Dermot Crowe: Reassurance in his restoration
Lar Corbett's return to the Tipperary fold has brightened the mood in the county, writes Dermot Crowe
ON the day Lar Corbett's return to the Tipperary hurling panel was announced, Thurles Sarsfields faced Moycarkey-Borris at Holycross in the mid championship.
The match had its own importance and life had proceeded in Corbett's, as in any hurler's, absence. But that evening there was little else being talked about only the comeback and the prosperity it might bring.
In the fortnight since, the county has surfed that wave, spirits have perked up that seemed anchored and constrained for much of the period during Corbett's brief exile. Just as it would be sweeping to cite Corbett's retirement as the sole reason for Tipp's indifferent form, his return isn't going to cure all their ills. But the timing is neat and his is the most prominent of the jigsaw pieces falling back into place.
And there is nothing like the championship to empty suppressed emotion. Declan Ryan talked of Tipperary being a championship team. There can be an over-reliance on those articles of faith but Ryan's trust in its powers of seduction is genuine and probably reflects his own growing positivity about the environment around him.
Through the league in Corbett's absence, Tipperary struggled to ignite or find the coherence expected of them, until they petered out in the semi-finals to a resurgent Cork. The sight of Cork overtaking them, and seeming a credible challenger to Kilkenny, would have increased whatever anxieties existed in their ancient Munster rivals. Now, Cork are facing their own internal inquisition while Tipperary have found a degree of stability and coherence.
A Hurler of the Year contender in each of the last three seasons, winning it in 2010 when he scored three goals in the All-Ireland final, Corbett's place in Tipperary's hearts is cemented. If they felt a sense of betrayal at his decision to withdraw, it was tempered by the appreciation he had banked over the course of a storied career.
They tried without success or satisfaction to make sense of it at the time but ultimately all that mattered was that he was gone and unlikely to return. Without Corbett, Tipperary went through a league untypically starved of goals -- the lowest strike rate in the division. They had injuries but the team failed to ignite like it has over the last three years. Their glass looked half-empty.
"I was surprised on both fronts," says Eamonn Corcoran, "when he left first, coming on the back of three very good years, and when he came back again. From talking to lads it (retirement) seems to have been 100 per cent down to the pub business and wanting to put more time into that. But he doesn't put on weight and he has natural speed and hurling. He is capable of coming back after a break like that.
"That's Larry, he just takes hurling as it comes. He comes across very easy-going and stuff but he does really think about his hurling. Knowing Larry, he thinks of every game, he'd be thinking of moves every time, that is why himself and Eamon O'Shea got on very well."
The suddenness of the retirement decision, having trained for six weeks in advance of the league, encouraged bust-up claims and stoked fears that the management team and the players were not fusing. Declan Ryan and Tommy Dunne had worked successfully with county minor teams. Both were well-regarded hurlers in their day but senior management is a peculiar discipline. Players can hurl well together and not have a huge amount in common off the field; these limitations are less forgiving in management.
Corbett is known to have enjoyed a warm relationship with his former coach, Eamon O'Shea, whose forward strategies were well conceived and executed precisely because of a mutual respect and understanding between teacher and pupil. Trying to adjust to a new management and different personalities can take time.
"That is always going to be the case," states Corcoran, an All-Ireland winner with Corbett in 2001. "When Nicky (English) left (in 2002) it was the same; players tend to compare and contrast. And Declan was coming after Tipp winning an All-Ireland and guys are always going to compare one set-up with the other. My view on that is the players learned how to win an All-Ireland under Liam (Sheedy) and Eamon and they need to take responsibility as well. Things don't change that much. I think the Tipp public has been very hard on them so far. I hurled with Tommy and Declan, they are two of the hardest working guys you will come across. There was no talk after hammering Waterford in the Munster final last year of any unrest. Players need to take responsibility as well. Some of the guys had Declan and Tommy at minor. I think with Lar going and a few defeats the spirit dropped but if we win on Sunday that'll all be forgotten."
