Jackie Tyrrell: Tipperary need to rediscover defensive mean streak

All-Ireland champions must tighten up at the back if they are to retain their crown

Tipperary’s Padraic Maher and Dan McCormack put the shackles on Dublin’s Donal Burke. An outclassed Dublin still managed to score 1-19 on the day. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

There's no good reason to be in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Being there is a reminder that something went wrong for you. Tipperary have a few wins under their belt now since losing to Cork but they'll still feel they have something to prove.

It's like The Twilight Zone. Something isn't right and you're uneasy and desperate to get beyond it to the other side.

I remember back in 2012 we played Limerick after taking a bad beating from Galway. You're very uncertain of yourself and have a tendency to over-think things. Before when a ball comes, you're just gone with it in your hand – not thinking about it. Now you're a small bit more jittery, particularly early in the game.

After what had happened us in the Leinster final we were uneasy in ourselves – you wonder, 'where are we actually going?' – and if you look back it was only with 15 minutes to go that we opened up. Quarter-finals are just about getting through. I always thought of them as part of the qualifier process rather than part of the All-Ireland. You're still on probation.

Séamus Callanan celebrates one of his goals against Dublin at Semple Stadium. Tipp’s problems are at the back not in attack. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

But when you get through that it’s like a completely different competition starts because you’re going to Croke Park. It doesn’t matter where the quarter-finals are played – Thurles or Cork – you’re still in a provincial ground. The difference between that and Croke Park; it’s only a round but it is massive. The whole idea of going to Croke Park for All-Ireland semi-finals gives you confidence.

They have conceded an average of 25 points per game so far this year

You feel like you’ve earned it. When the bus pulls in, it feels like an achievement to get here and no other venue does that to you.

Going into this year’s quarter-finals Tipperary are carrying some interesting stats: in their last four games they have scored an average of 28 points and that includes a no-show against Galway in the league final.

Take that one step farther. In this year’s championship, considered to be a bit of a mixed bag for them, a campaign with no huge conviction, they have averaged 32.3 points per game. That’s phenomenal scoring by a forward unit, which from the outset has been accused of being patchy and inconsistent and lacking ball winners and penetration.

I sat in the Kinane Stand in Thurles two weeks ago, as they dismantled a Dublin team that seemed to be in disarray. But it was Tipp’s demeanour that impressed me. They never settled for a point when the goal was on even when the game was over and the clock ticked into garbage time; if the goal was on they went for it. There was a ruthlessness about them and in particular their full-forward line who scored 5-17, more or less at will.

Nice balance

If they missed the goal chance – and the scary thing was they could have easily hit 10 – they went after it again and again, whenever there was the slightest sniff of a chance to stick another past Conor Dooley.

I wouldn’t get carried away here. Dublin were shocking. They had no real organisation and it was as poor as performance as I have seen from an inter-county team. For instance, Michael Breen walked through their defence from midfield for a handy goal 19 seconds into the second half. They looked like a team fulfilling a fixture.

Tipperary are beginning to have a nice balance to their forward unit; half forwards Bonner Maher and Dan McCormack give them a platform of ball-winning ability, physicality, high-octane work rate and selflessness that will supply the lethal full-forward line of McGrath, Callanan and Bubbles O'Dwyer with plenty of ball to continue to rack up these massive scores.

Farther back the field is Tipperary's Achilles heel. They have conceded an average of 25 points per game so far this year and when you exclude the Westmeath game that rises to 28 points. It's hard to see that defence getting its hands on Liam MacCarthy come September.

In last year’s championship games they conceded an average of 19 points on the way to being crowned champions. That’s a huge difference of nine points, which at this stage would win you 99.5 per cent of your games.

Tipperary’s Tomás Hamill and Joe O’Dwyer shut the door on Dublin’s Ryan O’Dwyer during the qualifier win at Thurles. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Their back line is not as settled as last year, with regular changes in goal and on the edge of the square. This alone can have a big effect on the unit as a whole. Backs crave familiarity and structure, particularly at one, three, and six, as confidence is built on the relationship formed by every training session and match that they play together.

This is the spine of the team and when in place it gives you strength, structure, confidence and the rest of the pieces slot in around you. Repetition in training and getting used to these players beside you, behind you and in front of you are key.

