Sport Hurling

Tuesday 21 November 2017

If the urge takes them, Tipperary can administer some painful medicine to this youthful Banner side

How often has it been said that a two-point lead is the most dangerous one to have in the dying stages of a hurling match. Well never was it truer than in Thurles last Sunday, as Eoin Kelly swung the ball cross-field to the waiting John Mullane as the game lapsed into injury time. You could almost hear the cries of anguish from the Limerick faithful, as the ball fell into the hand of the one man they didn't want to see in possession at that stage of the match.

Mullane duly administered the killer blow to the bravest of Limerick challenges and in doing so got Waterford a victory that didn't look like materialising just moments earlier. That alludes to Eoin Kelly's decision to go for goal from a 25-yard free in the 68th minute when an easy point seemed the more sensible option. Given the distance he was out and that ample time remained to secure an equaliser, I was surprised he didn't tap it over the bar. If he had, and his goal attempt was subsequently saved, Waterford almost certainly wouldn't have ended up with the result they did. But credit to Davy Fitz's team. They played right to the final whistle and were ahead on the scoreboard at the only time that really matters.

It was a devastating blow because the Limerick players had given as honest a championship performance as I've seen in recent years. They left every ounce of energy they had on the field, and it was refreshing to see the way both sides put their bodies on the line.

Paul Brown, Graeme Mulcahy and Sean Tobin, in particular, three of Limerick's smallest players, who were all required to operate in the bruising middle third of the field, selflessly ran themselves into the ground, and if the Limerick players keep doing that, they'll be ok. Consequently, a defeat like that will have hurt even more during the week. To add salt to the wounds, in a game lost by the narrowest of margins, the Limerick players will have been torturing themselves, reflecting on any number of different cameos or separate incidents that would or could have altered the outcome.

Donal O'Grady (pictured) will certainly have been tearing whatever hair he has left out, watching the video during the week. Against Clare in their last competitive game Limerick were very efficient with the ball, as you now have to be at the highest level. However on Sunday, and it's understandable given the conditions and calibre of the opposition they faced, that same efficiency wasn't replicated and in my opinion, that's what ultimately cost them the match.

In the first half in particular, there was no comparison between the level of service the Waterford inside forwards received compared to their Limerick counterparts.

It was obvious Limerick had a strategy of trying to isolate full forward Kevin Downes in space by withdrawing one, and at times even two, of their corner forwards out the field. The problem was, they starved Downes of possession, and crazy shots for goal were attempted from afar, when basic and simple opportunities to feed the youngster were available.

When you have an offensive weapon like that, plus the element of surprise that goes with it because he's still relatively unknown, it seemed like lunacy not to utilise him. We saw his effectiveness in the second half, when they actually got the ball into him, with the two excellent goals he scored and the general mayhem he caused in the Waterford full-back line. In fact, had Waterford not switched 'Brick' Walsh back in to steady the ship in the closing stages, the outcome might well have been different.

The other thing I felt that hurt Limerick was their persistence in staying with the short game to work the ball out of their own defence. Understandably, that's the style of play the manager is trying to impose, and they were only doing what they had done successfully right throughout the league.

However, the wet ball and greasy conditions that prevailed in Thurles last Sunday, magnified the risks of such a strategy.

Sometimes you have to play the percentages, and adapt to the weather conditions. When the ball is like a bar of soap, short hand and stick passes in your full-back line with predators like Mullane at large, were at times ill advised, and they may have been better served by being more direct in getting the ball out of the danger areas.

There were certainly occasions when Limerick coughed the ball up, made simple mistakes, or conceded turnovers in the wrong part of the field and paid the price on the scoreboard. Yet, you have to admire them for the courage they showed in trying to play the game that way, and they really deserved more than they got out of the match. With Stephen Lucey and Declan Hannon to come back, Limerick have the scope to improve and if they absorb the lessons from last Sunday, they are a side no one will relish having to face in the qualifiers.

If the Clare players were to do nothing more than take a leaf out of Limerick's book, and commit to playing with the same intensity and honesty this afternoon, then the small Clare crowd expected to make the short trip into the Gaelic Grounds would feel the journey was worthwhile.

There's no getting away from the reality that a certain level of trepidation exists within the county as to just what Tipperary could do to us, with the forwards they have, were they to fire on all cylinders. Consequently, Clare are going to have to dig in, and hurl as if their lives depended on it, just to give themselves an opportunity to stay in the game, and remain competitive. Twelve months ago, in similar circumstances, the team delivered a really credible performance against Waterford, and while they failed to build on it, there were plenty of positives to take away that evening.

