Nightmare leads to dream final

IT’S ON. Tipperary and Kilkenny will meet in the All-Ireland final, and for all sorts of reasons hard-wired into the DNA of both counties, both counties will be glad.

The Cats would rather beat Tipp than any other county to win four-in-a-row. And Tipperary, more than anybody else, would want to be the county to put a stop to their smoothly-purring gallop, if we can cross species for metaphorical purposes.

Cut us some slack. After yesterday’s mismatch we’re looking for consolation anywhere we can get it. Tipperary beat Limerick back to the Stone Age yesterday in a game that didn’t make it to the 20th minute as a contest.

The final score was 6-19 to 2-7, or at least we think it was. The scoreboard operator ran out of light bulbs with 10 minutes to go as we entered a realm of fantastical numbers familiar only to Stephen Hawking. Or maybe Liam Carroll.

It’s our own fault. For the last couple of weeks we were talking Limerick up like Canadian investors looking over an Allied Irish Bank prospectus, and we’re not the first to discover that the value of investments can fall as well as rise.

There had been a lot of confident asserting that, based on their history, Limerick heads wouldn’t drop if Tipperary jumped out an early lead, but yesterday’s collapse was on a par with Dublin a couple of weeks ago, another side to find themselves smothered as they defended Hill 16.

Clearly somebody tore up a fairy fort at the Railway End when the pitch was relaid after the U2 concert, and that somebody needs to put it back.

Limerick paid tribute to Waterford’s largely successful template against Kilkenny early on yesterday, pulling players back the field, with David Breen out in the middle, Seamus Hickey picking up Seamus Callanan, and Brian Geary loose between the two defensive lines.

However, they took their homage a step too far when Stephen Lucey replicated Aidan Kearney’s first-half error last week. Lucey misjudged a routine delivery right down the middle and the ball ran through to Eoin Kelly behind him. Alone. Twenty metres from goal.

What do you mean what happened next?

On fourteen minutes Lar Corbett left green jerseys twisting in his vapour trail and placed Noel McGrath for a forehand smash to the net; two minutes later Mark Foley dallied for a heartbeat too long on the 21-metre line and had his pocket picked in front of goal by Pat Kerwick, who finished with extreme prejudice.

At the end of the first quarter, then, Limerick were three goals behind and the game was dead as Dillinger.

The score was 3-8 to 0-4 at half-time and Tipp added a further 3-11 to their total after the break.

“We missed a few chances and we were on the back foot after 20 minutes,” said Limerick boss Justin McCarthy afterwards. “By half-time, realistically, as a contest the game was over. At half-time we thought we could come back as good as we could, but it was a big hill to climb at that stage.”

Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy was delighted with the win, but he wasn’t gloating in the immediate aftermath.

“Anyone watching sport would know that that wasn’t Limerick today. I feel for Justin and the lads. It’s happened to me as a manager a few times — nothing happens for you and it doesn’t work out, and Limerick had one of those days.

“There’s big guys in that dressing-room, there’s character in that dressing-room and have no doubt they’ll be back. That just wasn’t their form.”

True enough. But to throw some business jargon into the mix, for Tipperary going forward, the poverty of Limerick’s challenge yesterday means that questions remain for Sheedy and his management team.

For instance, we all expected Tipperary to fade a little in the second half, as they’ve done in previous games this year, and when Limerick burgled a couple of goals the Premier’s mini-hiatus seemed to have arrived right on cue.

At least it did until Lar Corbett buried another two goals within seven minutes. Does that mean the second-half slacking-off problem is solved?

Tipperary’s half-forward line has been criticised for disappearing in recent games, with Seamus Callanan in particular being fingered for vanishing into a phone booth and re-emerging in his civvies rather than a cape and tights. Yet he was also available for the Corbett pass Noel McGrath finished to the net in the first half, and he slipped into splendid isolation on a couple of other occasions as well, scoring fine points in the second half.

At the other end of the field Sheedy’s deployment of Padraic Maher on the edge of the square worked well, but when your team wins a game by 25 points, how much pressure has your full-back been under?

Expect something different on September 6th when Kilkenny take the field.

“They are the team,” said Sheedy. “And rightfully so. They’ve earned that over the last four years. It’s no fluke they’re going for four-in-a-row.”

And it’s no fluke that Kilkenny’s appetite for work has burnt itself across the retinas of the pretenders. Lar Corbett testified to that after the game.

