Relieved Ryan has much to work on after subs Tipp the balance to deny Limerick
THIS one will swirl around in Limerick heads for a long time.
But, however often they analyse it, there can be only one conclusion: they blew a glorious opportunity to win their first Munster championship game for five years.
All the talk around Semple Stadium afterwards was of the powerful influence exerted by the Tipperary subs, but the sad reality for Limerick was that they allowed a game, which looked well within their range when they led by seven points (1-16 to 1-9) at the three-quarter stage, to gallop away from them.
Tipperary outscored Limerick by 1-11 to 0-3 in the final quarter, the goal coming in the 65th minute when full-forward Brian O'Meara, who had a good day overall, pounced on a breaking ball after a surging run by Patrick 'Bonner' Maher sucked in several defenders.
Tipperary had scored six unanswered points over the previous 11 minutes and once they hit the front for the first time, courtesy of O'Meara's goal, they were always going to see the assignment through to a successful conclusion.
And so they did, adding five more points, and while Limerick countered with two points, the energy which had underpinned them so impressively for three-quarters of the game had long since disappeared.
All the enterprise was now coming from Tipperary, in marked contrast to long periods earlier on when their lifeless display left them extremely vulnerable to becoming victims of the first shock of the 2012 championship.
"It was looking dodgy from a Tipp viewpoint with 15 minutes left," said relieved Tipperary manager Declan Ryan. "Limerick had their tails up -- they were showing typical Limerick spirit and playing really well, but our lads kept battling away and we tagged on a few points to bring us back into the game.
"We improved a lot from there on and I'm delighted with the way we finished out the game."
Both Ryan and his Limerick counterpart, John Allen, referenced the input of the Tipperary subs, all five of whom made an impact.
Shane McGrath was the first aboard, summoned to midfield in place of James Woodlock after 28 minutes. Maher, Conor O'Brien and Seamus Callanan followed in the third quarter, while Shane Bourke was given a late chance to make a contribution.
They all did well, with Maher performing best of all, as he inflicted his running game on a Limerick defence which cracked in the final quarter under unrelenting pressure.
Allen dropped an extra man back in an effort to tighten security, but with Tipperary ramping up the pressure, Limerick buckled.
Tipperary won a succession of Limerick puck-outs and used the possession intelligently to take a tiring defence into difficult channels.
Conor O'Mahony anchored the Tipperary revival from centre-back and it soon became apparent that Limerick's lead was unlikely to be enough to sustain them.
"The Tipp subs made a huge difference. When we saw Eoin Kelly going off, you'd say, 'they are under big pressure now', but the lads they brought in made an awful difference," said Allen.
The Limerick manager began repair work in the 51st minute, sending Declan Hannon in for Kevin Downes and he brought on three more subs in the final 10 minutes, but by then the impetus was with Tipperary.
Even without Lar Corbett, who acted as water carrier for the day, Tipp had reserve strength in every sector which, ultimately, proved the difference.
It leaves Ryan with some difficult choices as he attempts to get his best 15 on the field from the start.
For while it all worked out in the end yesterday, the truth is that Tipperary's listless performance for over 50 minutes would have been punished far more severely by a better class of opposition than Limerick.
Limerick won many of the one-on-one battles in that period. They led by 0-6 to 0-3 after 17 minutes before a slick Tipperary move presented Pa Bourke with a goal opportunity which he finished impressively.
Tipperary supporters would have assumed it was the start of normal service being resumed by their team, but Limerick pressed on again, opening a four-point lead (thanks to a Kevin Downes point and a Graeme Mulcahy goal in the 26th minute) which was cut to one by half-time (1-9 to 1-8).
Allen spent at least five minutes of the half-time period in consultation with his selectors on the sideline, then made a phone call and wrote some notes on his pad before heading for the dressing-room.
He later revealed that he phoned his son, who was watching the game on TV. As for not spending the entire half-time period in the dressing-room, he said it wasn't necessary.
Ryan would have dispensed some harsh assessments at half-time, but they had little effect as it was Limerick who broke quickly from the blocks.
They scored six unanswered points in 13 minutes to lead by 1-15 to 1-8. And with their game in such good shape, it looked as if they were poised for an unexpected win.
However, as happened against Clare in the Division 2 league final, they lost their way on the home run, growing increasingly disjointed as Tipperary reacquainted themselves with the power and poise of recent championship seasons.
"We knew full well that we were in for a right battle," said Ryan. "Limerick really put it up to us. We had to dig deep, but the lads did that so nobody could question their spirit.
"It's what we'd expect. The last four weeks were the best I've seen since becoming involved in management."
Allen said that he was so convinced Limerick were going to win that he took his confidence to the bookies on Saturday, a decision which seemed likely to be rewarded at around 5.0 yesterday. In the end, though, it was a case of a gallant effort which ran out of impetus.
Allen believes that yesterday's experience will be of huge benefit for their All-Ireland qualifier adventure, but deep down he must know that this was a lost opportunity on a day when Tipperary took a lot longer than expected to get their game working on full power.
Scorers -- Tipperary: P Bourke 1-7 (4f, 1 '65'), B O'Meara 1-2, N McGrath 0-3, S Callanan 0-2 (1f), T Stapleton, E Kelly (f), S McGrath, J O'Brien, C O'Brien, S Bourke 0-1 each. Limerick: S Dowling 0-8 (4f), G Mulcahy 1-2, S Tobin 0-3, K Downes, C Allis 0-2 each, D Breen, D Hannon 0-1 each.
Tipperary -- B Cummins 7; D Maher 6, P Curran 7, M Cahill 7; T Stapleton 7, C O'Mahony 9; Padraic Maher 7; J Woodlock 5, B Maher 6; G Ryan 6, N McGrath 7, P Bourke 7; E Kelly 6, B O'Meara 8, J O'Brien 6. Subs: S McGrath 7 for Woodlock (28), Patrick Maher 8 for Kelly (42), C O'Brien 7 for D Maher (48), S Callanan 7 for Ryan (51), S Bourke 7 for J O'Brien (64).
Limerick -- N Quaid 7; S Walsh 6, R McCarthy 7, T Condon 7; W McNamara 7, D O'Grady 7, G O'Mahony 7; P Browne 6, J Ryan 7; D Breen 7, C Allis 7, S Dowling 8; G Mulcahy 7, K Downes 6, S Tobin 7. Subs: D Hannon 7 for Downes (51), B Geary 6 for Allis, N Moran for Tobin (66), T Ryan for McNamara (69).
Ref -- B Kelly (Westmeath)