With Tipp's quality, and the competition for places within their squad, the task is even greater this afternoon. Losing Donal O'Donovan, arguably Clare's best defender during the league, to injury, doesn't make it any easier.

It's hard to believe that just three years ago the same two counties contested the Munster final, a game that in the eyes of many was a 50-50 contest. Since then however, the sides' fortunes have gone in contrasting directions and it's hard to see that situation being reversed today. While Tipp retain almost exactly the same central spine they had in 2008 -- Brendan Cummins, Paul Curran, Conor O'Mahoney, Shane McGrath, Seamus Callanan and Lar Corbett, with Eoin Kelly and John O'Brien who was man of the match thrown in for good measure -- Clare have had to completely rebuild. All the central positions -- 3, 6, 11 and 14 -- are manned by players with little championship experience, and it's turned into a very steep learning curve for the newcomers introduced.

While Clare would have known that they were always going to lose the experience that veterans such as Colin Lynch, Niall Gilligan and Frank Lohan, brought to the team, no one could have anticipated that others such as team captain Brian O'Connell, and Gerry O'Grady would be lost to emigration and injury respectively. That has left a huge dearth of leadership in the dressing room and meant the successful under 21 team from two years ago has had to be transplanted en masse. Under normal circumstances, at most, four or five of that team would be expected to make it at senior level. Crazily, it's possible that by this afternoon, up to 13 of that team will have acquired some senior inter-county experience.

While Tipperary have also introduced plenty of talented young blood, the difference is those players have been surrounded by established senior inter-county players, and been allowed to develop with far less pressure and in a winning environment. In addition, playing Division Two hurling hasn't been conducive to acclimatising the Clare youngsters for the step up in pace, intensity and physicality required to compete with the big guns in the Munster championship.

While I'm still not convinced about David Young at No 5, with Conor O'Mahoney restored to the side, Tipp appear to be a step closer to getting their optimum starting 15 on the field. Padraic Maher's switch to left half back is a nod to limiting John Conlon's effectiveness for Clare. Maher completely blotted Conlon out when they marked each other in last year's Munster under 21 final and because he's their best ball winner, Clare can't afford to see a repeat of that happening today. However they manage it, Clare have to find a way to get a decent supply of ball into Darach Honan and Conor McGrath in their inside line to have any chance. Tipp repeatedly manage to get their best and most dangerous forwards on the ball in the right areas of the field. Against Limerick in the Division Two final, Clare only managed that sporadically, but when they did, good things happened. McGrath has a touch of class about him, and roasted Mickey Cahill in the first half of that under 21 final last year. Alongside the 19 year old, if the mood takes him, Honan with the right supply is capable of troubling anyone.

After the way Limerick opened the Clare defence at will a month ago in the aforementioned Division Two final, the Clare management are bound to have toyed with the idea of playing a sweeper or auxiliary defender in order to keep things tight, especially early on. Two years ago in this fixture, Tipp repeatedly carved Clare open and created huge space and as a result several goal opportunities. That can't be allowed to happen as easily today. With Callinan likely to line out at centre forward and roam all over the field, the Clare centre back will have a serious decision to make. Does he hold the middle and run the risk of Callinan picking off scores at will as he did against Cork; or follow him and go man to man but leave a huge gap in the middle in the process? These are the type of questions that the Tipp forwards pose, and with nothing like the same physicality and cuteness in the Clare defence as existed in years gone by, they may struggle to come up with the right answers.

If they do play an extra defender, Tipp's response is likely to just park someone in front of Honan and McGrath as Limerick did midway through the second half of the Division Two final, thereby eliminating much of Clare's threat. Either way, Tipp appear to hold most of the aces.

At this point in time, the unfortunate truth is that Tipp are miles ahead of Clare, particularly in terms of their teamwork, support play, efficiency of use of possession and their movement up front. Realistically, Clare have no chance of pulling off an upset, and the worry would be that the gulf in class that currently separates the two sides might be reflected on the scoreboard. If there's a positive, it's that almost all of the best players in Clare are in the 17 to 22 age category, and there are a lot of good young players with the potential to come through in the next few years. As a result, the medium-term prospects are good. Unfortunately, the short term is likely to involve some painful medicine, and if the urge takes them, Tipp may administer it today.

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