“I don’t think that work-rate would win an All-Ireland on September 6th,” said Corbett, whose personal contribution was a spectacularly lazy 3-1 from play. “We know what Kilkenny are doing to teams year in, year out. We’re under no illusions.

“We see Kilkenny do it year in, year out – the man in the best position gets the ball. That’s it. Today the man in the best position got the ball and if you start from that you’ve a chance of winning any game.”

Eudie Coughlan had a succinct comparison of the up-and-coming Kilkenny side he and his Cork team-mates beat in 1931. They were coming in, he said, and we were going out.

Kilkenny were not the blood and iron regiment of 2008 against Waterford in this year’s semi-final, and as the year goes on the men in blue and gold look more and more like an irresistible tide. But are Tipp really coming in this year? Are Kilkenny really going out? Questions to savour.

Anything to put yesterday out of the mind: those familiar with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane will remember the scene in which Kane’s girlfriend makes her opera-singing debut; the camera tracks upwards from the stage to a pair of stagehands far above, listening to her murder the aria from Salaambo. One stagehand simply looks at his comrade and then holds his nose.

There was a lot of that going around yesterday.

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Hurling’s veterans growing old gracefully

TONY BROWNE plays for Waterford against Kilkenny this Sunday in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final. He’s 36.

Mark Foley plays for Limerick against Tipperary in the other semi-final on Sunday week. He’s 34.

In itself that’s not unusual. Many players last well into their 30s, but they tend to be goalkeepers, who don’t have the same running to do as outfield players.

But Browne and Foley aren’t just outfield players. They’re wing-backs, wearing jerseys that are synonymous with dashing players tearing up and down the wing. Aren’t the aerobic demands bigger, the further out the field you go? Shouldn’t they be sheltering in the corner-back slot?

Not quite. There’s a school of thought that holds you should go out the field rather than backward, as Irish Examiner columnist Donal O’Grady explains.

“Look at someone like Páidí Ó Sé in football,” he says. “He played midfield for Kerry, then wing-back, but as his career went on and on he ended up at corner-back coming towards the end.

“But that was over 20 years ago. Now the corner-back must be much faster, in football or hurling, because the speedy player is put in corner-forward. You can’t shove a guy back there and hope he’ll do okay if he doesn’t have pace; if you have a player like that you need to put him somewhere he won’t need huge speed off the mark, and certainly the half-back line is somewhere a player with good skills and reading can survive.”

Liam Dunne, who played centre- and wing-back himself with Wexford until he was 35, agrees wholeheartedly with that proposition.

“Definitely — you’ll survive in the half-back line longer. From my point of view, I remember when I was finishing up lads were saying to me ‘you’ll come back into the full-back line now’, and I was saying ‘when I’m gone out of this line I’m gone’.

“I knew if I went back to the full-back line I’d be taken to the cleaners altogether.”

Dunne goes one step further, suggesting that a more central role would be that much safer for a player who’s getting on in years than a station out on the wing. He sees Foley and Browne as prime candidates for the number six jersey.

“As you get older, even centre-back would suit you a bit more than wing-back. If you’re able to read the game — and the likes of Mark (Foley) and Tony (Browne) would be well able to do that — then you could drop them in there and they’d be able to do a job.

“But the difference is that Limerick have Brian Geary there, so they don’t have a problem filling the centre-back slot. However, Waterford are playing Michael Brick Walsh there, who’s a terrific hurler, but they’re missing him from the middle of the field. Tony Browne could drop in there and do the job for them.”

The fact that Browne and Foley aren’t the prototype big, brawny centre-backs doesn’t matter, argues Dunne, though he sees protecting the centre-back against a speedy opponent as vital if a smaller player is to thrive there.

“Well, when it comes to size, I’m five foot seven and a half, I’d give Tony five foot nine or so and maybe Mark is around the five ten mark!

“But the game is changing the whole time, and the challenges are different for every game. I remember ringing Liam Griffin before we played Cork in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, for instance, and asking him what he thought I should do with a bullet like Ben O’Connor. He told me to watch the videos and prepare for him.

“I did that, but there’s no doubt that if a guy like that gets his chance and gets past you, he’s gone. That’s the bottom line — you’re not going to catch him if he gets past you, because his pace is so good.”

Even though Davy Fitzgerald is hardly likely to move Browne to centre-back now, Dunne points out that the ageless wonder did well there in Waterford’s darkest hour last year.

