Jackie Tyrrell: Tipperary have shown themselves to be serious contenders
All that needed to happen was for Mick Ryan's team to be shaken into action
Tipperary’s Mickey Cahill in action against Cork’s Shane Kingston during the Munster championship clash at Thurles. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
A season can change in a half-time break. It’s happened before and it will happen again. I don’t know what was said in the Tipperary dressingroom on Sunday but the response the players came out with makes it look they have possibly pulled themselves back from the brink.
They went in trailing by nine points and came out like men possessed. If we’re still talking about them at the end of August, it will be because of half-time last Sunday.
I often smile when I see managers asked: “What did you say to them at half-time?” The answer is usually boring enough. Most of the time, the half-time break is calm, focused, nothing out of the ordinary. Players are taking on fluids, physios are doing a bit here and there. A few lads are saying their piece but it’s hardly ever a case of paint being stripped off the wall. Only in exceptional circumstances.
For example, I’ll never forget half-time in the Limerick game in 2012. We had been beaten out the gate by Galway in the Leinster final and we had the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick three weeks later. We were flat in the first half and only for two goals from Henry Shefflin, we’d have been in real trouble. As it was, we went in a point ahead but Limerick were bang in the game. They knew it and we knew it.
We went into the dressingroom and the players started getting into it. Management always came in a few minutes after the players, giving everyone time to settle. Richie Hogan was standing up making a point when Brian Cody came walking in with his eyes on fire. He didn’t even say anything to Richie – he just gave him a look and Richie stopped talking immediately and sat down.
And then he went for it. Basically he told every one of us that this was our only chance, here and now, to save our year. That we had to go out and play with pure abandon, that we had to realise what was about to slip away from us. It wasn’t the winning of the All-Ireland but it was the point at which our season turned around. Something definitely changed for us during that half-time.
Tipperary got to half-time against Cork having played 175 minutes of very poor hurling in a row. The league final, the Limerick game and now the first half against Cork. They looked a shambles. No leadership, no direction, no conviction. No particular pattern of play. Muddled on their own puck-outs, outwitted on the Cork ones. For anyone watching on, they looked like they were at the point of no return.
They changed a couple of players positionally – Brendan Maher to wing-back, Ronan Maher to midfield – and that was important, up to a point. But I think if you look back on that second half, the major change was their intent. They came out with conviction, a mentality that said: “We are not letting our season die here.”
Pádraic Maher made a monster catch from a puck-out and everything went from there. Noel McGrath and John McGrath took over in the attack. People often talk about grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck without actually defining what it looks like. Those three personified it – winning primary possession, demanding the ball, whipping over scores and involving the crowd when the ball goes over. That’s how you change the momentum of a game.
The age profile of this Tipperary team wouldn’t be all that different to where we were in 2012. A few of them have plenty of miles on the clock. They’ve won All-Irelands. They know what it takes. They know that if they’re at the pitch of any game, they have the winning of it. But knowing it isn’t enough – you have to live it, live up to it. And sometimes you need someone or something to shake you into life.
I was 30 in 2012. A few more of the lads were around the same age – Tommy Walsh was 29, JJ Delaney was 30, Eoin Larkin was 28. Henry was in his last season. We had a lot of games played and a lot of experience behind us. In a weird way, maybe that fed into our first-half performance against Limerick that day.
We knew what we were capable of and we had spent three weeks telling ourselves that we were preparing properly and giving it everything. We thought we had got over Galway. We had worked hard and trained well and maybe we just got there on the day and waited for it all to come out. Brian could see it in us, that we were leaving it to each other to come up with something – waiting on Henry, waiting on Tommy, waiting on Richie Power. We had to be rattled out of that mindset.
It’s the difference between talking about scenarios and being in them. Obviously we knew going into the game that the line between being in the championship and being gone was a fine one. But it was only staring down the barrel that really brought it home. This is it, lads – 35 minutes and it’s over.
Something overtakes you when that realisation hits you between the eyes. Christ, what will I do if this is over? It could be gone already for all I know. That’s it, I don’t care anymore about tactics or any of that. I’m going out and winning the ball and getting us back into the game here. That’s what people mean when they talk about throwing off the shackles – it’s nearly activating a need in yourself to be in the game, to eat up the opportunity that’s in front of you rather than being caged in by the situation.