But Corbett is hard to pin down. Corcoran recalls trying to relax Corbett on match day shortly after his arrival into the Tipperary team at 19, not having played minor or under-21, and being told that it didn't come near the pressure of being outside Semple Stadium with Tipp about to hurl Clare, the national anthem having started and three match programmes still left to sell. A colleague recalls how relaxed he was giving a lengthy interview shortly before his stellar performance in the 2010 All-Ireland final -- that kind of access is almost unheard of now -- and hearing afterwards that he read the piece on the morning of the match. Players reading newspapers before matches is virtually unheard of, seen by many as tempting fate, like messing with the occult.
"All the one whether you talk to me in January or the week before an All-Ireland," Corbett told this newspaper once. "I'll have forgotten the interview ever took place when the game comes around. If people think I'm putting pressure on myself, chatting, that's fine. Pressure makes you play better."
In other words, he is not entirely predictable. But he has been putting a lot of time into his business and hurling nowadays is almost an obscene intrusion on the lives of inter-county players at the top level. He will not have a part in today's match against Limerick, and it would seem desperate of Tipp if he had to. But should they get through then the semi-final against Cork could see an heroic and noisy recall.
"During the league there was a lot of negativity around Tipperary, with Lar going, and some poor performances, people were asking are things not right?" says Corcoran. "But I know that lads are very upbeat and they couldn't wait for the championship, and with Lar coming back too, he is after giving everyone a lift again. Eoin (Kelly) is after playing some very good club games recently. Paul Curran is back at full-back (having been injured for the league semi-final) and Paudie Maher is back in the half-back line. We are in a county where people expect a lot, particularly after the last three years. We do jump on the back of the team when things aren't going right."
Players like Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath, Shane McGrath and Michael Cahill have suffered dips in form during the spring, but in recent weeks Seamus Callanan and Bonner Maher have been back playing club games. Neither figured in the league and they are available this afternoon if required. Eoin Kelly has also had an injury-free run and is hurling well with Mullinahone. The question remains whether or not some of those players struggling will get their form back. Kilkenny, meanwhile, remain the exemplar of consistently high performance and appetite levels.
Corbett's return will, above all, remove his shadow from the equation and the distraction the story caused. Various efforts had been made to get him to change his mind, and his former manager, Nicky English, was among those involved. At a wedding a while ago, Corbett shared a table with some past and present Tipperary hurlers. An agreement was struck that hurling was off the agenda, a sensible if somewhat surreal arrangement.
The rest of the players carried on in his absence and Brian O'Meara took on the mantle of playing full-forward for Tipperary through the league. He holds that position today and there are strong hopes that he can repay those who have placed faith in him. Corbett, with 26 championship goals, won't be out of the picture for much longer.
"The players didn't expect it," a source close to the team says of his comeback. "I think they had felt like most others; that it was too late, they were probably looking at the Limerick game. I know one player when he got the text, he thought it was a joke till he checked the phone number and realised it was Declan Ryan's."
After losing well in the opening round of the league against Kilkenny, Tipperary had a clear-the-air meeting and they've had at least two during the league where gameplans were forensically examined and frank questions asked. Corbett had no part to play in any of those navel-gazing sessions. He steps back in as if he was never away.
Corcoran thinks back to the 2010 All-Ireland win and the under 21 title that followed a week later when they crushed Galway in Thurles. He looks at that period and the struggles they have had since to find the same temper. "You look at some of the under 21 players that won the All-Ireland in 2010, I thought we would have more of those on the panel at the moment," he admits. "We need to drive on after winning and stay up there and compete with Kilkenny."
In spite of their problems, he remains hopeful they can resurrect themselves. "They did show some form in the league but not the form you would expect from a team to go on and win an All-Ireland. You have great league hurlers and come championship they are not at the races. Good championship hurlers will always come good in championship."
Corbett is a classic top-of-the-ground championship hurler. He hasn't played since last October when his season finished disappointingly with a dismissal and a defeat in the county semi-final. He'll have to wait another month, probably, before he dons blue and gold again in the championship. But knowing he is there is reassurance enough for now.
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