“I’d be worrying about the likes of those players as the year goes on, getting to Croke Park and facing the likes of Kilkenny.

“In last year’s All-Ireland final, Tony and the other Waterford defenders were under severe pressure, particularly in the first half, but he hit a lot of ball when he went into centre-back in the second half.”

Irrespective of where they line out, their old adversary is quick to pay tribute to their longevity.

“In fairness to them both, it takes huge commitment off the field to continue so long,” says Dunne, “There’s great credit due to them for having such long careers.”

Easy, let’s not write off the small ball game just yet

THAT put us rightly in our place.

Hurling snobs everywhere were left choking on their cigarillos and smashing their snifters of absinthe after last Sunday’s dull Munster senior hurling championship draw between Waterford and Limerick.

Roll up your silk smoking-jackets and put those 78s of Noel Coward songs back in the sleeve. Let that air of smug superiority and impossible aesthetic standards waft out the window like a bad smell.

It’s all over. Officially. The reign of the grand old game came to an abrupt end last weekend and Waterford and Limerick carry the can for its demise.

Even if heavy rain and slippery turf can be added to the charge sheet, those were the two teams that ushered in the final demise of the small-ball game.

They shouldn’t shoulder too much of the blame, of course, they just happened to be in the seats when the wheel went round.

Eventually the reality of Gaelic football’s primacy was going to sink in. That just took a little longer than everybody expected.

The reaction to last Sunday’s draw in the Munster senior hurling championship was interesting in all sorts of ways: friends and colleagues who are aware of this column’s … fastidious approach to Gaelic football weren’t slow to shake their heads mournfully at the festival of slipping and dropping and missing that went on in Semple Stadium.

Years of eye-rolling as football midfielders mauled each other like strangers in a San Francisco bathhouse were cited in evidence against your correspondent; we were reminded of loud sighs exhaled as yet another wing-back was checked when moving upfield for a return handpass; and certain comments from years past about the wisdom of allowing football to be played in Croke Park — Gaelic football, that is — were brought up, and not to our advantage.

There’s no hiding from the fact that last Sunday wasn’t entertaining. What we found interesting, however, was that directly after the game, participants commented freely on its quality.

“It was a poor Munster championship game… it wasn’t a great championship (match) by any standards,” said Limerick boss Justin McCarthy. His captain, Mark Foley, was even more forthright: “Whereas it was close and exciting at times, the standard wasn’t great and you’d be hoping from a neutral perspective that the quality will be better the next time.”

Compare Derry-Monaghan a few weeks ago. After that clash — an ugly enough affair, even by football standards — Derry boss Damien Cassidy said: “It was a battle but it was not going to be anything else. People sitting at home may be complaining about the quality of football but we are not in the business of entertaining people.

“This is an amateur game — you sacrifice your working life and your family life. And we don’t get paid for entertaining people.”

Cassidy is right, of course: he’s not obliged to produce fun viewing but to produce victories in a competitive environment. We just feel it’s significant that in the immediate aftermath of a poor hurling championship game participants find the time to gauge the aesthetic appeal, along with the result, while after a poor football championship game a participant acknowledges people will be unhappy with the quality of the entertainment.

We’re not going to try to pretty up last Sunday. It was a poor game, and this isn’t designed to make a case for the beauty of hurling (you could say that most Gaelic football games perform that function pretty well; okay, we couldn’t resist that one).

What surprised us was the reaction to the poverty of the fare, as if hurling fans had that hour of dreariness
coming. Maybe they’re right, too.

Still, it beats the alternative.

contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie; twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

Force four from Clare

 

 

CALL ME the breeze. With apologies to Patrick McCabe for borrowing the title of one of his novels, yesterday in Thurles was no place for the faint-hearted. Or the faintly insulated, at least.

Clare and Limerick both had to contend with a stiff wind that turned Semple Stadium into the biggest wind tunnel in western Europe, and the 28,603 in attendance could tell the direction of the breeze, howling down towards the Town End. You didn’t need to watch the flags so much as the flagpoles, which looked to be bending slightly towards Liberty Square.

Not that that will bother Clare. Their four goals were enough to suck the life out of Limerick and see them through to a Munster final decider against Tipperary on July 13.

“We lost the toss,” said Clare manager Mike McNamara afterwards. “Which was a disadvantage, as we would certainly have played into the wind and maybe held Limerick for 20 minutes, but you could end up thinking the wind would win it for you, which isn’t the case.”

