Galway's star forward Conor Cooney who missed the National Hurling League final.
Fifteen weeks have passed since Galway obliterated Tipperary in the Allianz National Hurling League final, but the defeat still resonates among blue and gold supporters. Indeed, the Tribesmen were superb value for that sixteen-point win. The question now is whether Michael Ryan’s men will allow themselves to be out-worked, out-hurled and out-smarted by the favourites to win the All-Ireland title.
Forget the historical and cultural baggage associated with the Tribesmen and instead treat next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final as a contest between team A (Galway) and team B (Tipperary) - when you look at the prospects in dispassionate terms team A are the obvious favourite.
Team A have been hugely impressive during their championship campaign - they dismantled Dublin (2-28 to 1-17) and Offaly (0-33 to 1-11) before walloping Wexford (0-29 to 1-17) in the Leinster final. And, they picked their way around some sophisticated defensive systems in the process: a sweeper, a double sweeper and a sweeper combined with a three-man midfield in the provincial final.
Meanwhile team B have staggered to this point of the season - they wobbled around Westmeath before beating Dublin reasonably well. Then came a quarter-final win over Clare which was not all that convincing.
So, when analysed in such terms the pundits should only be predicting one winner - if Kilkenny were piecing together the performances that Galway are . . . the Tribesmen look the complete team and their progress this season has not been lost on Tipperary manager Michael Ryan.
“I am not in the least surprised - I think it’s far too simplistic to just suggest that they are a big team,” Michael Ryan explained at a press event hosted at the Anner Hotel, Thurles last week.
“They do not just puck ball in on top of the square and hope that it gets won or puck it aimlessly down on their half-forward line and hope that it gets won. There is much more to them than that. This Galway side are full value for where they sit at the moment,” the Upperchurch-Drombane man added.
PRIMED TO LAND THE BIG ONE
Galway appear primed by manager Micheál Donoghue to land Liam MacCarthy. Goalkeeper Colm Callanan is a proven game manager and shot stopper while the defence has a settled look about it with Adrian Touhy, Daithí Burke and John Hanbury manning the full-back line. Pádraig Mannion, Gearóid McInerney and Aidan Harte have been outstanding this year at half-back while Johnny Coen is proving an able foil to the outstanding David Burke in the middle of the field. You can probably expect Cathal Mannion and Joseph Cooney to line out at half-forward on Sunday while Joe Canning will operate as a drift centre-forward and will, presumably, spend the majority of this time in midfield. Then, inside, you will find a combination of Conor Whelan, Conor Cooney and Jason Flynn while from the bench Galway may well spring capable operators like Niall Burke, Shane Maloney, Pádraig Brehony and, of course, Jonathan Glynn.
Conor Cooney and Conor Whelan have set the Galway pace from a scoring point of view with 1-11 and 0-12 from play respectively - in all thirteen different players have scored for the Tribesmen during the championship while at the opposite end of the field the defence, led by Gearóid McInerney at centre-back, have proven themselves as mean a unit as you could hope to come across.
In contrast the Tipperary defence is coughing up goal chances.
The Tipperary senior hurling team is scoring for fun this season - against Dublin Michael Ryan’s men notched 6-26 (the county’s highest championship score in ninety-two years) before firing 0-28 against Clare to force their way into the semi-finals (0-28 to 3-16).
The deficiencies, however, associated with the performances of the team relate to the opposite end of the field - in the 2016 championship, for example, Tipperary shipped 19 points on average. In this year's league campaign that average jumped to over 21 points and to over 23 during the 2017 championship (when you remove Westmeath from the equation the Premier County have conceded 27.5 points on average this summer prior to the contest with Clare). And, in the quarter-final Clare were permitted to get nine shots (including rebounds) in on Tipperary goalkeeper Darragh Mooney's goal which is a distressingly high number.
“We have not been performing at the top level - I think that's the accepted reality. We have work to do,” Tipperary manager Michael Ryan explained last week.
