Sport Hurling

Saturday 18 November 2017

Tipp focused for final fling

Failing to cut loose against Dublin last week will ensure Premier men's feet remain firmly planted on the ground, writes Jamsie O'Connor

In his prime as a manager, Ger Loughnane had many great qualities, but his ability to read the minds of his players and intuitively know where their heads were at, was always one of the most significant.

I can recall a number of times during my own career, when coming off an impressive run of form or after playing a particularly good game, my sense of self worth or self importance as a player might have reached exaggerated levels. If that was the case, Loughnane's antennae wouldn't be long picking it up.

At the first opportunity, he'd cut you at the knees with a withering comment or brutally frank assessment of your form, as he saw it. Because he was liable to and capable of saying just about anything, and because both you and he knew, that his opinion was the only one that mattered, it invariably forced an instant re-evaluation of where you stood in the bigger scheme of things. For the most part, it elicited, at least from his perspective, the desired response.

I can remember one particular year, when I had played really well in an All-Ireland semi-final, albeit after a relatively anonymous first quarter. In a rich vein of form anyway, I don't know whether I had got cocky or casual in training or whether I was just a little too sure of myself, but whatever it was, Loughnane didn't like what he was seeing.

One night out of nowhere, about a fortnight before the All-Ireland final, he let fly wondering as to whether I was going to "laze around for the first 20 minutes in Croke Park as I had in the semi-final or actually hurl for the full 70 minutes". These broadsides usually occurred when you were least expecting them and naturally, any delusions of grandeur I might have been harbouring in my own mind were shot to pieces there and then.

After the initial shock had receded, all you wanted to do was ram those words back down his throat. Of course the over-riding consequence was that instead of your head being up in the clouds, it was exactly where you, he and most importantly the team, needed it to be. While that couldn't guarantee a good performance next time out, it eliminated a lot of the factors that might have contributed to a bad one.

I'm not in a position to comment on whether or not Declan Ryan possesses those same insights into what his players might be thinking, but his job to prepare and motivate the Tipperary players for the final in two weeks' time got a whole lot easier after last weekend.

Had the Tipp forward line delivered a display akin to what they served up in the Munster final and cut Dublin apart, it would have taken a hell of a lot to get their feet back on the ground, even with the knowledge of the challenge Kilkenny will present in the final.

However, when players don't perform, or fail to reach the standards they themselves have set, as was the case for a large number last Sunday, there's a far greater likelihood of them gritting their teeth, knuckling down and working ever harder, to right that wrong in their own minds next time out. That Kilkenny are readying to declare jihad, and are probably slaughtering each other in training as we speak in preparation for it, should concentrate the Tipp minds even further.

Those players face the biggest battle of their lives on the first Sunday in September and they don't need to be told that last Sunday's display won't be anywhere close to good enough to retain their title.

In fairness to Declan Ryan's side, with Dublin as depleted as they were, things having gone as well in the Munster final as they did, and the fact no one in Tipp or anywhere else gave Dublin the remotest chance of causing an upset, there was always the likelihood they would be a little bit flat on the day.

In that sense, Lar Corbett's early goal may have actually contributed to Tipp's lethargy. If anything, mentally, it may have lulled them into believing it was going to be even easier than they had been convincing themselves it was going to be. With Dublin setting up tactically as they did, hitting everything that moved and working ferociously hard all over the field, it was never going to be that straightforward.

Luckily for Tipp, in the end enough of their key players delivered when it mattered most. Lar Corbett in the first half, Noel McGrath in the second, and Padraic Maher, Paul Curran, Conor O'Mahoney, Brendan Cummins and Mickey Cahill all through, played to the standard we expect.

Most of the rest didn't. In particular, the four forwards replaced over the 70 minutes have seen the wheel come full circle from the plaudits being heaped on them after the artistry they weaved in the Munster final. That's no harm whatsoever, and privately the manager will be delighted.

In such circumstances, Loughnane would have revelled in the ammunition such a display would have provided. Now, Declan Ryan will surely be driving the message home, that if they thought Dublin were physical and as Joey Boland said after the game "got stuck into them" it'll be nothing like the ferocity they can expect to encounter in a fortnight's time.

Another issue is that while nothing is likely to have exercised Brian Cody's mind more over the last 12 months, than how to stop Corbett and Co, he can't but have taken note at the fist Dublin made of it last Sunday.

The prospect of Kilkenny conceding the initiative and playing a sweeper at the back would have been unthinkable before. But the success Dublin had with it in containing the Tipp attack, coupled with the far greater potency Kilkenny themselves have up front, means it's something they may not completely discount, especially were Tipp to get off to a fast start and the hatches needed to be battened down.

Either way it only adds to the intrigue of what will be a fascinating build up in the coming weeks.

The final question remains the make-up of the Tipp team for the final. With Brendan Maher now firmly in the frame for inclusion, competition for places will be every bit as intense as it's likely to be over the border. That means Seamus Callanan and Gearoid Ryan in particular, will really have to roll their sleeves up over the next fortnight, as they look the ones most vulnerable if Maher returns at midfield.

I mentioned last week that not starting him was a strange decision, given how well he played and how important he was to the team in 2010. Lar may have been the one walking off with most of the individual accolades, and after the All-Ireland final that was no great surprise. But in my mind, Maher's consistent excellence in every game made him my hurler of the year.

He surely needed more than the 35 minutes of game time he got last Sunday to be ready to have the impact Tipp will need him to have when going toe to toe with Michael Fennelly and Co in the final. Certainly after a relatively inauspicious showing against the Dubs, he looks a long way off the player he was last summer.

The other concern is that while John O'Keeffe has played well at number five in the last two games, do they want to take the risk of him ending up on Shefflin, his likely direct opponent in the final? That's certainly a match-up Kilkenny would love to get. So, plenty to ponder in both camps ahead of what's going to be a fascinating climax to the season.

As for Dublin, it was as honest a performance as any team has given this year, but that's little or no consolation to those in the Dublin camp. The defence in particular were heroic, none more so than Peter Kelly who has been a revelation all season.

While the tactic of playing the extra defender has been called into question, in that it possibly denied them the opportunity to win the game, I'm not so sure. They had to stay in the game to give themselves that chance, and without setting up as they did, I'm not sure that would have happened. They were always going to need a break or little bit of luck to get the goal they needed at the end, but unfortunately it never came.

Anthony Daly, though, will surely stay on, and whether the rest of the hurling world like it or not, Dublin have arrived as a serious force.

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