By Sean Flynn
Driving to Thurles with former Tipperary hurler Donagh Maher last Sunday, we discussed what a modern game of hurling looks like now.
The conversation ranged from the increased number of short puck-outs to two-man full forward lines and the sweeper/seventh defender employed by teams. Sunday’s game contained all those elements we spoke about and yet it was as pulsating as any game of hurling from the 00’s and 90’s. The game felt like one of those old championship knock-out games, the two teams went to war, and both sets of fans rolled in behind their respective teams.
Tipperary got one of their best results and performances in recent years by playing Ronan Maher as an extra defender, or dare we use the dirtiest word in the game ‘A Sweeper’.
Rhys Shelly hit 23 short puck-outs, 6 mid-range and 14 long restarts, but I heard nobody deriding the short puck-outs and roaring drive the ball. Liam Cahill’s forwards retreated deep down the pitch when out of possession which often left only one or two forwards in the Limerick half.
Yet there was nothing negative about this Tipperary performance, we are adjusting to the demands of the modern game and the team is growing each week under Cahill. The Tipperary players are giving everything for their jersey and the Premier County's supporters are getting right behind it.
When Tipperary played Waterford in this year’s league in Thurles, selector Declan Laffan gave an interview to TG4’s side-line reporter which referenced ‘Scramble Defending’. A rugby term and maybe a fancy term but in plain English it means that when Tipperary lose possession everybody is getting back to help. An example of this is when the ball goes into the full-back line the Tipperary half backs can retreat into their defence to help their inside line, knowing that a midfielder or half forward is going to cover him.
It sounds like the most basic thing that should naturally happen but watch how many teams do it haphazardly or don’t even appreciate this side of the game. When we watch Tipperary in this area you see players showing up for each other and trusting their fellow players. Liam Cahill is picking players with the attributes to carry out this type of defending and Sunday’s game saw Tipperary score 0-15 from turnovers in the middle third of the pitch.
This column last week highlighted the troubles Tipperary have had on their long puck-outs in the past against Limerick and this did not really change on Sunday. However, the damage done by Limerick off the Tipperary long restarts was not as pronounced and I do believe Tipperary planned for this. At times they packed the landing area when they went long and at least if Limerick won possession, players like Hannon, Hayes and Byrnes were not slaloming out of their defence as often as they usually would on these types of turnovers.
Byrnes and Hannon were getting shots away from Tipperary clearances not clearing the half back line during play or off the delivery from a short restart. Limerick scored 0-3 off the Tipperary puck-out and you would accept that every time you play against the Treaty men.
Tipperary used the long restarts sparingly but one theme over our two performances against Limerick this year is that we have not won one breaking ball off 18 long puck-outs in the second half of each encounter.
Five years ago, it felt like Limerick were the young guns challenging a Tipperary team who were one of the best teams of their generation. Sunday’s game felt like the roles had reversed as players like Shelly, Connolly, O’Mara, Stakelum, Tynan, O’Connor, Kehoe, Morris, and Bowe were out to create their own legacy in a Tipperary jersey.
Often fitness and work-rate can be blamed for losing games. But one feature of the Tipperary team is the fitness of the older players and legs that the young players are providing to this team. Watching back the game and interviews, Dan McCormack looked in the shape of his life as he sat beside Anthony Daly in the studio and his performances reflect that. Mix the that with the coaching being provided by their management team it really feels like we have a team that can go toe to toe with anyone in the country.
Despite Waterford being out of the championship, for Tipperary this is a massive test against a team who have had their number in recent championship games. Waterford’s ability to cut Tipperary open from turning over possession has been a key area in which we have faltered. But the signs so far in this championship show that we look we have the legs and the instruction in how to deal with this.
Sunday’s game might not be the easiest on the eye as I expect Tipperary to sit off Waterford and challenge Davy Fitzgerald’s men to try work the ball through the middle third. If Waterford go long deliveries from their own half, Tipperary would be confident that they have the physicality to turn them over and then attack the Deise men. If we get the win on Sunday, we can proclaim that Tipperary are back.