AS PART OF our 2016 Hurling championship coverage, we’ve enlisted the expertise of Tipperary’s 2001 All-Ireland winning captain and former team coach Tommy Dunne.
Tommy has joined The42 for the summer and in his latest column, he takes a closer look at Tipperary’s victory over Limerick in yesterday’s Munster SHC semi-final – and the impact of returning centre-forward Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher in particular.
TIPP ARE OFTEN accused of not being physical enough, not having a good enough work ethic and not being able to win some of the crucial 50-50 balls.
I’m talking about the type of balls that come into really honest and physical confrontations.
Yesterday, they went a long way towards dispelling that theory and central to much of Tipp’s good work was the return of Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher.
He may not have got on the scoresheet but Maher’s contribution to the overall team performance was invaluable.
Much of the work he gets through goes unnoticed but I can tell you from experience that the rest of his team-mates notice it and derive energy and inspiration from his selflessness.
He played a crucial role in Tipp’s opening goal, with this brilliant tip-down allowing Michael Breen to profit.
As you can see from the picture above, Bonner’s hurl is in the air but Breen, to his right, is in a perfect position to develop the play.
Crucially, Breen has a yard on his marker, Paul Browne, and it’s a yard too many from a Limerick perspective.
Breen is on to the ball in a flash and Limerick are on the back-foot. In the next picture, look at the space that Breen has to drive into.
Limerick are now in all sorts of bother and rookie full-back Dan Morrissey has a decision to make. He’s drawn towards the ball and that leaves Seamus Callanan free in behind.
Play develops and while Morrissey cuts out an undercooked Breen hand-pass, Limerick dither and that allows Breen to arrive on the scene again and poke the ball into the net. An early goal for Tipperary was the tonic they needed but Maher’s tip-down from a sideline ball, a simple enough piece of play, bore major dividends.
Bonner’s an all-action type of player and he wasn’t content to rest on his laurels.
In the next passage of play that I have identified, he hassles Gavin O’Mahony towards the New Stand touchline, and forces the Limerick man out over the line.
This isn’t the kind of play that generates newspaper headlines or stimulates too much debate but for me, it was indicative of Tipperary’s attitude on the day.
It was just one of a string of examples from Tipperary of clean, effective tackling.
You don’t have to absolutely wipe out an opponent with a shoulder charge or an over-the-top physical challenge. Bonner was hounding Limerick’s backs all day long and this is one of the fundamentals of manager Michael Ryan’s philosophy.
I’ve heard suggestions that Michael is trying to turn Tipperary into a mirror-image of Kilkenny. I disagree with that. In fact, he’s turning Tipperary into a mirror-image of himself.
There’s an old saying that a team reflects its manager on the field of play and if that’s the case, Tipperary are displaying the traits that we associated with Michael the player.
If you have a Tipp jersey on your back, Michael demands work-rate, effort, absolute commitment to every ball and to never, ever lie down when there’s a ball there to be won.
He won’t ask anything of the players that he wouldn’t expect of himself. That’s very refreshing and something that Tipperary definitely needed.
But I’d like to re-emphasise the following point: there may have been some titanic collisions yesterday but I’ve picked out an example of how discipline and patience in the tackle can lead to reward on the scoreboard.
In this first picture, Seamus Hickey is attempting to work the ball out of defence for Limerick:
As you can see, 55 minutes and 11 seconds have elapsed in the game, just a quarter-of-an-hour from home but Tipp’s desire remains strong.
Just three seconds later, and Noel McGrath has ball in hand after a brilliant piece of play from Bonner robs Hickey:
Noel, with that fluid economy of movement, shortens the grip and fires over a point.
Bonner involved again in a critical play and that score put Tipp five points clear.
Just 20 seconds later, Tipp are working just as hard in their own half of the field.
In this first picture, Declan Hannon gets out in front of James Barry and is favourite to claim possession:
Barry is a yard off Hannon but a combination of a poor first touch from the Limerick forward and the pressure being applied forces a turnover:
Finally, Barry comes away with the ball and Tipperary are on the front foot again:
Again, no diving in, no big shoulder charge or unnecessary contact, just good, clean, honest hassling and harrying.
Limerick’s use of the spare man
When Tipperary went down to 14 men, following John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s red card, Limerick had a glorious opportunity to push forward.
Gavin O’Mahony operated in the spare man role defensively for Limerick and while he did pick up some clean possession, particularly in the second half, Tipp still managed to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Seamus Callanan got too much latitude off his direct marker Morrissey.
Tipp had just two wides in the first half and while I know they only scored five points, the damage was done with the goals.