To my eyes, that’s what changed in the Tipperary players on Sunday. They had that realisation that this was so, so real now. They were a game and a half into the Munster championship and they hadn’t done a single thing. And in fact, some of the things they had done were reckless, showing a lack of clarity in their thinking. That’s an obvious sign that you’re not in the right headspace, that you haven’t properly grasped the trouble you’re in.
I’d rate Mickey Cahill as one of the top five corner backs in the country. He’s a sticky marker, an intelligent hurler and he’s experienced on top of it all. But he had been given a bit of a roasting in the first half, which can happen to anyone. My read on it would be that it all fed into him making a rash decision at the end of the first half that led to the Cork goal.
When Shane Kingston was bearing down on goal, Cahill was covering across and was in a perfect position to shut him down. He had two covering defenders behind him so all he had to do was a bit of basic defending – stand Kingston up, delay him, make him turn back. Kingston would have got bottled up, Tipp would have gang tackled him and they’d have got a free out or a turnover. At worst, Kingston might have been able to wriggle away and swing a point over his shoulder.
Cahill has done that hundreds of times in his career. But for whatever reason, he chose to try and bury Kingston with a shoulder. He was like a bull running at a matador. Kingston saw him coming a mile off, gave a little swing of the hips and Cahill glanced off his arse and suddenly he was in on goal. I’ve never seen Cahill do that before.
All the situation needed was a bit of defending. Tipp had a three-on-one advantage in terms of bodies – you only give away a goal in that scenario if you do something stupid or the forward does something unbelievable.
That moment told me everything about where Tipp were in that first half. Erratic, irrational, no clear sense of what they were doing and why they were doing it. It was like he was thinking, “Right, I’m just going to burst this lad – if I can do nothing else, at least I can do that.”
So what changed? Mickey Cahill didn’t get any faster or fitter or wiser at half-time, neither did any of the rest of them. Tipp didn’t learn anything about defending during that 15-minute break that they didn’t already know. All that changed was that their mentality was suddenly simplified. Lads, we either switch on here and start communicating better, start working harder for each other and start winning our own personal battles or this thing is over.
Brendan Maher turned over two balls early in the second half. Paudie Maher took that catch. Noel McGrath scored a point and won a free. The goalkeeper Brian Hogan caught an unbelievable ball over the crossbar to stop Darragh Fitzgibbon scoring the sort of point that would have got the Cork supporters back into it. In the blink of an eye, Tipp had five points on the board and they had all the momentum.
When Noel McGrath got his goal soon after, it showed exactly what they’re capable of when they’re playing with freedom and abandon. It came from a handy Cork possession that got disrupted by Bubbles O’Dwyer. He got a stick in, turned the ball over around the Cork 45 and three seconds later that ball was in the net. The speed of thought from Bubbles, the skill of Jason Forde to take the ball on the spin to lay it off and then Noel McGrath’s finish – there aren’t many teams who have that combination.
Outside of Galway, who else is there that really look like they have an All-Ireland in them?
That’s why I think Tipperary are so dangerous now in the All-Ireland shake-up. When you can pull out a performance like that through nothing more sophisticated than a change in mentality, then everybody else has to be worried.
Tipp still have problems in the full-back line but they have the players and management to fix it. Life got a lot better for them back there when Brendan Maher went into the half-back line and when everyone further up the field attacked the ball and stopped Cork delivering pinpoint deliveries. That’s a template for further improvement as the summer goes on.
Now they have Waterford coming in under a cloud, decimated by injuries. Let’s say they win that. Let’s say they win it well. Suddenly they’re going into their final match of the round-robin on a high, bringing Clare to Thurles with a big spring in their step.
All their older guys are getting fitter and stronger by the week. Seamie Callanan might only have got a point last Sunday but look at the amount of work he was doing, sprinting back to get hooks and blocks in. When have we seen that from him before?
These are the little signs here and there that Tipp need. If they build on this, they can go all the way. Outside of Galway, who else is there that really look like they have an All-Ireland in them? Tipp need to hold onto that thought and kick on now. If they do, everyone else needs to watch out.