“It is certainly not how we learned to defend or how we try to defend and, if anything, it is quite the opposite. I just think the full-back line in particular is such a horrible place to be. If the ball breaks badly for you or if you are on a really good forward and if he reads that ball just millimetres better than you do you're dead. It's a green flag and that's simply it. And, as long as fellows are playing hurling that is the reality - if the forward gets the turn first and he is on the top of his game you are in trouble,” the Upperchurch-Drombane man added.
“I have conceded enough goals to know that if a team is on a bad run and you are conceding goals nobody is happy about that. The problems tend to be from much further out the field, but I wouldn't be offering that up as a defence for our back line’s performance this year - it has been poor. Our fellows have not been at the levels that they need to reach, but it is eminently fixable. As long as you have a match ahead of you it is eminently fixable,” Michael Ryan said.
Patrick Maher pictured attempting to take on the Galway defence during the 2016 semi-final clash. Photo: Eamonn McGee
2017 ALLIANZ NATIONAL HURLING LEAGUE FINAL
Tipperary performed poorly at Páirc na nGael, Limerick and paid a dear price when losing by sixteen points to a rampant Galway side (0-14 to 3-21) in the Allianz National Hurling League final on April 23rd. Goals from Jason Flynn (two) and Cathal Mannion propelled the Tribesmen to a comprehensive win over the All-Ireland champions. Significantly, Tipperary fielded without Séamus Callanan while Galway star Conor Cooney was also marked absent.
Galway were set-up to stop Tipperary. The Tipp half-back line were tackled ferociously and as a result the inside forwards were starved of quality possession. Galway brought huge energy to their game plan, did the work required to dominate possession and were then structured in such a way that they could deliver quality ball to their inside forwards. Galway did not make the mistake of dropping the ball down on top of Pádraic and Ronan Maher.
Galway successfully built a bridge between how they wished to defend and how they hoped to attack. The structure of the Galway side worked to deliver their players to the ball in both attack and defence - the Tribesmen took away a key Tipp attacking platform and then created the room in the Tipperary half, got in behind the Tipp half-backs and forced them to run towards their own goal. Essentially Galway hit Tipperary with a critical double whammy - Micheál Donoghue’s men restricted space in their own half and created it in the opposition’s.
And, Tipperary could well have lost by more than sixteen points. Galway’s shot success rate was just 44% (sixteen wides and three shots dropped short). This was down to taking poor options as opposed to pressure exerted by the Tipperary team. Galway did not use their inside line well enough in the opening half of the league final - Galway led 0-11 to 0-5 at the interval, but had already fired ten wides and dropped three shots short. Galway cleaned up their approach play in the second half, scored 3-10, hit five wides and dropped one shot short.
Meanwhile Tipperary’s work rate, especially among the forwards, was marked absent.
Since Michael Ryan’s appointment as manager the Upperchurch-Drombane man has emphasized his intention to build a hard-working identity for the Tipperary senior hurling team. And, true to his word in 2016 the Tipp players established a significant reputation for themselves in that regard. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the work rate of the Tipperary team became a concern earlier this season.
Irrespective of what anyone may argue about tactics or the significance of player talent the main thing is still the main thing - if your team does not set the terms and conditions of the game in a physical sense you are asking for trouble. And, this especially applies to forwards who determine the quality of ball that is permitted to enter your half of the field.
In 2016 the defining characteristic of the team was the forwards’ determination to contaminate the quality of possession that the opposition enjoyed. The ferocity of the Tipperary tackling, for example, in the 2016 All-Ireland final affected Kilkenny’s shots and their shot percentage success rate - Tipperary won the shot tally 33-17 and the shot percentage success rate 73% to 47%. Galway, however, turned the tables on Tipperary in the league final - they worked like dogs up front, intercepted Tipperary deliveries forty-eight times, dominated possession to the tune of 57% and restricted Tipp to a passing percentage of just 58% (Galway 72%).