Again, it came down to key moments, one of them in the lead-up to Tipperary’s third goal, when they were operating with 14 players.
When a sending-off happens in a game, there’s change required on both teams. Most people assume that the change only happens in the team that loses a man and while that’s true, and you have to reorganise, how you utilise the spare man as the team with 15 players is a lot more difficult than it might appear.
Limerick didn’t get the best use of their extra man yesterday and O’Mahony played too far forward for my liking.
For the third goal, he’s sucked into a ruck and the result is catastrophic from a Limerick perspective.
In this picture, O’Mahony (circled) is to the left of the ruck that’s about to develop:
He decides to go for it and his next involvement sees O’Mahony contest a clash ball on the ground with Tipp’s John McGrath:
Big mistake! McGrath wins the contest and slips a ball to his brother Noel:
Limerick are now in big, big trouble and Noel is one of those players who will always take the right option. His off-load to Callanan (circled) is perfect and the end result sees the ball in the back of the Limerick net:
Callanan’s influence on the game was immense, particularly in the first half. He was the only Tipperary forward to score and be directly involved in all three goals.
For the first one, referenced above, Callanan’s mere presence creates panic in the Limerick defence but great credit is due to Breen also for taking the game by the scruff of the neck right from the start.
In big championship games, the key is to dictate the tempo early and play the game on your terms. Breen did that from the start and set the bar. It was Tipperary taking the game to Limerick, not the other way around.
He effectively decided the game with those aggressive, strong runs into enemy territory, getting his reward with the first goal and the second when Callanan’s shot was spooned into the air and Breen reacted quickest.
He also profited from a brilliant piece of Callanan play in the 24th minute, a critical score after Tipp had gone 13 minutes without one.
Pádraic Maher cut out the Limerick cover with a superb diagonal ball, Callanan opted for a first time pass with a clever ground-stroke and Breen, streaking into space again, shot over the bar.
Limerick’s lack of adventure
I was surprised by Limerick’s overall lack of intensity.
It should be noted that they came with a very young team, featuring a number of U21s from last year’s All-Ireland winning set-up and that Riswas too big an ask against a fairly seasoned Tipperary outfit.
It was always going to be difficult for Limerick to impose their style on the game and they came up against a brick wall defensively as Cathal Barrett and Pádraic Maher stood out for Tipperary.
Overall, Tipp are a few years ahead of Limerick in terms of development and Limerick manager TJ Ryan brought in players who are starting out on their inter-county career paths.
They offered very little in terms of an attacking threat and even with the extra man, never looked like breaching the Tipperary rear-guard.
Goalkeeper Darren Gleeson and the Tipperary full-back line weren’t threatened to any extent but the bigger point that I’ve illustrated is how Tipp’s work-rate up front, something they have been criticised for in the past, helped to ensure that the pressure was alleviated to a large degree further back.
The old adage that defence begins with attack rung true but Tipp, moving forward to a Munster final, know that they will be tested far more in defensive and offensive contexts against a well-drilled Waterford team.
That provincial decider will come down to fine margins once again and a flick of a hurl here or there can make all the difference. Taking into account the examples I’ve used above, it’s that willingness to win the dirty ball and take the right options.
You won’t see the Waterford sweeper making the decision that Gavin O’Mahony did, when he opted to engage and left his full-back line exposed in behind for Callanan’s goal. Waterford will also endeavour to ensure that they’re quickly around the breaks when the ball drops from aerial exchanges and in this regard, you might not see Breen latching onto the tip-down from Bonner that led to Tipp’s first goal.
In championship games, goals are precious currency and while Tipp worked them well, they were helped by Limerick naivety too.
I’d like to finish where I started, with that man Bonner.
Taking the example of Tipp’s second goal, his influence was key here once again.
When the ball breaks to him, he has plenty of work to do but in the first picture, he’s about to execute a brilliant pick-up, jabbing the ball off the turf into his hand:
O’Mahony doesn’t help the Limerick cause by going to ground. Again, this is another decision that impacts on the passage of play that develops:
Bonner, now with ball in hand, has time to drive into space and assess his options:
Invariably, he chooses the right one and opts for a hand-pass to Callanan, about to enter the picture wearing the yellow helmet:
Play moves on and Callanan forces that save from Quaid, with Breen on hand to score from the rebound. Bonner, again, is the instigator with a mix of skill, power and excellent decision-making in the heat of battle.
Bonner’s return to the starting line-up was the one change that Michael Ryan made to the team that lined out against Cork and what an impact he made. Experience counts for a hell of a lot in championship matches and Bonner’s overall display showed us, once again, what a complete package he really is.
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