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The dynamic duo in the Tipp defence that lorded the skies against Kilkenny

Both aged 23, Ronan Maher and Barry Heffernan enjoyed vastly different career trajectories but shone on the big stage yesterday.

pjimage Barry Heffernan and Ronan Maher dominated under the high ball on Sunday.

A YEAR AFTER their season ground to a halt in Munster, Tipperary are All-Ireland champions. 

It’s a paradigm shift inspired by the return of Liam Sheedy. The 25-man backroom team he put in place includes two strength and conditioning coaches, a nutritionist, six members of the performance analysis cohort, a logistics manager, two kitmen, a physiotherapist, a team doctor and two masseurs.

The coaching set-up features former manager Eamon O’Shea, who brought the team to within inches of the All-Ireland in 2014, Tommy Dunne, the man that delivered the Munster title with the county’s minors last summer, and former sub goalkeeper Darragh Egan. 

Eoin Kelly was brought on board to work with the free-takers and former All-Ireland winner Darren Gleeson came in to help out with the keepers.

Sheedy oversaw an army of support staff, putting the structures in place to give his team the best possible chance of winning their third title this decade. 

Liam Sheedy and selector Eamon O’Shea Liam Sheedy with coach Eamon O’Shea. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On the field there were plenty of changes too. The talent of Tipperary’s front six was never under question, but their bigger issues came further back the field. Sheedy continually tinkered with his defence until they eventually hit on the right combination.

The Premier caught fire early in the provincial campaign, but shipped 2-26 in a moral-sapping 12-point Munster final defeat to Limerick. Questions about Tipp’s lack of pace at the back became louder.

For the All-Ireland quarter-final against Laois, out went Seamus Kennedy and Sean O’Brien, replaced by Cathal Barrett – who returned from injury – and Alan Flynn. Tipperary conceded 1-18 that afternoon even though Laois played with 14 men for most of the second-half. 

On the next day out against Wexford, Flynn and James Barry were dropped, with Kennedy and Barry Heffernan introduced into the team. They might have allowed 3-20 in the semi-final, but Sheedy was content that back six would match-up well against Kilkenny and stuck to his guns. 

The Tipperary defence that started yesterday’s final are a versatile bunch. Ronan Maher played almost exclusively on the half-back line this summer but his aerial ability and nose for danger meant he was the perfect fit to go full-back on Colin Fennelly. He was joined on the last line of defence by Barrett and Heffernan, who played at centre-back against Wexford. 

Brendan Maher lined out at six in his man-marking role on Reid. He scored four points from wing-back during the Munster round-robin but along the way became Tipp’s de facto tagger in the back line. He picked up Aaron Gillane, Aaron Dunphy, Rory O’Connor and Reid in his last four games, the first three at corner-back. 

Maher was flanked by Padraic Maher – who was centre-back in the three games prior to the final – and Kennedy.

While the Premier defence battled admirably as a unit, two players who deserve special praise are Ronan Maher and Heffernan. Both men are still just 23, but they’ve enjoyed vastly different career trajectories to date.

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A star player during Thurles CBS’s Harty Cup campaigns, Maher made his debut for Tipp minors aged 16 and helped them win the All-Ireland that September. He won four U21 county titles in-a-row with Thurles Sarsfields and arrived onto the Tipperary senior panel in 2014 with a budding reputation, not least because of his status as Paudie Maher’s younger brother.

He quickly moved out of his brother’s shadow and broke onto the team at wing-back in 2015 for their Munster success. The following season was centre-back for the All-Ireland success under Michael Ryan.

Heffernan also joined the senior squad in 2014 but he had to wait two years before his first taste of competitive action. He was actually in line to make his championship debut in the summer of 2016 when he was named at wing-back in Ryan’s starting team to face Cork in the Munster opener.  

But Heffernan missed out on the chance to make his bow after he was forced to stand down for hurling for a period of time. The Nenagh Éire Óg man had suffered three concussions in the space of six months and didn’t sufficiently pass return-to-play protocols before the Cork game. 

He made do with a handful of league appearances in 2016 and 2017, before finally making his first championship start against Limerick in 2018. Tipp were well beaten by the eventual All-Ireland champions that afternoon and Heffernan didn’t see another minute of action for the remainder of the summer.

Liam Sheedy evidently saw something in Heffernan. He came off the bench against Waterford in round 2 of the round-robin and in the provincial final against Limerick, but it was his start in round 3 against the Banner that held particular importance.

Heffernan picked up All-Star full-forward John Conlon and held him scoreless as Tipp romped to victory. The sight of Conlon being substituted in the 69th minute left some Premier supporters wondering: maybe there’s something in Heffernan after all? But Sheedy always knew. 

Following the game, the manager and Heffernan shook hands and the Portroe man was photographed giving a knowing look into the defender’s eyes. That’s the side of Sheedy that we don’t often see, the motivator instilling belief into his less-heralded players. 

Clare v Tipperary - Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 3 Liam Sheedy with Barry Heffernan after Tipperary's Munster round-robin win over Clare. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

So when he gave away the ball with two of his opening three possessions inside five minutes of his first All-Ireland final – hand-passing one directly to Reid – the old Heffernan might have wilted. But not this one, the man built up by Sheedy’s words of encouragement. 

Picking up Adrian Mullen, he made a spectacular catch over the corner-forward in first-half stoppage-time that seemed to ignite his game. 

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Following Richie Hogan’s dismissal, Kilkenny’s tactic was to rain high ball down the spine of the Tipp defence, who were dominant aerially and had Barrett buzzing around as an effective sweeper.

In the 37th minute Padraig Walsh’s long delivery was mopped up by Heffernan at the back, starting the move for Semaus Callanan’s goal. 

Brian Cody had seen enough and two minutes later the ineffective Mullen was taken off. 

Hefernan wasn’t beaten in any of his aerial contests, catching clean four times and batting to a team-mate twice. In the 42nd minute, he broke Murphy’s restart to Noel McGrath. McGrath gave neat pass to Kennedy who in turn found Heffernan.

He easily jinked past the challenge of Reid and delivered a wonderful crossfield ball into Seamus Callanan that resulted in John O’Dwyer’s goal. 

Heffernan outfielded Walter Walsh on three occasions in the final 20 minutes, starting the move for points from Noel McGrath and Mark Kehoe.

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(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Heffernan also cleared after a threatening moment when Kilkenny tried to barrel through for a goal. Maher got a vital touch to take the ball away from Fennelly in the same play.

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(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Heffernan had 17 possessions, six more than Ronan Maher who was unlucky not to win man-of-the-match for a second straight game after completely negating Colin Fennelly’s influence.

Fennelly looked a little threatening early on but Maher quickly got to grips with the Ballyhale man. 

He was excellent in the air and prevented Fennelly from winning a single one of their eight aerial contests. If Maher wasn’t going to catch the ball himself, he had the strength and smarts to get his body in font of Fennelly and spoil him. 

In the 28th minute both men had lost their hurleys when he stole a ball away as Fennelly wound up to kick at goals. In the 52nd minute, he pulled off a glorious fetch after being sandwiched in between Fennelly and Walsh.

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(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

60 seconds later he had the nous to leave Fennelly’s side in order to clean up a dropping ball that landed just beyond Reid’s grasp after the Kilkenny star had pushed into the edge of the square.

The dominance of Heffernan and Maher in the full-back line meant Tipperary turned back attack after attack.

Elsewhere, Noel McGrath ran the show from centre-field with 23 possessions, while Cathal Barrett made five crucial interceptions and Padraic Maher won four Kilkenny puck-outs. It built a platform for their talented forwards take over. 

This was a team victory. And what a team. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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