Putting the finishing touch to Tipp all a question of balance
Finding room for the surfeit of talent at his disposal a conundrum for Michael Ryan
Jason Forde: was the outstanding player in the country in the league and merits a place in Tipperary’s starting championship attack. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
How do you put together a forward line? Plenty of intercounty teams are sitting down now in the middle of May, the summer on the table in front of them like an organic chemistry exam, knowing that if answered with due frankness, the reply is brutal: You wouldn’t start from here.
Even in Kilkenny, where the rivers will never run dry of hurlers, they’ve been mixing and matching as best they can since their last All-Ireland in 2015. In nine championship matches since then, Brian Cody has tried 19 different forwards – and handed starts to 16. The old racing adage applies – if you think you have eight derby winners in the yard, you most likely don’t have one.
But then there is Tipperary.
Only in Mick Ryan’s panel does the opposite problem arise. Jason Forde’s voracious scoring during the league has understandably carved his name in stone for the Munster championship, at least for starters.
Séamus Callanan missed the whole of the campaign through injury but played club championship last month. John O’Dwyer returned near the end of the spring and though his shooting wasn’t bull’s-eye-perfect, his striking had its familiar snap. Noel McGrath and John McGrath are Noel and John McGrath.
Five strike forwards, all of them capable of wondrous things. Artistic merit off the charts. Any team would kill to have them – just not all of them at once. If history is any sort of judge, we will see all five of them on the pitch at the same time this summer only sparingly.
Since John McGrath joined the panel at the start of 2015, Tipperary have played 42 games in league and championship. In the three-and-a-half seasons since, the quintet of Callanan, O’Dwyer, Forde and the two McGraths has started precisely one match together – the 2017 league quarter-final against Offaly.
Noel McGrath departed at half-time that day with Tipp 1-14 to 0-7 ahead but even so, the 35 minutes they spent in each other’s company was the longest spell they’ve ever shared on a pitch.
Some caveats are in order before we get lost in the weeds. The three-and-a-half year span takes in various ailments and absences on everyone’s part. It encompasses Noel McGrath’s cancer hiatus in 2015, intermittent injury breaks for Callanan, Forde and O’Dwyer, the occasional suspension, Fitzgibbon Cup call-ups, all the rest of it.
The Kilkenny match in Nowlan Park in late February of this year is notable for being the only game in that stretch featuring zero minutes from any of the five. Long story short, it hasn’t always been a case of management not believing they can play in the same unit.
It has sometimes, though. Enough of the time, indeed, for it to be anything other than official policy. The numbers are too stark to argue otherwise. A trawl through Tipp’s games since the beginning of 2015 shows that all five of them have shared a grand total of 163 minutes on the pitch together, spread over just 10 games. In five of those games, they played together for 15 minutes or less.
This is, of course, the very definition of a first-world problem for Tipperary. And not, by any stretch, their most serious one. As they suit up for the visit to Limerick tomorrow, the general concern in Tipperary is for the defence first of all and their midfield after that. Sort those areas out and the forwards will take care of themselves.
“Tipp haven’t as many questions answered as we maybe thought they had the evening before the league final,” says Tommy Dunne. “That was the most disappointing part of it. Nobody is sure how the midfield will line out and we’re not really sure how the inside back line is going to line out.
“The forward line is a bit easier, in that there are options and Michael Ryan probably has seven or eight to choose out of. But I would say probably trying to get the balance in it will be the key for him. I would think that Dan McCormack would definitely come in there. And Bonner Maher too, obviously.
“Niall O’Meara has had quite a big role in Michael’s time and he can balance the Noel McGrath, John McGrath, Seamie Callanan type of player. He’s physical, he’s resilient and he breaks up play. Callanan and these guys, Bubbles as well – you really can’t run a forward line with six or even five of those similar type of players in it. It’s very, very hard. I don’t think he will try to fit them all in. Michael’s style is to go for a bit more balance.”
That has certainly been the way of it, as the numbers above show. Interestingly, the stand-out occasion of all five of them playing together is the last 25 minutes of the 2016 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. Forde came off the bench that day with Tipp trailing by 1-14 to 0-16 after 44 minutes. By the time Noel McGrath went off to a standing ovation as the clock ticked into injury time, Tipp were 2-28 to 2-20 ahead.
Of the 2-12 Tipp scored in those 25 minutes, the same five players were responsible for 2-11. They scored 2-8 from play between them, gave the last pass to each other on six occasions and forced the turnover that led to a score another three. Even Callanan’s 65 came from an Eoin Murphy save from a John McGrath shot at goal. They were a disco ball of shimmering light for those 25 minutes, flashing new possibilities at every turn.
“If you look at that All-Ireland final, Dan McCormack had a humongous game,” Dunne points out.
“He came off with whatever it was, 10 minutes to go but the work he had put in up to that point was a huge contributing factor to the game opening up. The five lads were at the peak of their powers over that closing 25 minutes in that final but the last 25 minutes of an All-Ireland final are definitely not the same as the first 25 minutes.
“The first five minutes of any championship game is chaos. There’s a whole different game going on in it where fellas are trying to establish dominance and superiority, trying to make their presence felt. But when the game opens up, they’re capable of doing serious damage.”
The tension is as old as time, same as it is in any team sport. Players who can do anything on the ball and players who will do anything to get it. Tipp have any amount of the former and aren’t exactly understocked with the latter either. And so successive Tipp managements have had to come down on one side or the other.
“It comes down to styles of play,” says Dunne.
“If you look at the likes of Bubbles, Noel McGrath, John McGrath to a certain extent, Callanan as well – these lads are finishers, primarily. They are there for their ability to score very efficiently, very economically and very consistently.
“The other side then, if you look at Dan McCormack, Niall O’Meara, Bonner Maher, their strong point is their physicality, their ability to contest high ball, low ball, ruck ball and especially to turn over ball. They’re able to take a lot of punishment.
“When it comes to championship, there’s a huge amount of physicality involved. It’s very much part of the game. You really need to be able to dog it out against certain teams. Limerick are a team who have traditionally been very physical, maybe a bit less so these days. But they will offer you a robust physical challenge. Just as Kilkenny will. That’s always been their benchmark and maybe that’s why we’ve struggled against them.”
Thereby hangs the tale, of course. Overshadowing all choices that have to be made by any Tipp management team in recent years is the fact that defeats are routinely blamed on a preponderance of Fancy Dans when it was the desperate kind who were needed. Not unreasonably, Dunne sees things differently.
“I’m biased, I know that. But that view of Tipperary really irks me. I remember playing midfield for Tipp with Eddie Enright and we lost an All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, whenever that was, 15, 20 years ago. I was foolish enough a few days later to read one of the local papers. I didn’t read it – I just looked to see what they said about me. How stupid can you be, like? Anyway, I’ll never forget it – he had one line in it where he said, ‘Our midfield lacked a physical presence.’ I was just disgusted, absolutely disgusted.
“I’ve seen games and been in games where you could be after hurling the life out of someone but all anyone remembers is a shoulder you got when you were off balance or something and next thing it’s, ‘Tipp didn’t win enough of their own ball’. The reality of hurling is you can’t win all of your own ball.
“So unless someone is willing to go into a hugely in-depth analysis of every ball that goes in, I would be very careful about applying that label to them. I think if you look at the big matches, in fairness to them, they’re there or thereabouts in most departments and above most counties in most of them, including physicality.”
Maybe so. But when there are hard choices to be made this summer over the shape of the Tipp forward line, there will be times when raw brute force will get the nod over wristy lushness. Nobody pretends otherwise. The question now is, who misses out?
In recent years, there has been a feeling at times that Forde was a handy choice for 16th man. A quiet, personable lad by nature, his toys will always stay in the pram regardless of what route management decides to go down. This has counted against him, not least because his natural deference to the more established players has sometimes played itself out on the pitch.
A case in point was his handpass to Noel McGrath when straight through the middle on the 20-metre line with 18 minutes to go against Galway last year. Apart from not being a very good pass – the elder McGrath had to adjust his stride and hit it on the bounce, giving Colm Callanan time to get down and make the save – it was striking that Forde didn’t consider a shot himself despite being in a great position. Having started on the bench, he finished it there too, replaced by O’Meara soon after that passage of play.
Chances are, however, that the 2018 version of Jason Forde would take that shot on. He was the outstanding player in the country during the league and if Ryan has a choice to make, it’s probably more to do with whether to leave him on the frees when Callanan gets going again. Either way, it’s the original nice problem to have.
How Tipp go about solving it will say plenty about their approach to the summer’s doings.