For the second year in succession, Tipperary’s senior hurlers’ season lies in tatters after Limerick bridged a forty one year gap to defeat the Premier County in Semple Stadium in last Sunday’s semi-final clash.
A huge disappointment for Tipperary, a massive setback in terms of the teams development, this defeat was not in the script. But, Limerick don’t do scripts and when they rallied to bag 1-2 in the last three minutes, their supporters were delerious with joy as the Munster champions dumped the raging hot favourites into the qualifiers - a route not at all favoured by the blue and gold army.
Tipperary failed to reach the level of intensity required to win championship games. Many of the old failings returned and the massive level of hunger and desire witnessed in the league final against Kilkenny was missing for this one. Indeed, Limerick it was who showed the greater appetite for work and winning the ugly ball, while Tipperary - particularly in attack - sadly lacked the same characteristics.
Outclassed in midfield, out-muscled in attack and at times outwitted when the sweeper system failed, Tipperary have a date with the drawing board and need a serious re-think if they are to resurrect their season.
And yet, for all that, Tipp could have won the game. Perhaps even should have. They held a goal lead with three to go having bagged four of the previous five points and looked to be on their way to victory. Crucially though, the loss through injury of the excellent Michael Cahill was severely felt and one wonders if Limerick’s morale lifting goal in the 33rd minute would have materialised had he still been on the pitch.
Tipperary’s defence was under massive pressure throughout the game as a result of the attacks failure to hold up play. Indeed, Tipperary won few 50/50 balls from midfield up - the old failings returning again - and this lack of ‘physicality’ or ball winning ability is hurting and hurting bad. All too often, Limerick defenders broke free without forwards laying a hand on them.
With conditions perfect for the clash, the occasion was poised to set the Munster championship alight once again following the wonderful draw between Cork and Waterford in the same venue a week previoulsy. And, the rivalry between the counties in recent times ensured that the atmosphere would be at fever pitch when the players emerged from the bowels of Semple Stadium into the lush cauldron of battle. So it was.
They started on terms and they finished the first half on terms also after what was a sluggish enough thirty five minutes. The game was intense and hard hitting, but there was little enough flow with referee Barry Kelly giving quite a lot of frees, resulting in much stop/start play.
Limerick had the breeze in the half as they played into the Town End goal. And, although they managed the same score as Tipp, they had only two points from play in the half. Tipp were being punished for fouling - some of the frees were quite debatable.
Shane Dowling was the scorer-in-chief for Limerick and he had 0-3 on the board from placed balls against Gearoid Ryan and Seamus Callanan efforts for Tipp. The Premier County played a two man full forward line - Callanan and Patrick Maher - but it was Limerick who were enjoying the lions share of possession.
Their goal came from a 21 yard free from Shane Dowling in the 17th minute when he blasted home and Kevin Downes followed up with a point to extend their lead to four.
Tipp stayed in touch with a John O’Dwyer point from long range and then Bonnar got one of his trademark chances and finished a fine goal in the 21st with half the Limerick defence hanging out of him.
The goal was a big boost to Tipp, but it was Limerick who progressed. Dowling had two further pointed frees followed by a Declan Hannon score in the 27th minute. This was to be Limerick’s last score of the half though and while their lead by out to four again, it wasn’t long before Tipp reeled them in.
John O’Dwyer flashed over another after a quick sideline ball from Noel McGrath, while Callanan had two pointed frees and a fine score in the 36th minute to level it up - the leveller coming after Brendan Maher had robbed brilliantly at the other end before the attack was launched.
Downes had squandered a Limerick goal chance in the 32nd minute after he raced through, but Tipp were, by-and-large controlling the defence with Michael Cahill and Cathal Barrett in particular, excellent.
The Tipp attack had yet to find a rhythm and were perhaps missing the driving runs of Woodlock from midfield to open up the play. Still, with the wind to assist them in the second half, the expectation was that a different approach would be adopted. It was. And, it worked but only for a short while.
Tipp were back to a conventional fifteen for the re-start and within one minute and twelve seconds, Gearoid Ryan had the ball in the Limerick net after Kieran Bergin had found him with a pass.
Tipp didn’t benefit from the bounce though and Limerick stormed back with four unanswered scores from Paul Browne, Shane Dowling and a brace from Donal O’Grady who played very deep and punished Tipp’s use of the sweeper. O’Grady’s points levelled the game and then sent Limerick in front, before a fabulous snapshot from John O’Dwyer levelled matters once more.
