Sport Hurling

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Tipp finally get better of brave Antrim

Paddy Hickey

TIPPERARY 1-25 ; ANTRIM 2-12 THE scoreline suggests a reasonably comfortable victory for Tipperary, but gallant Antrim made a mockery of their pre-match odds of 20/1 for yesterday's Guinness All-Ireland hurling quarter-final at Croke Park yesterday.

Indeed, it was only in the final eight minutes of a contest which produced surprisingly competitive fare that the Munster runners-up were able to sufficiently stamp their authority on the proceedings to book an All-Ireland semi-final place against Kilkenny.

With 65 minutes played, Antrim were still in with a chance of executing the shock of the hurling Championship, as they trailed Tipperary by just three points, 2-11 to 0-20.

But probably through a combination of Antrim fatigue caused by attempting to contain their opponents, and the Munster side stepping up the level of their performance, the Ulster champions found themselves outscored by 1-5 to 0-1 in remaining time.

The introduction of Eugene O'Neill, who replaced Mark O'Leary after 61 minutes, worked like a dream for Nicky English's side.

And it was another Tipperary sub, a very lively Lar Corbett, brought on three minutes after O'Neill, who initiated the move with a cross-field pass to John Carroll, who quickly spotted O'Neill unmarked inside the Antrim defence.

In the first half, goalkeeper Quinn twice showed his agility and alertness by pulling off great stops from a very impressive Benny Dunne, but he was left virtually powerless as O'Neill unleashed a bullet-like delivery.

O'Neill's goal put Tipperary 1-21 to 2-11 in front, and the blue-and-gold outfit added four points on the trot, with O'Neill, set up by Corbett, and Corbett contributing one apiece, before Antrim, through Liam Watson, had the final say just before the final whistle.

Antrim's extremely committed, skilful and cohesive performance will have done much to convince the powers-that-be that the northern representatives are deserving of holding their place in the last six of the championship.

Of course, because of the record of the majority Ulster champions in the quarter-finals, as well as the pre-match evidence, it was widely expected that the contest would produce a landslide victory for Tipperary. When referee Pat Ahern threw in the ball, there were plenty of empty seats.

The pre-match expectations seemed to be entirely justified when Tipperary had put three points on the scoreboard with less than three minutes played. But to the delight of the Antrim and neutral fans in the crowd, whose vociferous support created a home match-like scenario for Dinny Cahill's men, the Glensmen rocked Tipperary back on their heels with some tremendously spirited and skilful play.

The Tipperary players, undoubtedly expecting an easy afternoon at Headquarters, didn't know what hit them. The Antrim backs tackled like tigers, and gave the Tipperary forwards precious little room. At midfield, Conor Cunning and Jim Connolly put it up to Noel Morris and Conor Gleeson, and the inventive and imaginative play up front of the likes of Liam Watson, Paddy Richmond and Gregory O'Kane consistently troubled the opposition rearguard.

After 17 minutes, Tipperary led 0-5 to 0-3, but then Watson was rewarded for his spirit of adventure when his low drive from a 20 metres free beat the opposition defensive wall. The Munster side hit back quickly, shooting two points on the trot to regain the lead.

But Antrim levelled at 1-6 to 0-9, after 28 minutes, and six minutes later Liam Richmond blasted the sliotar past Brendan Cummins in the Tipperary goal, after a half-blocked shot from Paddy Richmond fell very kindly for him. Just before the break, Paul Kelly, who had a stormer at left half-back, replied with a point from a '65', but that did little to temper the crowd's expectation of a rousing second half.

Within seven minutes, Tipperary had levelled at 0-13 to 2-7, before moving 0-16 to 2-7 in front by the 13th minute of the second half. However, despite Tipperary's ability to quickly strike back following Antrim scores, the Ulster champions were, as stated, only three points in arrears before their opponents tellingly stepped up the pace in the closing stages.

For a considerable part of the second half, and particularly in those crucial final eight minutes, a crucial difference was manifested between the two attacks.

For Tipp the likes of Eoin Kelly, Benny Dunne, John Carroll, and subs O'Neill and Lar Corbett were able to conjure up something special.

Carroll's strength, pace and ball-winning ability was a major plus right through the match, and this year's Championship debutant Benny Dunne, with his pace, neat body-swerve and score-taking capability, is a major find for Tipperary.

In contrast, the Antrim offensive unit regularly experienced difficulty in making an impression against an improved defensive unit, where full-back Philip Maher, Conor Gleeson, who moved from midfield to centre-back, and the left flank duo of Paul Ormonde and Paul Kelly were particularly to the fore. Just before the final whistle, Antrim's Conor Cunning was sent off for a second yellow card.

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