Against Galway in the league final and Cork subsequently in the Munster championship Tipperary conceded 5-48 and although the finger was pointed at the full-back line the more significant problem could be located further out the field - the forwards were simply not working hard enough to contaminate the quality of the opposition ball. Indeed, a recurring image from the league final involved Galway wing-backs Pádraig Mannion and Aidan Harte streaking forward untouched with ball in hand - Harte, of course, also helped himself to two points from play.
To win elite hurling matches it is necessary to force the opponent into the condition that you want them to be in. Galway did the work, Tipperary did not. Galway worked hard, were smart about how they went about their business and then their hurling finished the job.
Tipperary's Séamus Callanan pictured in action against Galway's Gearóid McInerney and Daithí Burke during the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final clash at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: Eamonn McGee
WORK RATE IMPROVING
The good news is that the Tipperary work rate has improved, significantly.
Tipperary's performance against Clare, for example, was far from perfect, but none of the issues associated with the display could be put down to a poor attitude. Indeed, the statistics associated with the three-point win over the Banner suggest that the All-Ireland champions have turned a corner and are back in the hard-working groove - big time. Indeed, Tipperary captain Pádraic Maher has noted the improved work rate.
“You would notice it. It was one massive area we were missing in the Galway game in the league final and you could say a lot of the Cork game too - it was a very open, loose kind of game. We knew we had to get back to basics and get our work rate right,” Pádraic Maher explained at a press conference hosted at the Anner Hotel in Thurles.
“We know that if we can hit those points on the head it will take a fair team to beat us. We are working on that area and that is what Mick (Ryan) has demanded of us ever since he came in at the start of 2016. He wanted us to give our all and work as hard as we can and our hurling would take care of itself after that.”
And, it will take nothing less than a hard-working performance to compete with Galway.
“The last two years have shown it,” Pádraic Maher agreed.
“We can’t come out of the All-Ireland semi-final last year and say we played all that well. It was a workmanlike performance that got us through and it could have gone either way. The same the year before - we didn’t play well against them either, but there was only a point in it. We know nothing else is going to get us through, but to work our asses off against Galway because they are the kind of team that do the same; they have a really strong work ethic within the group in Galway. You can see that in the games they played. So, we have to match it and beat it if we can at all.”
Tipperary’s work rate against Clare helped Michael Ryan’s side to build a platform from which to win the game. And, the work rate of the forwards made a huge contribution in this regard. In all Tipperary’s starting forwards got in forty tackles and won twelve turnovers in the process. Indeed, it was highly encouraging to see the inside line of John McGrath, Séamus Callanan and John O'Dwyer register fifteen tackles.
There has been much hand-wringing about Clare's seventeen wides (from play), but the pressure exerted by the Tipperary team, especially the forwards who worked back impressively, was a contributing factor. Tipperary, for example, managed to record a 64% shot success rate while Clare converted just 36% of their shots. Against Cork, for instance, Tipperary’s collective determination to defend their goal was not as marked and the Rebels were allowed to convert 63% of their opportunities. Indeed, last week Pádraic Maher was eager to praise the efforts of the forwards to contribute to the defensive effort.
“John McGrath is one of the best players in the country in terms of getting hooks and blocks and turnovers in as a forward. So, seeing the likes of those lads do that in the big games is a massive lift to us and makes our game easier at the end of the day as the ball is coming back at us fifty-fifty and giving us more of a chance,” Pádraic Maher explained.
“It’s a massive lift. It is always being said to teams that defence starts from number fifteen. People don’t just say it for the sake of it - it does and the lads are leading by example up there.”
The trade-off, of course, is that if the forwards are prepared to contribute to the defensive effort then, when possible, the defenders are expected to deliver a quality ball.
“That’s it and the boys would not be long telling us about the ball in either. It is all part of it - you try and help them out as much as they are helping you out,” Pádraic Maher explained.