Shane Dowling and Noel McGrath traded points as the pace hotted up and Gearoid Ryan and John O’Dwyer scores again gave Tipp the initiative before Dowling reduced the deficit to one.
Lar Corbett was sent into the fray, but incredibly it was James Barry at wing back who made way - Corbett coming into the attack, Noel McGrath to midfield and Kieran Bergin to half back. It was a lot of changing for one substitution and there was further surprise later on when John O’Dwyer made way despite his scoring exploits.
Downes had the sides level once more in the 21st minute but Callanan and O’Dwyer again, followed by a Lar Corbett score edged Tipp into the lead - Graeme Mulcahy getting one for Limerick in the interim.
Limerick had a goal disallowed in the 28th minute for a push on Tipp full back Padraic Maher - without doubt it was a wrong call and when sub Denis Maher shoved Tipp three clear with three to go, it all looked good for Eamon O’Shea’s men. Cahill departed the scene though and from there things went downhill.
Dowling’s goal, following a typical Downes burst and pass, was disasterous from a Tipp viewpoint - he passed five Tipp players en-route to shooting and it was almost inevitable once the ball hit the back of the net, that Limerick would go on and win the game. The momentum was with them and there was no way Tipperary could quench the Treaty County spirit.
Driven on by their fantastic supporters, Limerick plundered the victory with a point from Thomas Ryan in injury time and another from Seamus Hickey who sauntered past Tipp players and fired over the insurance score to unleash scenes of unbelievable joy in Semple Stadium.
On the balance of it, Limerick deserved their win. They were calm and controlled until the end; played with tremendous pride and hunger; and more than made up for any lack of finesse by sheer will power and hunger. Champions they were and champions they remained in Semple Stadium when the final whistle sounded. They didn’t trade in fancy play or clever tactics - instead, they hurled hip to hip, did the basics and let their spirit and drive see them through.
Shane Dowling bagged 2-9 for them on the day - a huge contribution, but Paul Browne and James Ryan at midfield set the tempo with their exploits. They covered very blade of grass and with the likes of Richie McCarthy, Wayne McNamara, Seamus Hickey and Kevin Downes, they looked down the barrel of Tipperary’s gun and didn’t blink when the trigger was pulled.
Hats off to Limerick - this win meant a huge amount to them considering the turmoil of early Spring, and they now face into the Munster Final full of confidence and determination to defend their title.
Whither Tipperary now? It’s a question we find ourselves asking once again this year after a second affront in two years. Make no mistake about it - this is a serious setback to Tipperary hurling. Having turned the corner during the closing stages of the league and hurling up a real storm against Kilkenny in the final, they have reverted - almost a carbon copy of last season again. They key now is to put the vehicle back on the tracks asap. That means channeling the disappointment into something positive and trying to find a level of consistency which will sustain the side. Inconsistency has dogged this Tipp team for a number of seasons and has proved very costly.
Let’s not panic though. Tipp have the players and there are plenty of positives to pick from the debris of defeat. Cathal Barrett was outstanding at corner back, as was Michael Cahill. John O’Dwyer contributed 0-5, Gearoid Ryan 1-2 and Callanan 0-3. Patrick Maher was our big big threat and took his goal brilliantly while Noel McGrath, who didn’t have his best outing in a Tipp jersey, has proven credentials as have the likes of Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher and Conor O’Mahony. James Barry and Kieran Bergin had their moments in the game while Niall O’Meara and Shane McGrath worked hard. Get them playing at a consistent level and off the same music sheet - Tipp’s season could be far from over.
Curiously, last years experience of defeat, could well be the making of Tipp this season. Time will tell.
Teams and Scorers:
Limerick: N Quaid, S Hickey 0-1, R McCarthy, T Condon, P O’Brien, W McNamara, G O’Mahony, J Ryan, P Browne 0-1, S Dowling 2-9, D O’Grady 0-2, D Hannon 0-2, G Mulcahy 0-1, K Downes 0-2, S Tobin. Subs: T Ryan 0-1 for S Tobin; M Ryan for G Mulcahy.
Tipperary: D Gleeson, C Barrett, P Maher, M Cahill, J Barry, B Maher (Capt), C O’Mahony, K Bergin, S McGrath, G Ryan 1-2, P Maher 1-0, J O’Dwyer 0-5, N McGrath 0-1, S Callanan 0-5, N O’Meara 0-1. Subs: L Corbett 0-1 for J Barry; D Maher 0-1 for N O’Meara; C O’Brien for M Cahill; S Bourke for J O’Dwyer; T Stapleton for S McGrath.
Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath)