Wanted: desire, intensity, work rate– and Plan B
Ryan must bring new approach to refocus Tipp for battles ahead
AFTER watching his side clinch a nervy four-point victory against Limerick in the 2006 Munster SHC quarter-final at Semple Stadium, Tipperary manager Michael 'Babs' Keating was asked for an assessment of his team's performance.
He began by heaping praise on Eoin Kelly for a haul of 14 points against the Shannonsiders and insisted that the Mullinahone man was up there with "the all-time greats."
Keating then said his management team had "taken a lot of stick" in the previous months, but vindication had arrived in the form of a 0-22 to 2-12 victory.
And the colourful Keating patted himself on the back for holding his nerve when the brickbats had been raining down.
He admitted: "We had a plan A, there was never a plan B or a plan C and if plan A didn't work, we were in trouble."
Those words would surely resonate with current Tipp boss Declan Ryan.
In last year's championship, Ryan and coach Tommy Dunne settled on a 'route one' approach that ultimately brought the team to Croke Park in September.
The hurling was simple and direct, and opposition full-back lines were peppered with long deliveries. Some creaked, but some didn't, notably Kilkenny's.
Plan A didn't work on the first Sunday in September, but the game plan had borne fruit to spectacular effect in the Munster final when Tipp fired seven goals past Waterford.
With Michael 'Brick' Walsh in unfamiliar surroundings at full-back and debutant Jerome Maher marking Lar Corbett, who would finish with 4-4, Tipp went to town.
In his deep-lying position in the Tipp half-back line, Padraic Maher was hurling's equivalent of an American football quarterback, while Gearoid Ryan, at midfield, and Patrick 'Bonner' Maher in the half-forward line finished with five 'assists' between them.
Tipp brought that tactic with them to Croke Park and it paid dividends with an early goal from Corbett against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. That was Tipp's only goal of the game, but they never deviated from pre-match instructions.
Kilkenny had been forewarned and knew that if they got their match-ups right from the start on All-Ireland final day, and ensured that Tipp were starved of primary possession in the middle third, they would be okay. So it proved -- and Tipperary went back to the drawing board. Or so we thought.
When Tipp travelled to Kilkenny for the opening fixture of this year's National League, they went for the direct style again, with Brian O'Meara deployed as the obvious target-man on the edge of the square.
Tipp were savaged and Noel McGrath was the only one of the six starting forwards to score from play. It was time for change. Plan A clearly wasn't working anymore. It was time to introduce a plan B, or, at the very least, a mix of plan A and a new Plan B.
Since then, regular meetings have taken place between team management and player delegations in the search of a compromise. Consequently, Dunne has adapted his style of coaching drills used in training sessions.
Tipperary's league games after the Kilkenny defeat were characterised by a noticeable shift in style. In their next outing, against Galway on March 11, the team scored 2-20 and the players were not content simply to deliver long ball into the inside line.
Before Tipp played Waterford, corner-back Michael Cahill admitted in an interview for the match programme that it was something that they had been working on.
"We got a bit of a game plan going (against Galway) and we were hitting in better ball to the forwards," he explained.
"It suited them and they capitalised on whatever chances we gave them.
"We're trying to use the ball a bit better. Small things can make it easier on the lads up front. We're trying to do the right thing with the ball and take the right option every time."
Tipp hit 0-31 against Waterford, but the mix still wasn't quite right. Players were content to take points from out the field, and a dearth of goalscoring opportunities was one of the hallmarks of Tipp's league campaign in general.
In the group stages, they scored just three, with two of those against Galway. There has been tinkering, clearly, but the results of that won't become apparent until tomorrow against Limerick.
Positioning O'Meara, one of the real positives this year, at full-forward hints at a direct approach, with proven snipers John O'Brien and Eoin Kelly either side of the Kilruane-McDonagh target-man.
However, in the absence of the tireless 'Bonner' Maher in the half-forward line, Tipp may struggle to win a consistent supply of clean possession in this sector.
The options are to either bypass the half-forward line from deep or, as Cahill noted some months ago, to supply them with more 'forward-friendly' ball.
Again, all will be revealed, but the fear going forward for Tipperary is that they will struggle to replicate the fluid forward movement that bewildered Kilkenny in the 2009 and 2010 All-Ireland finals.
And despite the presence of obvious individual talent, doubts still surround the ability of this group of Tipperary players to leave a lasting legacy and fulfil their potential as a collective.
In the final 10 minutes of last month's league semi-final defeat to Cork, Tipp were heavily outscored, 1-7 to 0-1.
Cork were then annihilated by Kilkenny in the final, and Tipp supporters were asking themselves the inevitable question -- what would have happened if they had met Kilkenny?
In an interview to be published in tomorrow's match-day programme, Tipp midfielder Brendan Maher speaks about how the players in the squad are there for a reason -- skill-wise, they're the best in the county at what they do.
But Maher admits that what has been called into question is their intensity, work rate and desire.
Are they happy to finish with one, two or maybe three All-Ireland medals or do they want to strive for as many as they can, just like Kilkenny?
Only time will tell -- but we'll know a little more in Thurles tomorrow.