Saturday 21 April 2018

No more Mr Nice Guy

Christy O'Connor

In the 49th minute of last month's Limerick v Tipperary Munster quarter-final, Limerick's Kevin Downes won a high ball from a long Shane Dowling delivery before releasing the handpass to David Breen.

The pass was slightly overcooked and Breen had to try to flick the ball past the advancing Brendan Cummins. When the ball went to ground, the goal chance was still alive but Breen mishit his ground-stroke and it was cleared by Paul Curran.

A goal at that stage would have put Limerick nine points up and probably out of sight. Limerick were dominating the play, Tipp had only scored a point during the second half and they looked to be suffering a meltdown. On the sideline, Declan Ryan's days as Tipp manager looked numbered.

Tipp's general lethargy and sloppy performance up to that point was seen to be symptomatic of a team that had lost their way. The reasons for Tipp's misguided direction were being firmly placed at the door of Ryan and his management team.

Steel

Even before the Limerick game, Ryan was facing a huge summer. He needed to show that he had learned from past errors. More importantly, he needed to demonstrate that there was steel behind his laid-back demeanour.

That steel has finally become visible. For a start, the assertiveness that Ryan and his management showed against Limerick has strengthened their position. They made big calls, none more so than taking off Eoin Kelly just six minutes into the second half.

Four of the five subs they introduced scored from play, while Patrick 'Bonner' Maher turned the match with his contribution: from nine plays, he was directly involved in 1-3.

Have those changes and the turnaround against Limerick done enough to dispel all the doubts? There's no doubt that Tipp have been infected by a degree of casualness that has been undermining their wealth of talent.

That was being tolerated but it appears that there has been a line in the sand drawn between Ryan and the players as to what is now expected. At a meeting two weeks ago, Ryan showed his claws in a manner that they hadn't seen before.

It had been sparked by a couple of incidents in the aftermath of the Limerick game that didn't reflect well on a couple of players.

Ryan didn't hold back. A few high-profile players felt the lash from his tongue on a number of topics ranging from dropping standards, being still satisfied with the 2010 All-Ireland, content to drift out of games, and being preoccupied with Twitter.

It may have been a critical turning point in Tipperary's season.

Looking at it coldly, Ryan has still only lost one championship game in his two years in charge. Their performances in last year's Munster championship were probably the greatest a team has delivered in the last 20 years. Their 21-point rout of Waterford in the final was the biggest winning Munster final margin in 29 years.

After that game, Lar Corbett fielded questions with the same cold mind of the assassin that had just slain the Deise with four goals. Tipp looked to have reached a new stratosphere that day but Corbett was still more intent on focusing on what they could achieve than what they already had.

"There's a huge hole there for Tipp to fall into now, to get complacent," he said. "We can't let minds soften. We have to drive on to the next level. If we stay at this level, we'll pay the consequences for it the next day.

"Isn't that sport -- that there's always another level? If you ever think you're at the top of anything, it's the biggest mistake you could ever make."

Tipp certainly never arrived at that "next level" Corbett wanted them to aspire to.

Corbett's words about becoming "complacent", allowing "minds soften" were possible reasons why.

It was even more disconcerting for Tipperary when it seemed that this generation of players would not allow history, and the county's failure to win successive All-Irelands since 1964-65, intrude on their aspirations.

The environment of all successful and ambitious teams is driven by the players. Their willingness to continually strive for that next level has to be self-perpetuating.

Yet the management must create that culture, one that seeks and values their input. Players also want to be inspired, and continually challenged, especially when they were used to that under the previous management.

It is hugely demoralising for a group of players if they feel that the standard of management is regressing. Ryan has been accused of poor communicative skills and not being as open to change and player input as the previous management. Big-name players have also struggled with their form under Ryan in the last 12 months.

Questions

Yet hard questions also had to be asked of some players, and Ryan now finally seems to have asked them.

Have they been using Ryan's style of management -- in comparison to that of Liam Sheedy -- as some form of scapegoat for their own deficit in preparation and performance? It's true that management have to create, tweak and develop the environment for success, but is not personal responsibility a key component in that process?

On the night of last year's All-Ireland semi-final, a sizeable group of Tipp players stayed in Dublin and ended up in Copper Face Jacks nightclub, where some players threw loose comments around about their chances against Kilkenny. Loose drink talk is never an accurate barometer for a squad's beliefs but the word got back to the Cats and their players portrayed it as arrogance and complacency.

When Kilkenny took aggression to a whole new level, Tipp just weren't ready for that ferocity. Kilkenny won the hook-block-tackle count 39-25 but the statistic for turnovers -- which the Cats won 18-3 -- really illustrated the difference between the teams.

Compared to 2010, there was a lack of intensity in their training prior to last year's All-Ireland final. Management have to shoulder some of the blame but so have the players. There has been consistent criticism from some players about lack of a structured game plan this year but the players surely know how it works too.

Their performances in last year's All-Ireland semi-final and final also forced a revaluation of their hurling style. The long-ball tactic, which yielded a tally of 4-13 in the Munster final, broke down afterwards against a more physical, aggressive and streetwise defence. Against Dublin and Kilkenny, Tipp played 52 long balls into their attack and only won 15.

Tipp adopted the same long-ball tactic in the first round of the league and Kilkenny gobbled them up again. Ever since, Tipp have gone back to a more precise stick-passing game which governed much of their play in 2010.

That has shown a level of flexibility from Ryan. Leaving the door open for Corbett, and bringing him back, has shown another facet to his management.

Ryan may not have done everything right but neither have his players. Have they turned a corner together in the last two weeks?

Cork in Cork on Sunday will provide a lot of answers.

Irish Independent

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