The extent to which the wind was a character was obvious from Limerick goalkeeper Brian Murray’s first puck-out, which hung in the air and then dropped on his own 65 like a stone. Clare didn’t always use the elements to best advantage either; Philip Brennan tried some short puck-outs in the first half when he had plenty of muscle to aim at up the field in Tony Carmody and Diarmuid McMahon.

In fact, neither side seemed sure of their tactics, given the gale blowing all round them; Limerick withdrew Donncha Sheehan to midfield but as the half wore on, the Clare defence benefited from having a spare man. On the other hand Clare had a gale behind them but didn’t seem inclined to bomb the ball in on top of their full-forward line.

The advantage of the modh direach was clear on 15 minutes, when Clare’s Pat Vaughan had time and space to deliver a long ball upfield; Brian Murray can point to the sun, and to the distracting joust of Mark O’Flaherty and Damien Reale in front of him, but he won’t enjoy seeing the video later this week. It was a soft goal, and O’Flaherty’s two points afterwards gave Clare a comfortable lead.

The men in front of Murray won’t enjoy re-runs of the 27th minute: three Limerick defenders dithered in front of the goal only for Jonathan Clancy to stride between them and finish neatly with a clean ground stroke. Clare had seven points to spare at the break, but would it be enough?

McNamara and his management team played down the disadvantage.

“We said to them at half-time that the wind wasn’t as big a factor as we’d have expected,” said McNamara. “You’d expect a storm of wind to bring huge benefits, but the wind never won a game for anybody else. Limerick know that now.”

Still, it was noticeable that Brian Murray started launching the puck-outs down on the Clare 21-metre line; that paid off early in the second-half when Ollie Moran read the bounce of one long delivery to goal past Brennan. Limerick added three points to cut Clare’s lead to two points.

Then came the three minutes which had Richie Bennis pursing his lips testily afterwards. Two Limerick defenders collided going for the ball and left Tony Carmody one-on-one with Brian Murray; the Clareman’s unselfish pass across goal gave Barry Nugent a tap-in.

Soon afterwards Colin Lynch’s delivery was fielded easily by Diarmuid McMahon, who gave Murray no chance from close range.

And that was the ball game. Limerick tried hard to the end, but they were never going to catch Clare after that.

A frustrated Richie Bennis acknowledged the influence of the wind after the game, but he was also frank about the damage Limerick inflicted on themselves.

“It was [an influence],” said the Limerick boss. “It becomes a big factor. I’d prefer rain and wind.

“We held them fairly well in the first-half, but they got two goals — I’d say against the run of play — and they also got two goals in the second-half, which I also thought were against the run of play. Very sloppy goals, the two in the second-half particularly — we were caught ball-watching big time.

“But that’s the way it goes, they deserved their victory and I wish them well in the Munster final.”

Limerick have some work to do — the consensus was that they needed to uncover a forward last spring, but their defence was porous yesterday, and Brian Geary’s recovery can’t come too quickly.

Clare have other challenges ahead. Mike McNamara showed the passion at the final whistle: “We have pride in hurling and in the jersey, and just because we hit a purple patch doesn’t mean we’re going to go away after it.”

He was also pragmatic: “The reality is that we’ll have to play better than that in the Munster final. We know that and ye know that.”

But Clare are confident, and battle-hardened, and they have powerful forwards who make it hard for defenders — with or without the ball. The caveats following their dismantling of Waterford have been answered. After yesterday you could even say they have the wind in their sails.

 

2007 Sports Highlight

March 27, 2008

MOMENT TO SAVIOUR: Pat Tobin celebrates after scoring Limerick’s match-saving goal against Tipperary.

The moment when
everyone seems to
settle deeper into their seat — happy there’s
a bit of time left

THE BOSS is only human. He finds the late pull as irresistible as the rest of us. When he asks his staff for their sporting highlight he usually plants the butt of the hurley between our ribs with something like: “Or in your case, the annual Waterford-Cork highlight.”

Cheeky bugger.

Off the proverbial top of the head, when it comes to a highlight of the year it’s hard to overlook Limerick-Tipp Mark II back in mid-June. The Premier were 10 points up with 15 minutes left, but then Limerick began to come hard at them, and it quickly became one of those rare communal experiences — impossible to replicate, difficult to describe, but unmistakable to anyone who’s been at a game like it. The realisation that something special is happening ripples through the crowd and everyone seems to both settle deeper into their seat — happy there’s a bit of time left — while craning forward to drink in the spectacle at the same time.

