Nicky English: Tipperary’s need for victory greater than Limerick’s

Kilkenny face challenge this season but they have habit of finding right formula

Tipperary will hope Padraic Maher gets on the front foot against Limerick. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Tipperary will hope Padraic Maher gets on the front foot against Limerick. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

So, round three for Eamon O’Shea and Tipperary. You would easily forget looking at the bookies’ odds that it’s Limerick who have won the two so far and who already have a championship win under their belts.

It mightn’t have been the most impressive of performances but I thought they picked up during the game and they’re now at home. If they continue to improve and get anywhere near their form in Croke Park last year it’s impossible to understand how Tipp are even favourites. Tipperary are also their favourite opposition and even when they’re not going well they’ve been capable of putting it up to them.

Limerick’s league form was poor and even if the opening draw with Waterford looks better now it’s hard to forget the display against Dublin in the quarter-final. The players did step up though against Clare and they looked in better shape.

They still need to be better up the centre of the team, Richie McCarthy especially as Séamus Callanan is Tipperary’s main scoring threat. McCarthy has dealt well with him in the past so his fitness levels, still a little suspect, are going to be crucial. Gavin O’Mahony’s move to centre back was brought about by Wayne McNamara’s struggling for form but Limerick need the physicality that McNamara brings when firing on all cylinders.

Last year Paul Browne and James Ryan were the best midfield in the provincial championship. This year the partnership was broken up against Clare and Browne given a more defensive role, which might have been specifically designed for the opposition but it didn’t suit him that well and he was a bit lost in traffic. At centre forward Declan Hannon struggled to get into the game and Shane Dowling didn’t contribute a huge amount outside of frees.

So they’ll be looking for improvement all down the middle but unlike some Limerick teams in the past, who have managed to raise their game out of nothing for Tipperary, these players have shown over the past two years that they have the ability and the ‘A’ game for top championship hurling and maybe this is the match to kick-start their season.

Up and down form

Tipp’s own league form was up and down. Their best display, I feel, was against Clare in Ennis but the best players that day were Michael Breen at midfield and John McGrath – and neither starts tomorrow. There was an unsettled air leading up to the league semi-final against Waterford – between Séamus Callanan’s suspension and injury concerns – that hasn’t really lifted in the nine weeks since.

There’s been the retirement of Paul Curran and his transition into an advisory role, plus a lot of injuries. The returns of Lar Corbett, Cathal Barrett and John McGrath haven’t materialised; there’s a question mark over Michael Cahill and Noel McGrath is still out.

We’re looking at more or less the same team – at best – that has played Limerick the past two years and lost on both occasions. I can’t imagine that Tipperary are going to reproduce the form of last year’s All-Ireland final – they’re not that ready at the moment – but I do think they may actually need to win a Munster title, as there have been no titles in three years under the current management.

It’s not clear that it’s as important to Limerick, which might sound strange, but to me they’ll be more interested in getting back to Croke Park in their best form.

Tipperary’s desire to win Munster might be greater but they can’t be firing on all cylinders and have been suffocated by Limerick in the key closing period of the match in both of the last two years. I can remember McCarthy getting hooks in on Callanan from nowhere as Limerick turned the tide. They have a good spirit and the second half against Kilkenny last August, playing into a storm was a perfect illustration of that.

Tipperary need to be ruthless and take chances early in the match, which they have failed to do in the last two years, because the onslaught will come at some stage. There’s hardly a wafer between the teams tomorrow and this has been a fairly close fixture in the recent past but I think Tipp are anxious to change the pattern of their recent seasons and where better to make the change than at the start? A greater desire for a Munster title can just get them over the line.

Complicated league

Coincidentally the All-Ireland champions as well as runners-up are also starting their campaign tomorrow.

Much of what applies to Tipperary also applies to Kilkenny. Their league was complicated by injuries and club commitments but they won when they had to and sent Clare down in the relegation play-off.

They have lost some of their dressing-room’s biggest characters and they will have to find new leaders, and they’re also still coping with some chronic injury issues involving other senior men like Michael Fennelly and Richie Power. The new season looks a challenge but they’ve found the right formula before.

Their primary loss is current All Star JJ Delaney, who has now retired, and all eyes will be on Joey Holden to see how he gets on at full back.

This is doubly important as Conor McDonald is vital to the Wexford attack. He hasn’t so far reached last year’s performance levels following early-season injury but this will be a key battle.

I don’t attach huge importance to Wexford’s match against Westmeath because with McDonald not up to full speed, the goal threat wasn’t as potent as usual.

I don’t know the ins-and-outs of the Jack Guiney controversy but it looks significant that standards were set by the whole group. It’s not a positive to lose a talented player but it does suggest a seriousness of purpose. This could be tighter than expected, as Liam Dunne will have been targeting this match for months.

Ultimately though, Kilkenny have the two best hurlers in the country at the moment, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid, and you’d have to fancy them.

Galway impressed in the quarter-final replay – even if there was an asterisk over the challenge put up by Dublin – and look to have a solid spine with John Hanbury, Iarla Tannian, Cyril Donnellan and Joe Canning.

Laois’s historic win over Offaly was final recognition of a lot of good work put in by the county, and Cheddar Plunkett particularly, in recent years.

Galway need to make a statement this evening and it’s a tribute to Laois that if they do manage that, no one can say it was easily earned.

KEY MATCH-UPS

Richie McCarthy (Limerick) v Séamus Callanan (Tipperary)
Callanan has become Tipperary’s go-to player and a key scorer. Looking at the team’s attack if Tipp are going to win, he’ll be the main provider. McCarthy has had the better of this duel in the past two years, which has been a vital influence on the outcomes because of Callanan’s importance.

Chances presented themselves early in last year’s game but when they weren’t taken, the quality of the service into Callanan broke down completely. The year before, Nickie Quaid saved a critical goal chance in the Gaelic Grounds but he shouldn’t have been given that opportunity. Last year McCarthy got in a hook early in the second half. Both years Tipp ultimately paid dearly for not taking the chances.

McCarthy always looks as if his opponents are on the verge of getting on top but they never do. He’s an excellent hurler but his fitness levels were a concern in the league. He improved for the Clare game but Shane O’Donnell had the better of him. Then again, Callanan isn’t as direct as O’Donnell and suits McCarthy better.

Pádraic Maher (Tipperary) v Declan Hannon (Limerick)
I think Declan Hannon still has to overcome the mental legacy of the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare in 2013. He went into that as the new star of Limerick hurling and ultimately the day didn’t go very well and his form has been mixed in the meantime - never delivering the absolute 70-minute impact that should be expected of someone with his talent.

He is going to have to kick on this season if Limerick are to reach the next level and needs to take games by the scruff of the neck as he has done with schools, under-age and Fitzgibbon teams.

Maher is a huge player for Tipperary, the bulwark of the team. If he’s on the front foot, there’ll be good ball into full forwards and trouble for Limerick but if he’s forced back towards his own goal and into hitting high clearances Tipp aren’t the team they can be. He was central to the revival against Galway last year. Hannon has the daunting task of finding his own form and also limiting Maher’s impact.

 

 

 

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