We need to create a ‘culture of excellence’ in what we do on and off the field - Tipp selector Paidi O’Neill

As we prepare to bid farewell to the 2013 season - a season which is remembered with very mixed emotions amoungst the Tipperary hurling public - we caught up with senior hurling selector Paidi O’Neill to find out what is in the pipeline for the new year and where Tipperary are going in 2014.

As we prepare to bid farewell to the 2013 season - a season which is remembered with very mixed emotions amoungst the Tipperary hurling public - we caught up with senior hurling selector Paidi O’Neill to find out what is in the pipeline for the new year and where Tipperary are going in 2014.

Yes, 2013 saw the good, the bad and the ugly from a Tipperary hurling perspective. It was a real mixed bag of emotions and while the senior code form generally dictates the temperature, the other grades usually provide ample back-up when the showcase sides are on the wane.

But, success was limited across the board with only the Intermediates landing silverware - a rare victory in Nowlan Park.... against Kilkenny.... in an All-Ireland Final. That this final added to the 2012 win, with an entirely different side was very noteworthy, but it was perhaps lost on the general public, thanks to the failure of other sides to progress.

Enough about the past though - now it’s time to look forward , and with some optimism too, one would think.

The boots are being shined for the new season, the hurleys hooped and the muscles honed. New faces in the senior hurling squad have added a welcome impetus and they are being introduced to the ‘culture of excellence’ which is being promoted by management as the way forward.

That ‘culture of excellence’ mantra has it’s foundation in the belief that how you live your life off the field in terms of preparation, diet and behaviour, will reflect how you perform on the field. It’s art imitiating life really.

Paidi O’Neill explains:

“The players have adjusted to the culture of excellence which we are trying to promote in the new regime.

“The real challenge now is to bring that culture of excellence into everything we do. There may have been slip up’s in the past - I don’t know. But, if your performance slips by just 2%, that can make a huge difference. It generally goes back to our workrate - I suppose everything does really. If you have 24 or 30 lads whose workrate in training and games is of the absolute highest level, then you cannot really ask for much more,”Paidi said.

Tipperary’s players came in for a lot of criticism at the end of 2012 with the thrashing at the hands of Kilkenny leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth. Some were vilified for their failures on the field - more were vilifed for their activities off it.

The critics were still out in force when Tipp fell to Limerick in the Munster championship first round back in May and then, Kilkenny happened on the horizon in Nowlan Park - a huge challenge and one which Tipp were not up to. It was certainly a big test of the new management trio - Paidi, Eamon O’Shea and Michael Ryan, the latter two having been there previously.

Paidi was new to intercounty management, though not to training teams. And, 2013 was a learning curve for him - a steep one as it happens.

“Looking back on it now it was a very new experience for me the first time round. Eamon and Mick had been there a few years before but there had been a gap of two years and things had moved on very quickly.

“The three of us would feel that we have learned a lot from last year and I suppose there was a bit of a settling in period too. Right now we are where we want to be be, and we feel that we can move on now with great optimism. The reality is that people are all the time moving ahead and bringing new innovation to their approach and that’s what we are about too.

“Moving on is all part of the process and that is where we are now. You are always trying to keep ahead of the game and the fact that we now have the experience behind us is a good thing,” he says.

Despite the barbs which have been aimed in the direction of the Tipperary players, Paidi has nothing but the height of praise for the squad members. He knows the sacrifices that are made and the great lengths the players are going to, to be prepared to don the Tipperary jersey. Those sacrifices continue throughout the year - the county player cannot take his eye off the ball in terms of strength, conditioning and fitness.

That means that the county players are watching their diet over Christmas - what they eat and drink - while the rest of us indulge in Festive excesses. If they decide to have a night out, word inevitable gets back that they were falling around the place ‘ar meisce’ - “Sure how could you win anything with a shower like that.” Yes, we’ve all heard it, and maybe even bought into it. But, not those who know them best.

“Our players deserve tremendous credit because to my mind the ordinary pundit, or supporter, does not realise the amount of time that goes into this thing. They are very very proud guys and we are very proud to be involved with them. We want the supporters to be proud of their team and the Tipperary jersey and we want the players to be really proud to step out in that jersey too.

“There is reality and there is perception and they are two very different things entirely. We cannot control perception but we try to control the reality - we have enough going on without expending energy on trying to control all those other things that are perceived.

But, it would be hugely positive for us to see the Tipperary public getting behind the team in the name of The Premier County,” Paidi says.

The Tipp players called on the general public to back them in their fun run initiative which was a big success on Saturday last. This was dreamed up, organised and facilitated by the squad in response to the serious illness which befelled one of their colleagues of a few seasons back - Loughmore Castleiney’s Eddie Connolly. The players wanted to reach out to a great Gael on a human level, but also on a practical level , and they made themselves available to mix and mingle with those who participated. They reinforced the feeling that they cared and they helped to raise funds for the cause - a massive endorsement of their character and their realisation that there is more to life than hurling.

Tipp were out of the championship earlier than usual in 2013 and from talking to Paidi, you get the feeling that the management team didn’t exactly hit Dubai for the rest of the summer and the autumn. No, they were studying, mulling over, and plotting for the return to action. They were assessing, calculating and planning; they were formatting ideas, formulating plans, and making arrangements. Into the camp have come Gary Ryan and Kieran McGeeney, but neither of them will puck a ball - it’s the new additions to the squad who will be relied upon to add the real impetus and Paidi is very hoepful that they will.

“We have had two games in December to give guys on the panel a chance to showcase their talents. You have to see guys playing games because you cannot just rely on training to judge players.

“Clare are the standard bearers now but the reality is that we have an extremely competitive championship and that is fantastic for all hurling people to see. The season just ended was novel and exciting and it certainly seemed to draw people in. But, at the end of the day we have to stand up, set out our stall and be very focused with what we are about.The future is what we are looking to now. The past is history.”

In saying that, you plan for the future by looking at mistakes of the past. Tipp have undertaken this and have identified some corrective measures.

“You look at the performances last year and the technical area of conceeding a lot of frees let us down. If they are raising flags for the opposition in a very tight game then that can be the difference.

“You can blame the forwards or the backs or midfield, but it is about interdependence in a team game. If you are losing in any line of the field, you are really letting the whole team down. We need to be all on the one wavelength as to what has to be done to achieve success.

“One of the things that we would be hopeful about is the whole notion of the players taking ownership of this project. The one thing that all good and successful teams have is self motivation. Eamon, Mick or myself cannot put that into the players - it must be there inside themselves and we are seeing that now,” he says.

Paidi references the ‘savagely tough place’ which was the Tipperary dressingroom in Nowlan Park on that fateful Saturday evening of July 6th. Tipp were hurting and hurting badly - cut up really and determined that 2014 would be different.

“It was a savagely tough place to be in the dressingroom after the loss to Kilkenny last summer and to look around the dressingroom, you would under no illusions but that these guys care about their hurling and about Tipperary. That’s what we must feed off now and I feel that we are going in the right direction at the present time,” he says.

So, bright days ahead then for the Tipp senior hurlers? Well, the game has been turned on it’s head in 2013 with new champions in Munster, Leinster and the All-Ireland - Limerick, Dublin and Clare ha d been waiting a long long time for success.

Time will tell for Tipp but the early indications are good.