Saturday 24 March 2018

Tommy Conlon: Underdogs refuse to lie down in fierce heat of battle

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

It was clear after a few minutes that Limerick had their dander up for this one, but that in itself wasn't much of a guarantee.

The hurling and football championships are littered every season with the corpses of teams that have had their dander handed back to them on a plate by seasoned opponents who know how to handle an underdog's uprising.

The heavy consensus beforehand was that a Tipperary team galvanised by new management this year would be just such opponents. Limerick might well make them sweat but Tipp would ultimately break their resistance.

But as it transpired, an early play proved to be emblematic of the match pattern that would subsequently unfold, rather than any symptom of a dreaded false dawn.

In the eighth minute, Tipp's Noel McGrath rolled a sideline cut back to a free colleague. But Brendan Maher fumbled his first touch and in a flash he was robbed. Paul Browne made the sharp steal and motored away, with Maher and McGrath in hot pursuit. Browne, though under pressure, picked out his corner-forward with a steered stick pass. Seánie Tobin beat his marker to the sprint. He turned inside and played a lateral ball to Declan Hannon on the overlap. Hannon had ample time and space to stroke the point.

A lot of Limerick's best play on the day was encapsulated in that early moment: the graft, the alertness, the concentrated pressure on Tipp's possession; then the rational, systematic use of their own ball. There was brain as well as heart, ice as well as fire. It got them to half-time with a 1-7 to 0-7 lead.

But they had survived three major alarms on their own goal in that half. Tipp had opened them up and it required brilliant reflexes from goalkeeper Nicky Quaid to preserve a clean sheet. The favourites, however, had hinted in those moments at the sort of dangerous forward play that could yet be harnessed at any stage.

And they duly turned it on in the third quarter. In 15 minutes Tipp drilled the home side for 1-6. It looked and felt like a definitive assertion of superiority; they led by four and they were starting to flow; the rest would surely be gravy.

Because it was the last score in that 1-6 sequence, Tipp's goal looked particularly conclusive – the game-breaking strike. But it wasn't even concussive, much less conclusive. Limerick in that moment proved to have a granite chin; they took the punch and kept playing, heads clear and legs solid.

The proof was in the reply. In their next attack, Graeme Mulcahy did what they would do all afternoon: he blocked down a clearance; the ball popped out to Tobin and he flashed it over the bar. Declan Hannon then converted a free. They weren't letting go. This absorbing match was up for grabs as it entered its final quarter.

In the 55th, Limerick's full-back Richie McCarthy beat Eoin Kelly to a long aerial ball. He grappled his way out and won a free. Then he did a bit of a war dance in celebration. The blood was rising. And now the big home support in the Gaelic Grounds was gathering some thunder. A minute later, corner-back Tom Condon sent Kelly hurtling over the sideline with a humdinger of a body shot. The crowd liked that one too. A minute after that, Tipp's Kieran Bergin was being harried on his way out with the ball. He stole a quick backwards glance to make sure he wouldn't be hooked – and promptly ran into substitute Shane Dowling who blocked his clearance from the front. Dowling scooped up the ricochet and snapped it over the bar. The sides were level; the roar was tumultuous. Two minutes later, Hannon planted a shoulder on Tipp's Shane McGrath that staggered him over the sideline. Limerick had another turnover.

Only one of those four plays led directly to a score. But their emotional impact was enormous. Limerick were now surfing a big wave.

John Allen, meanwhile, had been strategically clearing the bench. His subs were adding to the momentum. Allen is a thoughtful, understated man, and by all accounts an empathetic coach. He is a graduate of the recent Cork school of hurling which insisted on injecting patience and precision into a game so traditionally governed by freewheeling passion.

His coaching was evident in Limerick's discipline all through. And it was evident too in the frenetic endgame when the home side managed to retain their clarity with the outcome still in the balance. Niall Moran's point in the 64th came from two neat passes that were risky but technically well executed.

And they were still only a point up in the 69th when McCarthy scampered onto a ball and, instead of letting rip, slipped it out to Donal O'Grady. The stalwart midfielder then let rip from distance. The pass was the head ruling; the shot was the heart taking over.

The ball soared off his stick. The crowd was suspended in that familiar, agonising moment when a ball is on its way but the destination is still uncertain. Then the chain reaction spreads, like a rumour, as the trajectory looks good. And finally there is the eruption as it sails between the posts.

Not long after the eruption in the stands, came the invasion onto the pitch. The home crowd's dander, in the end, couldn't be halted either.

Irish Independent

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