It looked like an exercise in gallantry for Limerick rather than an attempt to rescue their season, but Tipperary started to doubt, and the unlikeliest of draws materialised in the distance. It still didn’t look likely with 10 minutes left; in fact, it looked impossible. But Limerick did it.

Afterwards you saw stunned Tipp fans and players trying to make sense of the result. It couldn’t have happened. Could it? But when you’ve eliminated the impossible, as that fine wing-back Sherlock Holmes used to say, whatever remains, however unlikely, is the truth. With the evening sun stretching young men’s shadows into legend, we thought it couldn’t get better.

Not spectacular enough for you, maybe. Then how about one of the scores of the year: Dan Shanahan alone served up enough to choose from, and we’d go for that sweet ground stroke which beat Cork’s Dónal Óg Cusack low to the left in Croke Park (there’s something about that Railway End goal and the snappy pull: 17 years ago John Fitzgibbon planted a ball in the exact same spot in the exact same way).

It was a goal to prove to a generation of kids that pulling on the ball is a skill that must be practiced and acquired — and used properly. It proved to a generation of opponents that Dan has all the weapons in his armoury, but they probably suspected as much all along.

More? How about Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh or Ken McGrath’s spectacular catches the same day? Tommy Walsh in the same department on any day you care to choose? Pat Tobin’s late equaliser in Limerick-Tipperary Part One? Richie Bennis saying he wanted to go out and hurl himself after seeing it? The ovation Cork supporters gave the Semple Three at Waterford-Cork in the Munster championship? Richie hugging Babs Keating after the second Limerick-Tipp draw? Babs’ face when he did so? Or, above them all, how about the heartfelt tribute Henry Shefflin and his teammates paid to the late Vanessa McGarry on the day of the All-Ireland?

That afternoon after the game, as Shefflin limped from the dressing-room out the tunnel to go up the steps of the Hogan Stand, he was handed the proverbial slip of paper with the speech written on it. He didn’t need a note, however, to tell him to bring young Darragh McGarry up to collect the McCarthy Cup. It was a simple gesture, as obvious as the right thing always is. And it summed up Kilkenny in 2007. Class on the field. Class off it.

None of the above are our highlights of the year, however.

Our selection from 2007 comes not from any spectacular catch or decisive goal, no pithy description or angry outburst. Our highlight is the morning of Monday June 11th.

That was the day after the first Limerick-Tipperary draw, and the replay was scheduled for the following Saturday, with Cork and Waterford due to play their Munster SHC semi-final the next afternoon. The championship had been electrified by Limerick-Tipp, and while we didn’t know, obviously, that that story would become a trilogy, an extra Munster hurling championship game is like found money. As a good omen it didn’t let us down.

The rest of the summer was suddenly ripe with possibility, and what’s more, improbably enough, that possibility was fulfilled.

And that was the Monday which held all the promise you could ever want in the middle of the year. A few days to a perennially entertaining encounter, with an old rivalry being reactivated the night before.

Life at that stage could hardly have been better because it was all ahead of us. As readers well know, the championship season takes on a life of its own, and the days between the big summer Sundays fall into a predictable rhythm for even the casual follower: recovery and analysis on Monday. Injuries being discussed on Tuesday. Teams being named on Thursday, and plans being made on Friday. Those plans are inevitably broken on Saturday, so the last round of phone calls to discuss moves, switches and replacements takes on a practical edge.

A practical edge is needed, because at a couple of months’ remove the season looks like the work of fantasy. The three Limerick-Tipperary games. The three Waterford-Cork games. Tipperary-Wexford. Limerick-Waterford, both versions. Kilkenny-Galway. And at the very start, Waterford-Kilkenny in the league. That’s 11 class games in one season.

Did we imagine it all or is the rear-view mirror too rosy? Not so, said Justin McCarthy at one point during the immortal summer: “You’re seeing hurling at its best, to be honest about it. The best hurlers are around at the moment. They’re the greatest players of all time . . . they’re playing at a level so high that it’s nearly at breaking point at this stage.”

Well, that’s for another day. So is the annual threat to the Munster hurling championship in favour of a new format — open draw/champions league/whatever you’re having yourself. For the moment console yourself with the prospect that it won’t always be winter. June 11th, or some similar day, will dawn in 2008.

And once again the summer will stretch before you.