O’Shea putting the groove back in Tipperary attack as they go in search of their goal
Kilkenny will pose first iron test of what the Tipperary attack is capable of
So it was written and so it has come to pass. At least so far it has, at any rate. When Eamon O’Shea strapped the task of rehabilitating Tipperary hurling to his back last September, job one was to bring a little carnival back to their forward line. Nobody would have said it explicitly only because nobody would have needed to. After the mournful ballad of Lar and Tommy, anything fresh would have felt like samba.
O’Shea’s role as the brains of the operation when the Tipp forwards last rattled and hummed was the reason his number came up this time around. That being so, the obvious way to drain some of the poison that had lingered through the winter was to facilitate the attack in getting its groove back. If Tipperary supporters were going to forgive, they would need the evidence of their eyes to help them along. Habeas goalus.
Those goals have come, a few early trickling pebbles leading to a rockslide. By the end of last year’s league semi-final, Tipperary had scored five goals in six games. In 2011, it was nine in seven. This time around, their six matches so far have yielded 14 green flags. If nobody is getting carried away, then at least a window has been opened to allow the rank stench of last August drift off into the ether.
How they’ve gone about it is the interesting bit, especially with tomorrow’s league final against Kilkenny in mind. For all the buzz about O’Shea’s particular brand of juju being based on space creation and interchanging forwards, the number of Tipperary goals that look like Eamon O’Shea goals is surprisingly small.
Eoin Kelly’s first against Clare. Lar Corbett’s and Shane Bourke’s against Galway. Bonner Maher’s streak through the vast meadow in front of the Dublin goal in the semi-final.
But otherwise, the majority of their goals have either rained down from the sky or have been the result of a defensive mistake.
Brendan Maher scored direct from a sideline cut against Galway, Eoin Kelly did the same from a free 70 yards out against Clare. Mikey Heffernan’s last-puck goal in the semi-final came from Dublin goalkeeper Alan Nolan fluffing a take-down from over his bar. Maybe O’Shea’s best trick is convincing the world there’s an endless supply of rabbits in his hat.
If we take it as read that Kilkenny will keep the blundering to a minimum, tomorrow will be the first iron test of what the Tipp attack is capable of. Dublin selector Richie Stakelum stood on the sideline in Thurles a fortnight ago as his side got torn limb from limb. Though annoyed at his own team’s failings, he couldn’t but be impressed by the shapes made by his native county. “The liberty Eamon gives his players is to be able to move around the whole time. They all tend to attack the ball in groups and when it breaks, they converge upon it. That leaves space in the position they’ve left so once they get on the ball they look for that space. It sounds simple but you need extremely good players to be able to carry it out.
“And Tipperary have a group of forwards who are nearly all comfortable enough and flexible enough to be able to find themselves in almost any position in the forward line at any given time and not to be worried about it. They never have a guy on the ball who is thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not a corner-forward, I’m only a wing-forward.’ They get on the ball and they express themselves and they can only do that under licence from the management.”
So how do you stop it? “It’s very difficult,” says Stakelum. “You can try to set out your stall and say, ‘Okay, each man follow his man wherever they go.’ But if you don’t have defenders who are equally comfortable playing all across the backline as the Tipp forwards are playing all across the forward line, that will present difficulties.
“Some players are just more comfortable with having a straight-forward, standard job to do. What I mean by that is you can find a player who is a very good, tight-marking corner-back and who will guard his patch to the letter. But if that player suddenly finds himself following his man out to number six, he just might not find himself as comfortable. So you really need players who are versatile, who won’t be unnerved if they find themselves away from their position.
“One way to try to combat it is what I suspect we will see from Kilkenny. It’s to try and really get a hold of it early. If teams can get on top of Tipp early and start to clear ball, it will be interesting to see what effect that has on the Tipp forwards. Will they keep moving around so much if their man is after doing his job and clearing a couple of balls?
“With the best will in the world, there is a tendency in all players to revert back to their position if things are going against them. The manic running might stop or at least slow down if the early exchanges go against them.”
If the Tipp attack was a stick of rock, Corbett would be the writing down through the middle. Against Dublin, he was involved in the play 17 times over the 60 minutes he was on the field. He got on the ball all across the half-forward line, in midfield and right in at full-forward. He won puck-outs and played long raking passes across field. Seven of his interventions led directly or indirectly to scores. Twelve led to shots at the posts. Given that he was always going to be the most-watched man in Nowlan Park tomorrow anyway, it’s as well that he’s earned it. “The Tipp attack has its fulcrum around Larry Corbett and Séamus Callanan,” says Stakelum. “Those two players in particular are very comfortable drifting left and right and through the centre to pick up ball and from there everything is set. If they go for a point or try to set up a goal or whatever, the two of them move very easily far and wide as free spirits.
“It’s fantastic when it comes off but what Kilkenny will be trying to do is to get on the front foot early on and try to test the mental resolve of the Tipperary players. Can they continue playing off the cuff like that when things aren’t going their way?”
It’s a question that will take until September to answer. But tomorrow will bring preliminary findings.