O'Shea is clearly finding it harder and harder to explain away these defeats to Kilkenny.

Last Sunday's Allianz Hurling League final was the fourth in succession on his watch and the 19th in all from 26 league and championship meetings in Brian Cody's tenure as Kilkenny manager.

So the abbreviated answers the Tipperary manager delivered in his immediate post-match critique had their source in the swell of frustration that comes with each passing opportunity to stem the tide of black and amber dominance since 2010, when Tipperary enjoyed a league/championship double within six months.

What can you really say that you haven't said before in the same situation?

But when the dust settled on this latest entry in the list of classic encounters that these great rivals have served up over the last decade and a half, O'Shea and Tipperary will be able to see it in more positive light.


After a league campaign that drew criticism and thieved morale from the county at times in the midst of a three-match sequence of defeats to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway, Niall McMorrow's moment of indecision late in the Dublin match has helped Tipperary to find themselves again.

O'Shea has dismissed the notion that he had chopped and changed too often during the course of the campaign, but for the last two games especially he has found a formula, especially with the spine of the team, that represents probably their best structure.

With the resources at their disposal right now is there really a better layout for Tipperary? Full-back may not be Padraic Maher's best position, but his placing there for the last two games best suits Tipperary right now.

Maher has moved from centre-back to half-back and even midfield, where he played against Kilkenny, but with Paul Curran out the option to restore him to where he began life as an inter-county hurler in 2009 has been wholly justified.

His fielding in Sunday's final was close to impeccable, not withstanding TJ Reid's fetch above in the build-up to the second Kilkenny goal, and for those who recall Richie Hogan rising above him in Nowlan Park during the regular league match in February his latest performance will come as a relief.

Tipperary used five different centre-backs in their opening five games – Padraic Maher, Conor O'Brien, Thomas Hamill, Conor O'Mahony and Brendan Maher – before persisting with team captain Brendan Maher for the next three play-off games.

Maher had been at midfield with James Woodlock for three of those league games, but getting the central defensive positions right has been pivotal to Tipp's recovery.

With Cathal Barrett and James Barry settling well into the previously troubled right flank of defence, Kieran Bergin adapting so well to midfield and Woodlock also showing some form, the cards have fallen into place nicely for Tipperary.

But there may not be a more important cog in the wheel that Patrick 'Bonner' Maher, who has rediscovered his form over the last two weekends of action and underlined his influence on the other Tipperary forwards.

There was a cameo 11 minutes into Sunday's final that illustrated why 'Bonner' can be considered hurling's most celebrated domestique.

Following the disputed Colin Fennelly point at one end he contested the subsequent puck-out but failed to get it under control as it dropped into his zone.

For the next 11 seconds he chased it as it bobbled like a ping pong ball down a chute, getting his stick to it, losing control again, getting a boot to it before losing control again.

Eventually he got it into his hand and fed Kieran Bergin, who fired over Tipperary's fourth point to trail by 0-5 to 0-4.

In all Maher would assist with either the last or the second-last touch for eight of Tipperary's 11 first-half scores. He harried and he hassled, failing to recognise a lost cause at all times.

It was significant too that when his prominence faded in the third quarter Kilkenny managed to get a better foothold on the game, but by the end of normal time he was back delivering the final pass for Bergin's equaliser to force extra-time.

It is the great anomaly of Tipperary hurling that their most influential forward may well be a man who has scored just 1-3 in 16 championship games. Without the punishing schedule of army training that he had to adhere too last year, Bonner's return to form has been timely.

For O'Shea, the next four weeks are arguably the most crucial in his time in management. Twelve months ago they admitted making mistakes in their preparation in their five-week build-up to the Limerick game.

Yesterday morning they got down to work with a training get-together to set out plans for what lies ahead over the next four weeks.

"We did certainly learn from last season and we were trying to put it in place this morning when we met. We learned from the mistakes that we made. We can really approach this Limerick game with momentum," said O'Shea last night.

"There is still a bit in both teams," he added of Sunday's league final. "But we think there is another level in us really. Hopefully we can raise it again."

O'Shea reaffirmed his view that Tipperary lost nothing in defeat and that mental scars from losing so often to Kilkenny have not been compounded.

"I don't think Tipperary lost anything. We don't feel these scars that people think are there."

Irish Independent

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