Michael Ryan and his management team pictured during the disappointing league final.
Manager Michael Ryan is hoping the sixteen-point defeat suffered by his Tipperary team in the Allianz National Hurling League final will prove to be an aberration as the champions prepare to take on favourites Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park, Dublin on Sunday, August 6th (throw-in 4pm).
Tipperary senior hurling manager Michael Ryan has seen plenty to keep him up at night this season. You can imagine how the Upperchurch-Drombane man has tried to find solutions in the seeming absence of any; picking situations apart and then trying to put them back together again. You would suggest that beneath his taciturn exterior is an optimist and a person convinced that if you think long and hard enough about a problem that the solution will present itself. Michael Ryan, you see, elevates common sense to the point of genius - he lives by a simple aphorism: hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
And, this week Michael Ryan has to be at his very sharpest. The Tipperary team are not performing at their optimum, there are issues with the defence and the All-Ireland champions are preparing to face a Galway team who are hurling out of their skins.
“Look, we are under no illusions - we are going in to play what is one of the two form teams that are left at this point in time. I think that is a fair enough assessment - Cork and Galway and Galway on our side (of the draw),” Michael Ryan said at a press event hosted in the Anner Hotel, Thurles last week.
“Yes, certainly and without a doubt - and, we have first-hand experience of that,” Michael Ryan agreed when asked if he thought Galway had stepped up their performance levels to a significant degree this year.
“Now, we certainly were not in the right mind-set for that match in the league final and what a price we paid. But they were absolutely ready for that game and they have continued it right throughout Leinster. I mean they were very worthy Leinster champions - they just seemed to have a perfect run throughout Leinster.”
In many ways Michael Ryan reflects the club which moulded him - the Upperchurch-Drombane lads favour substance over style and work to squeeze every ounce out of themselves. In 1998 Upperchurch won the county intermediate hurling title and although the ‘Church find themselves significantly out-gunned by neighbours like Drom & Inch, Thurles Sarsfields and Loughmore-Castleiney at senior level in the Mid Tipperary division they give it their all. Like Upperchurch Michael Ryan has worked to get every ounce out of himself. And, the Tipperary players need to follow the template set, especially against a Galway team who schooled them to the tune of sixteen points in the Allianz National Hurling League final at Páirc na nGael, Limerick (3-21 to 0-14).
Michael Ryan, however, disputed the idea last week that his players would or should use the memory of the beating suffered at the hands of Galway in the league final to nourish their preparations ahead of Sunday’s semi-final clash.
“I think the occasion is the motivation to be honest. The opposition could have been anybody, but it just happens to be Galway. You could equally say that the motivation is theirs having lost the really tight game last year and ours from the year before. Look, I think and we certainly hope that the league final was an aberration, but if the championship goes to form as it has over the last couple of years there will be nothing in this game. And, that is what I expect - a really, really good battle,” the Tipperary senior hurling managed explained.
“I think it is all about performance and that’s what will concern both teams. Can we get the level of performance that we need? Can we get the top performance out of our team? That’s the ultimate aim: to get the top performance out of them. And, come what may then. That’s it - you can only give your best.”
Following a stunning 2016 Tipperary launched their 2017 league campaign in rude good health before the All-Ireland champions stuttered against Kilkenny and lost to Cork during the group stage of the competition. Tipperary took care of Offaly at their ease in a one-sided quarter-final and although they wobbled a little in the semi-final against Wexford no one could have foreseen how the roof would cave in so spectacularly against Galway in the league decider.
“It was a complete wake up call,” admitted Michael Ryan.
“It just shows you that if you are off in hurling you will be chinned. And, we were certainly chinned. We had a big say in our under-performance that day, but I would not use that as an excuse for Cork beating us in the Munster championship - Cork are bloody good. And, in fairness to them we got a hint of what was coming when were down in Páirc Uí Rinn (during the league) - they were excellent. They beat us - we tried hard, but they still beat us.”
Following the defeat suffered at the hands of Cork in the quarter-final of the Munster championship Tipperary re-grouped with qualifier wins over Westmeath and Dublin before facing and beating Clare in the recent All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final - since facing the Rebels Michael Ryan has been encouraged by the incremental improvements in the collective performance of the Tipperary team.
“I would be very enthused by it to date. Now, it’s from a low base let me admit,” Michael Ryan explained.
“From the first day that we played Westmeath we were very unimpressive. We would have left an awful lot of our supporters going away very, very frustrated and not to mention ourselves. We were not happy with that performance or anything like it. So, the Dublin game was a marked improvement on that, but I think that the game last week was another step in the right direction. And, it needed to be because, as I said, that was a quality Clare side. I think that if they were more efficient we may not be sitting here.”