In 2016 Tipperary won the turnover-in-the-tackle battle in every competitive game that the team played (34-26, for example, in the All-Ireland final) while in 2017 Tipp lost the turnover battle against both Galway and Cork. Against Clare, however, Tipperary were back in the groove - big time. Tipp won the turnover-in-the-tackle battle 25-18 adding a further fifty-four tackles, three hooks and nine blocks bringing the team's combined hook-block-tackle count to ninety-one (Clare sixty-five) - against Cork Tipperary lost the turnover-in-the-tackle battle 18-21 and the hook-block-tackle count 66-77. So, somewhere along the line a massive adjustment in attitude has taken place.
The fierce tackle rate which the Tipperary team were renowned for in 2016 is back and that searing effort will give the Premier County a fighting chance against the Tribesmen.
2017 ALLIANZ NATIONAL HURLING LEAGUE FINAL
Tipperary 0-14 Galway 3-21
at Páirc na nGael, Limerick
Galway: Colm Callanan, Adrian Touhy, Daithí Burke, Paul Killeen, Pádraig Mannion, Gearóid McInerney, Aidan Harte (0-2), Johnny Coen (0-1), David Burke (0-1), Jason Flynn (2-1), Joe Canning (0-9, 0-5 frees), Joseph Cooney, Conor Whelan (0-5), Cathal Mannion (1-1), Niall Burke. Subs: Jonathan Glynn, John Hanbury, Cyril Donnellan, Thomas Monaghan (0-1), Seán Loftus.
Tipperary: Darren Gleeson (Portroe), Cathal Barrett (Holycross-Ballycahill), James Barry (Upperchurch-Drombane), Michael Cahill (Thurles Sarsfields), Séamus Kennedy (St Mary’s Clonmel), Ronan Maher (Thurles Sarsfields, 0-2, 0-2 frees), Pádraic Maher (Thurles Sarsfields), Brendan Maher (Borris-Ileigh, 0-1), Jason Forde (Silvermines), Dan McCormack (Borris-Ileigh), Michael Breen (Ballina, 0-2), Steven O’Brien (Ballina), Noel McGrath (Loughmore-Castleiney, 0-2), John O’Dwyer (Killenaule, 0-1), John McGrath (Loughmore-Castleiney, 0-6, 0-6 frees). Subs: Niall O’Meara (Kilruane MacDonagh’s), Patrick Maher (Lorrha), Tomás Hamill (Moyne Templetuohy), Paul Flynn (Kiladangan), Dáire Quinn (Nenagh Éire Óg).
TIPPERARY SENIOR HURLING PANEL
The following is understood to be the current thirty-six man Tipperary senior hurling panel: James Barry (Upperchurch-Drombane), Michael Breen (Ballina), Ger Browne (Knockavilla Kickhams), Michael Cahill (Thurles Sarsfields), Séamus Callanan (Drom & Inch), Seán Curran (Mullinahone), Alan Flynn (Kiladangan), Paul Flynn (Kiladangan), Jason Forde (Silvermines), Tom Fox (Éire Óg Annacarty), Darren Gleeson (Portroe), Tomás Hamill (Moyne-Templetuohy), Barry Heffernan (Nenagh Éire Óg), Brian Hogan (Lorrha-Dorrha), Mark Kehoe (Kilsheelan-Kilcash), Séamus Kennedy (St Mary’s Clonmel), Brendan Maher (Borris-Ileigh), Donagh Maher (Burgess), Pádraic Maher (Thurles Sarsfields, captain), Patrick Maher (Lorrha-Dorrha), Paul Maher (Moyne Templetuohy), Ronan Maher (Thurles Sarsfields), Billy McCarthy (Thurles Sarsfields), Aidan McCormack (Thurles Sarsfields), Dan McCormack (Borris-Ileigh), John McGrath (Loughmore-Castleiney), Noel McGrath (Loughmore-Castleiney), Darragh Mooney (Éire Óg Annacarty), Seán O'Brien (Newport), Steven O'Brien (Ballina), Joe O'Dwyer (Killenaule), John O'Dwyer (Killenaule), John O'Keeffe (Clonoulty-Rossmore), Niall O'Meara (Kilruane MacDonagh’s), Dáire Quinn (Nenagh Éire Óg) & Seán Ryan (Seán Treacy’s).