Once the crowd goes over 40,000, on-field communication is all but impossible – the number of times I came off at the end of games completely hoarse but no-one would have heard a word I was saying. Come game time, when you haven’t time to think and shouting isn’t an option, you have to rely on that repetition and the trust it establishes.

From playing beside and behind JJ Delaney for years, I knew his habits: small things like when he was going to strike as opposed to walking the ball out and if he did the latter, then he needed support runner on his shoulder.

Telepathic triggers

These telepathic triggers were built up over years of playing and training together since we were minors. We built up a rapport and understanding that didn’t require communication to know where he was going to run, position his body, or what he would do with the ball. I even knew when he was out on his feet and needed help, maybe a support run to take the ball from him or just to switch positions for a breather or maybe tracking a forward who wouldn’t stop running.

It was the same with Hogi [Brian Hogan] and Tommy [Walsh]. There were days in training when we didn’t make the right decision and scores came from it but you learned the lesson. It was ingrained into you so that if it happened the next time, you knew what to do differently. I will be in the right position the next time for the pass, break of the ball or whatever was needed.

Tipperary need to get that settled spine, the trust, real edge and steel, from last year back into the defence. Cian O'Sullivan scored a goal for Dublin in the first half against Tipperary where he waltzed past James Barry unopposed for a goal. This would never have happened last year. He would have been met 30 yards from the goal, swallowed up and turned over well before he could even start dreaming about a goal.

Their six backs are very good on the ball and supporting each other. That’s part of the problem. Dinking lovely passes here and there, crossfield balls to their forwards. That’s great but defence is measured on what you did to stop the other team’s forwards.

It’s not what your distribution was like, not how many scores you got, not what your possession count was. They’re all airy-fairy, fluffy numbers and stats that go up on the video analysis the following week.

John McGrath in action against Dublin’s Cian O’Callaghan. Tipperary’s potent full forward line scored 5-17 between them that day. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

But real defending is about shutting your man down: no scores, no fouls unless it is worth a foul, no outlet for the team to attack your goal, blocks, hooks, putting your body on the line to stop a score or pass.

I remember the mentality we had to have to play Tipperary’s forwards. Get on top of them first. Don’t give them a chance to settle or get their confidence up and running. If you think back to the All-Ireland final in 2014, the first day they got the better of us but compare the start they got in the drawn game compared to a few weeks later

I remember in the replay the first ball that Bubbles O'Dwyer got in the middle of the field. I was marking him and blocked him down. Lar Corbett picked it up and Paul Murphy blocked him down. That was setting the tempo and giving a clear message that we would be different that day.

Hugely confident

We knew that they had won that battle the first day and that our forwards had got a good score – good enough to have won nearly any other All-Ireland. As a back-line we felt that we hadn’t brought our ‘A’ game in the way the forwards did and we knew that what we did would probably be the winning and losing of the replay.

We also knew that at some level Tipp must have been wondering what exactly they had to do to win the All-Ireland. Nearly everything they hit had gone over the bar. It can be frustrating when you play that well and don’t win.

They are hugely confident players and if you give them a start – like we did in last year’s All-Ireland final – they will flourish. They can make the ball sing and, if let, they will take you apart so you have to get on top from the very start. That sounds obvious but every early success is a victory for you and builds a platform you can use to drive on.

They have cover and options, but they need to fix in on six guys to bring a meanness and physicality to the defending

Donagh Maher was very assured two weeks ago for Tipperary and brings pace to the full-back line. Tomás Hamill looked solid at three but for me Cathal Barrett is one of the best corner backs in the country and if they could get him back it would really strengthen their defence and push James Barry to five. They have other options, in dropping back Brendan Maher to the half -back line to bring experience there.

I wonder where Séamus Kennedy has gone to after an excellent 2016. He has real pace that would help in the half back line. So they have cover and options, but they need to fix in on six guys to bring a meanness and physicality to the defending and get what they are conceding to below 20.

If they do this, the forwards at the other end will do the business and they will have a big say in the 2017 championship. Easier said than done.

It’s about meanness within the rules. If that’s not happening, there might be no video analysis session the following week, just a few days of black-hole drinking and ‘what ifs’. And believe me the worst part of it all is having to go and watch an All-Ireland with two other teams doing battle in Croke Park, while you’re tearing yourself inside out!