Reaction to Tipperary’s magnificent victory over Cork on Sunday must be tempered by consideration of the quality of oppostion on the day.
Rarely have we seen so poor a Cork team in any championship. That they failed to live up to expectation on so big a stage must surely wrangle with JBM’s men who looked out of sorts from the off and who never actually managed to get any run on Tipperary in the entire seventy minutes.
Tipp’s lightening start laid the platform to victory and probably put Cork thinking. Seamus Callanan’s fabulous finish in the 6th minute invaded the Cork defensive psyche with doubts and though Tipp were only to add a futher seven scores in the half, it was still enough to hold a two point lead. The five week lay was playing on the Rebel mind as thoughts of rustiness emerged.
The reality though was that the lead was held courtesy of a defensive lapse - Shane O’Neill’s missed catch from Shane McGrath’s centre to Callanan being punished to the full. Apart from that, there was little between the sides at half time. In fact, had Cork been on their game in any way, they would have led at the break - their nine wides were fatal with some of them being inexcusable.
This was a game of chess with both teams using extra defenders to curb attacking acumen. The game plans set out by both management teams were designed to defend rather than attack and for long periods in the first half it looked as though Seamus Callanan was to be the main target man for high ball lorried into the square. He got little joy from this regular supply though, but it was crucial that the ammunition was coming courtesy of Woodlock and McGrath at midfield who were totally dominant, and from Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher and Kieran Bergin in the half back line who were equally as efficient.
Keeper Darren Gleeson was pinging balls to the half back line with unerring accuracy from puckouts thereby giving Tipperary a variety of attacking options. But, more was needed from the attack in the game - it was to come in the second half when Bonnar Maher got into the groove.
How Cork rued those opportunities. Granted Lar Corbett - quiet by his own standards and subbed midway through the second half - missed a goal chance in the 31st minute, but the story of the half was Cork’s erratic shooting. Nine wides from their eighteen shots on goal represented a very poor return, but Cork were still very much in the game at the break, having played so poorly.
Tipp won the first half by two, but they won the second by eight. And, in so doing they bagged a remarkable 2-17 from play - only one score came from a placed ball for the Premier men on the day. That’s an amazing statistic in modern day hurling and Tipp will also be very pleased that they held Cork to just four points from play - a big reduction on previous outings.
Tipp’s third quarter showing put the game beyond Cork and it was Bonnar Maher’s coming into the play which did the trick. He supplied the ball for Callanan’s second magnificent strike and with the midfield duo of Woodlock and McGrath, and the excellent John O’Dwyer, who ended up with 0-6 from play to his name, flashing over scores, the game was put to bed.
Tipp, criticised for not shutting the door when in such positions in the past, ensured that the bolt was fastened on this occasion. Cork were a beaten docket.
Point one: Even allowing for Cork’s failure to turn up, this was a fine display from Tipp who deserve enormous credit for returning The Premier County to All-Ireland Final Day, against a lot of odds. But, the performance would not be good enough to win the All-Ireland and that’s where the big challenge now lies. Elements are being ironed out in defence - James Barry was rock solid, the corner men Barrett and Stapleton were excellent. Padraic Maher was Man of the Match; Kieran Bergin cleared and covered with confidence, while Brendan Maher got through a huge amount of work. Perhaps though, the display of the defence as a unit can be accompanied by an asterisk - affording the September 7th opposition the opportunities presented to Cork will be fatal. Without a doubt, Kilkenny would have exploited these.
Point two: Tipperary will not be able to afford to have half the attacking division out of the play as they were in the first half of the semi-final. Granted with Cork playing a sweeper it proved difficult for some of the players to get onto ball, but this simply cannot be afforded in the decider.
Point three: In terms of intensity, this game was played out at about 60%. At times the hurling was actually quite poor, with players having way too much time on the ball. It didn’t feel like championship for long stretches and as preparation for the final, this game will not have served Tipperary well at all. The clash with Kilkenny will be a very different proposition, with a much different approach. Tipp will have to be ready for this approach which is likely to be full of aggression, intensity and in-your-face hurling. Sunday was like ballet - September 7th will be more like WWF.
So, the historic first All-Ireland semi-final between the counties sees Tipperary edge ahead of Cork in terms of championship victories. There have been many far better games between them, but few will have been as significant.
Victory and defeat has resulted in many questions being asked of both squads. The big question for Tipperary? Can they repeat the 2010 showing and defeat the red hot favourites? The big question for Cork? Where to now and how did it all go so badly wrong?
Footnote: The reaction to the image of Kilkenny Manager Brian Cody flashing up on the screen in Croke Park on Sunday was extremely disappointing. To think that a hurling man of his standing - the most successful Manager the game has ever known - was booed, even if in jest, was outrageous.
Brian Cody deserves, and has, the respect of GAA people in Tipperary - he has earned that respect. He is a magnificent Gael who has presided over a most successful period in the history of our ancient game. He does not deserve such a reaction - not by a long shot.
Of course, every Tipperary hurling person will want to see him weep on All-Ireland Final Day. That’s the beauty of sport.