Considering that which had gone before the win over Clare, although far from perfect in terms of a joined-up performance, registered significantly with the Tipperary players - Clare, rightfully, are recognised as an All-Ireland contender.
“There was a great sense of achievement and, I suppose, relief from my perspective anyway. These are big games - the last three games that we have played have been knock-out. But we felt that, of all of the games, that game against Clare was a huge, huge, huge game for us because they are an absolute quality side,” an enthusiastic Michael Ryan said.
“Twice they came at us and twice they could have inflicted more damage. And, in terms of their wide count versus ours we were very happy to get out of Cork with a win. For both sides it meant a huge amount,” he added.
“We had a very, very happy camp coming home from Cork - mission accomplished,” Michael Ryan said.
Indeed, Michael Ryan also suggested that Tipperary’s incremental improvements in terms of performance could indicate that the All-Ireland champions will arrive in Croke Park at the right tempo to defend their national crown.
“You would sense it up in the stadium when we are training. There is a little bit of a championship buzz. And, that’s the whole point about these big matches - these guys put such an effort in to get ready for these big matches and it just brings out a whole other side to them in terms of competition and in terms of motivation, in terms of adrenalin. They really sense that these big games are coming and they are really looking forward now to going to Croke Park to the biggest stage of all to try and ply their trade and test themselves against what is the form team.”
Tipperary’s Michael Breen and Patrick Maher pictured chasing Galway’s Pádraig Mannion.
The calls for Cathal Barrett’s re-instatement to the Tipperary senior hurling panel have been loud and persistent since the clash with Clare, but Michael Ryan was more than clear when asked about the issue last week.
“Just to nail that guys for all of you - there has been a lot of speculation in the media over the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours. What has been reported is actually accurate - our panel for 2017 is formed. There will be no more changes to our panel in 2017. So, that’s it and that’s the last I will say on that,” Michael Ryan explained.
Later in the interview, once he had discussed additions to his panel like Seán O’Brien (Newport) and Mark Kehoe (Kilsheelan-Kilcash), Michael Ryan explained his perspective on having the strength to make decisions on behalf of the Tipperary team.
“One of the things you have to learn and figure out very quickly here is that you cannot possibly keep everybody happy, but what you can be is absolutely fair and have the strength to explain your decisions,” Michael Ryan said.
“There are calls (to be made) every single week with us in terms of who makes our twenty-six - have we the right guys in our thirty-five or thirty-six, who makes the fifteen, who is the cover, who gets on the pitch, who doesn't get on the pitch. But we are very straight with our boys on that kind of stuff,” the Upperchurch-Drombane added.
“There is a logic - they may not like it, but there is a logic in here somewhere and a thought-process in terms of what we see and what we value and there are always areas for improvement. These boys are just so desperate to improve all of the time, even the guys who are there the longest work the hardest - they really want to improve and get better. When you are working with guys like that it just makes your job an awful lot easier. But you can't please everyone, you can only play fifteen and you can only put on five subs. And, if you are not in that cohort of twenty you are disappointed at some level. But, look, if the team wins we all win and that's the bottom line.”
Tipperary face into Sunday’s semi-final as underdogs against Galway even though they do so as the defending All-Ireland champions. That fact is a compliment to the Tribesmen who have really set the benchmark in terms of performance this year. Having said that Tipperary enjoy an advantage over fellow semi-finalists Galway, Waterford and Cork - the Tipp lads have already plotted a route to the Liam MacCarthy while the other remaining contenders have not. Michael Ryan, however, does not regard such experience as a noteworthy advantage.
“I would not call it an advantage per se,” Michael Ryan said.
“I think the value is the experience they have gained over the last number of years. We have literally come through the school of very hard knocks since I have been involved with this team. We have suffered plenty in Tipp and particularly at the hands of Kilkenny. We were almost at that level and it does steel you for what's coming. But it is not the only thing - there are lots of other things.
“If you look at what Cork have done this year with a very new team and a very young team. They have just played with tremendous freedom and the pitches are not big enough for them - they have a completely free style of hurling and it is really suiting them. I think we are all different; we all have different strengths in our make-ups. I think where we derive our own confidence is unique to us and our bunch of players and the personalities that make it up. It is certainly not a burden to not doubt your ability to go and win a match. But I do not think it's a differentiating factor, it's not worth two points - it's not worth anything. What's worth it is the here and now, how do you apply yourself right here and right now.”
“I think it’s no harm. It’s a welcome change,” Michael Ryan said as he responded to the fact that Tipperary had, at last, shed the favourite’s tag.
“We had this almost honeymoon-like spring where we were just getting through the league and arriving almost untested (in the league final). And, when the ultimate test came we got the ultimate beating that we could get. We have shed that favourite’s tag and I am not sure that it matters one way or the other. The occasion of an All-Ireland semi-final and the chance to go forward is everything.”