Saturday 24 March 2018

War and piece of pure of passion


NICKY ENGLISH rolled his eyes and his Adam's apple trembled.

The room was awash with jabbering people. Some coherent, some just lost in the steamy metabolism of another riotous Munster day. Tipp had emerged from the smoke still standing. Grazed and singed and sore but still somehow taking air.

"I certainly wouldn't have liked to be a forward out there today," said the Tipp manager. Around him, naked torsos bore evidence of the tumult. Cuts and welts and grazes, bruises spreading out like oil slicks.

Hurling is not a game of secrets. We knew what we were getting even before Dickie unleashed the sliotar. Tipp-Clare isn't complex. It's simple as a street-fight. Two teams on the edge of reason, hurling away until their chests caved in.

Rewind to the anthem. Declan Ryan stood facing the Blackrock goal, linking arms with Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly. A grown man getting paternal with two kids in his garden. The image encapsulated Tipp's story.

Old and new entwined. Man and boy as one.

The poor soul who takes a mower to the field in Pairc Ui Chaoimh this week would do well to wear protective goggles. For the blade could spit up teeth and bone and splints of timber from the grass. This, you see, was hurling on the borderline. Combat so hard, a man could get a nosebleed just by following it on the radio.

From the throw-in, timber flared and tension hissed. Even the preliminaries had a whitish heat, water-bottles spitting out of huddles like clay pigeons on a firing range.

Then, seconds in, Gerry Quinn and Mark O'Leary, collected bookings for off-the-ball engagement, the former lucky not to take a walk. It set a tempo and a tone that never softened.

As English read it "Both teams just went for every ball, tooth and nail. It was nerve-wracking from the word go. From where I stood, just trying to decide whether to make a change or what to do in the context of a game like that was just unreal."

So the reel spun and the pain accumulated. It was plain, primeval combat. Clare hurl on such days in the way wolves feed. They don't much care for knives and forks. It's a pressure game and, on their better days, it squeezes opponents until the bulb blows in the lighthouse.

Yesterday, was such a day but Tipp were not in the mood to acquiesce. Little flickers gave big signals.

Young Kelly did not have long to wait for the rite of initiation. 14 minutes in, Seanie McMahon met him full pelt on the run and, as the Mullinahone kid stumbled, Ollie Baker arrived with the postage.

Kelly bounced backwards, momentarily stunned, checking that his limbs were in place and the motor in his head still running. Then, miraculously, he drove the sliotar on.

It was like seeing a deer get run down by a jeep, then a locomotive only to scramble to the side of the road and graze.

What was the poor kid thinking? Not much as it happened. "You just have to take those knocks, get up and get on with it," he explained impassively. "Clare were really up for it, we knew they would be. But so were we. We weren't going to back down for anyone."

Just as well for English too because Clare's big men were back in business. McMahon leaked two early points to Eddie Enright but, soon as he got his foot in the stirrup, the old majesty returned. Behind him, Brian Lohan was coursing Ryan with that "feeling lucky punk?" swagger.

But a bonus for Tipp was Tommy Dunne's purpose out at midfield. Sporadically, Baker and Colin Lynch lit familiar flames, Conor Gleeson policing tightly. But Dunne was the pick of them, two early catches seeming to pare away his early-season diffidence.

Beyond that? Jamesie, alone looked equipped to mine attacking space. He is as close to a conventional centre-forward as Ali was to a resident of Palookaville. Jamesie snipes while on safari, not on sentry duty. He hurled beautifully here but, David Forde apart, he found few kindred spirits.

Less than half an hour in, Niall Gilligan was switched off Philip Maher, the Borrisoleigh man ambling through the war. It was an ominous moment. Clare needed Gilligan on the edge of the square for his goal-threat. Now he was peripheral.

Approaching half-way, Corbett stole a puck-out over Brian Quinn's head and levelled matters at 0-7 each, Tipp's scores coming with economy, Clare's with a preponderance of grunt and lather. But Cyril Lyons had them fiercely primed. The battle was already careering towards the wire.

English certainly sensed as much.

"You must remember" he recalled later "that some of the greatest players who ever played the game were playing on this Clare team. It might be a few years since they won the All-Ireland but, at the same time, they're very proud men and very good hurlers."

Two minutes after the resumption, Clare had stretched 0-9 to 0-7 clear when a telltale roar ignited. Johnny Leahy was on his feet and stretching. In Tipp, Johnny getting to his feet is a bit like Cagney pushing through the swing-doors. It's a promise of action.

As if spooked by the thunder, Anthony Daly came vaulting from the Clare bench and jogged along the line, great Banner hordes scalding the air with approval. Then Leahy went in and, within seconds, lay sprawled out like a sniper's victim.

Last night, the suspicion was that Johnny's cruciate may have snapped, his season possibly over. Whatever, it was a blow that - for a time - looked destined to leave Tipp beached.

Clare, though, were getting few smiles from Dickie. Two of Kelly's second-half frees came for infringements by David Hoey and the elder Lohan that, frankly, escaped the naked eye. In the latter case, Lohan was left positively incredulous.

Eugene O'Neill stepped on for Leahy and David Kennedy came in to staunch Tipp worries at half-back, releasing Paul Kelly out to midfield. Clare withdrew Barry Murphy, Tony Carmody and, eventually, the unhappy Gilligan. Enda Flannery was now shoulder-to-shoulder with Kennedy, the physicality unrelenting.

How hard was the game?

"Toughest I've ever played in," said Eamonn Corcoran. "Toughest of all the battles we've had with Clare in the last three years. The two teams just seemed very nervous."

Brian O'Meara found no cause to quibble: "Think we'll feel it tomorrow. Extremely tough. There's little space and you're getting hit constantly. You come to expect that. But I don't think I've played in a tougher game."

It ended with the clock beating like a drum. Two minutes and forty five seconds into injury-time, Tipp leading by a point, Davy Fitz bending to launch a free from the town-end. No sooner did Davy swing than Dickie spread his arms wide. Ten seconds early?

English was oblivious, sprinting towards his team like a free man bolting from a detention pen. Ryan met his manager with a huge embrace, then all were lost in the flood. A game had been settled, no more, no less.

And Ryan, typically, counselled reason: "Every game between Tipp and Clare is a battle. You don't expect an inch and you don't get one. But, remember, last year we beat Clare and we didn't win another game. It's eight years since we won a Munster title.

"If that isn't something to aim at, something to work for, nothing is."


TIPPERARY - B Cummins 8, T Costello 8, P Maher 9, P Ormonde 7, J Carroll 8, E Corcoran 8, P Kelly 8, T Dunne 9, C Gleeson 7, M O'Leary 7, E Enright 7, B O'Meara 7, E Kelly 8, D Ryan 7, L Corbett 7. Subs: E O'Neill 7, D Kennedy 8. Other not on long enough to be rated

CLARE - D Fitzgerald 8, B Quinn 8, B Lohan 8, F Lohan 8, D Hoey 8, S McMahon 9, G Quinn 7, O Baker 7, C Lynch 7, T Carmody 6, J O'Connor 9, A Markham 6, D Forde 8, N Gilligan 6, B Murphy 6. Subs: G Considine 6, E Flannery 7. Others not on long enough to be rated.

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