Ideal opportunity for Tipp to rediscover their mojo
Premier's experience and class will be too much for Limerick's young guns, writes Jamesie O'Connor
I DUG out the programme from the 2007 All-Ireland final last week, just to see how many of the current Limerick team were involved on that occasion. While their opponents Kilkenny have up to a dozen players still active, if you include Seamus Hickey who would have started against Tipperary today had he been fit, the Limerick figure is only four.
Donal O'Grady is the only Limerick player on the field this afternoon to have started that match. For Hickey, and fellow under 21s Gavin O'Mahoney and Wayne McNamara, who were both on the bench, the future must have looked bright coming home from Dublin that September.
Five years on and the highs I'm sure those youngsters thought would be a staple of their inter-county lives have been few and far between. The team splintered and self-imploded just a year later; 2010 was an unmitigated disaster with most of the panel on strike; so after what was for the most part a really encouraging first season under Donal O'Grady, his decision to step down must have come as another demoralising blow to these players.
After going through the league unbeaten and securing promotion to Division 1, coming within seconds of dumping Waterford out of the Munster championship and almost derailing Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final, a match they should have won, there were plenty of positives and a genuine foundation to build on. Furthermore, the under 21s had defeated Cork in a classic Munster final, Ardscoil Ris had emerged as a serious force on the colleges scene and with Na Piarsaigh's success in the Munster club championship, Limerick had every right to feel there were grounds for optimism.
Given how well John Allen stepped into O'Grady's shoes in Cork in 2005, I felt it would mean a seamless transition. However, Allen had been part of the Cork management for the previous two years, was intimately familiar with the other selectors and support staff and more importantly, knew the Cork players inside out. That's not the case this time. It takes time to get comfortable in a new environment, familiarise yourself with the talent at your disposal and develop a rapport and understanding with the selectors and backroom team.
The hammering dished out by Clare in the league opener can't have helped matters, but they recovered well to make the final. With another crack at Clare at home in the Gaelic Grounds, to go eight points up early in the second half and lose without conceding a goal was a major disappointment. Selector Ciaran Carey's subsequent departure and criticism, particularly about the team's fitness levels, was also something they could have done without.
As a starting point this afternoon, anyone looking at the Dublin game last year would have concluded that the spine of the Limerick defence had to be sorted out. Centre-back Brian Geary had given great service but his lack of pace was cruelly exposed, and behind him Hickey was never a long-term solution at full-back. Hickey's pace and athleticism at wing or corner-back will be missed this afternoon, and were he and Declan Hannon available to start, Limerick would feel a lot better about their chances.
As it is, Richie McCarthy gets the start at full-back. Having featured in the attack last year, it seems a strange move, but he had a good league campaign, and in Tom Condon beside him has one of the best corner-backs in the game. O'Grady is redeployed from his usual midfield berth to anchor the defence, but this may be akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul. O'Grady has consistently delivered in the middle of the field, and usually chips in with a couple of scores. At centre-back they lose that dynamism going forward and I'm not sure he has the marking attributes required to tie down Noel McGrath.
In attack, Hannon looked the real deal last year, and will surely be introduced if he's any way ready. In his absence, much will be expected of Shane Dowling on his championship debut. I hope Limerick start him elsewhere in the attack, because that would get him away from Padraic Maher's clutches. They need him to be able to exert an influence on the game, and because he's also a good ball winner, putting him on someone less proficient in the air than Maher makes sense.
In the inside line, Kevin Downes needs to rediscover the form of last year, and Graeme Mulcahy needs to convert some of the good work he does into an end product on the scoreboard. Of course worryingly, all these players on whom Limerick's hopes depend -- Dowling, Downes, Hannon and Mulcahy -- were all under 21 last year, and are all relatively inexperienced at this level.
Tipp have plenty of problems of their own. That said, the number of people prepared to write them off, on the back of what was admittedly a pretty ragged and disjointed display in the league semi-final against Cork, has amazed me.
It seems to have been forgotten that they started that game minus Paul Curran and Donagh Maher, and at least half of their first-choice attack. There was no Bonner Maher or Seamus Callanan. Eoin Kelly only appeared as a second-half sub and Lar, the prodigal son, had yet to return to the fold. Curran's injury also necessitated playing Padraic Maher at full-back, depriving the team of the presence and drive he brings to the half-back line.
Of course there was also the dubious prize of a date with Kilkenny for the league final. Having already received one pasting from the Cats in the league, you'd have to wonder whether the prospect of another crossed their mind given how poor their form was at the time.
But that was then and this is now. Were Tipp playing with the confidence of a year ago, today's result would be a no-brainer. But somewhere along the way, this side has lost its mojo. It's as if the belief they had in themselves has somehow been sucked out of the team, and doubts have gradually started to creep back in. Considering how poorly they played in last year's All-Ireland final, the Tipp players shouldn't forget that with five minutes to go in that game they were still only three points down. If they can get themselves right, they are still the second best team in the country, and realistically Kilkenny's main threat.
Tipp will win today. But they will have to work for it. When it comes down to it, Tipp have the better players, more experience and a bench laden with talent. They may have to call on it but I expect them to have a bit to spare.
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