By Noel Dundon
As Tipperary prepare to square up to Clare in the Munster senior hurling semi-final on Sunday afternoon next in Pairc na nGael, Limerick, they will have the words of their Manager ringing in their ears – “respect Clare and be ready for a huge challenge.”
Clonoulty Rossmore man Declan Ryan has more than his fair share of experience when it comes to the Bannermen and he, more than anyone else, is perfectly placed to impart his knowledge of the Clare way, to his charges. And, eventhough his thoughts reverted to the red mist days when Tipperary and Clare went to war on the field of play back in the late nineties and early into the new millennium, Declan did not quite see it as the media did -warfare it was not, just two teams bringing all their weaponry to the fight.
Those days, Declan was a man of few words – his talking was done between the tramlines. Fast forward to the beginning of the second decade of the third millennium and he is talking the talk and has the media eating out of his hand. You sense his unease when it is suggested that the days of yore were filled with bitterness – he is quick to point out that this summation is inaccurate.
“Ah the rivalry was very hot when I was hurling. At that time Clare were the kingpins of hurling in the country and we, like everyone else, were trying our best to challenge them and get to their level. Maybe it is a role reversal at the present time but there is still that edge to Tipperary and Clare games. Clare had some super hurlers – great men – and I think we brought out the best in each other. It was great for hurling and I can tell you that any of the Tipp lads who hurled against those guys have a great regard for them as a team, and as individuals. A lot of the rivarly was hyped up hugely and I would not be making an issue out of it. I have met quite a few of those men on several occasions and they are very decent people indeed. They were tremendous for the game of hurling and for Clare,” Declan told a posse of journalists at the media evening in the Horse and Jockey Inn this week.
The Premier County’s win over Cork in the quarter final tie at Semple Stadium has furthered the view that the Munster title is Tipperary’s to lose. Cork threw everything they had at Tipp in the second half and managed to draw level having been seven in arrears at the breal. But, the class of Declan’s men shone through and they ended as 3-22 to 0-23 winners in what was an exciting game of Munster championship hurling.
The first half had been an exhibition of score taking by Tipp and Declan was quite pleased with the way it had gone. “We were quite happy going in at half time, seven points up. But, we were lucky afterwards in the second half – the moves we made on the line seemed to work. There was a big crowd there and it was typical Munster championship stuff – we were relieved just to come through that game,” Declan says.
While Tipperary had most of the winter to focus on the Cork game and prepare the minds for Denis Walsh’s charges, the period for shining the spotlight on Ger O’Loughlin’s Clare is much tighter. Declan has used video technoloogy to keep an eye on what the Bannermen have been doing, but no more so than anyone else, he says. He has been impressed with what he has seen from Clare and points to the enormity of the challenge facing Tipp in Limerick – anything less than a totally focused approach could be fatal and Declan knows it.
“We had months to prepare for the match against Cork, but things are a lot different for the Clare game now – we are talking about only a few weeks. It will be a huge challenge for us to compete with them physically and I hope that we can meet that challenge. We have to prepare for this game mentally as well as physically and be ready to meet it head on. I know Clare have played a lot of challenge games and they are going pretty well. They have some big strong men who are capable of scoring goals and we have to be alive to that and wary of it,” Declan said.
Tipperary will once again be without Borris-Ileigh’s Brendan Maher when they line-up behind the band in Pairc Na nGael. But, it would seem likely that Declan, Tommy Dunne and Michael Gleeson know far more about their players now than they did three weeks ago. They know how they react to pressurised situations; how they coped with the marauding opposition in the second half; and how they were able to use all their experience and wily to get out of a potentially threatening scenario. They know the strength of their panel, the potency of the bench, and the hunger of the players to win Munster en-route to back-to-back All-Ireland titles. Nobody is talking about that right now though – for now the focus is entirely on the clash with Clare.
Tipp’s only sliderule to measure where they are at, is the Cork game -this would suggest a side in form. But, Declan knows only too well can form can go out the window when it comes to championship. Having been involved in the seething cauldron that can be a Tipp vs Clare championship tie, Declan can attest to the fact that a game can drift from you in seconds, the blink of an eye, you might say -the Munster and All-Ireland Finals of 1997 being cases in point.
That’s all water under the bridge now, but the experience is still stored away to be drawn upon when necessary. And, while Declan claims that the game has moved on a long way from those days – he is the 6th Tipperary Manager in 14 years - he still has the height of respect for Clare and would not dare take anything for granted against them.
“When we came in here as a new management team, the first thing that struck me was how physically strong and fit these players are nowadays. They really go at it in training and they are super athletes really. The game is all about intensity and high pressure now and you can be certain that all the teams are the same.
“Kilkenny set the standard and we set out to get up there. I suppose we did that and we will be trying to maintain it.
“We are treating Clare with the greatest of respect because that’s what they deserve – this is as big a game for us as the Cork game. It’s Munster championship and you have to be clued in totally.”