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Taking stick: Bitter neighbours finally learning to share

Cork will be happier because for a second week running, they haven’t stopped running: Kilkenny were outpaced down the stretch at Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Tipperary were caught at the ribbon in Thurles.

Brendan Maher harries Conor Lehane.
Brendan Maher harries Conor Lehane.
Image: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

SEVENTY MINUTES, 48 scores, and 82 shots – all split perfectly evenly between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium on Sunday.

Forty-one shots each, 1-23 each, just four frees scored each, a single league point apiece and a semi-final in which to play together. Finally, these bitter neighbours are learning to share.

Cork will be happier because for a second week running, they haven’t stopped running: Kilkenny were outpaced down the stretch at Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Tipperary were caught at the ribbon in Thurles.

Declan Ryan will be scratching his head because, just as in Croke Park against Dublin, his team dropped the ball in injury time. In effect, they could be on eight points by now and might have avoided a rematch with Cork in the semi-finals.

Not that he will be overly worried about that prospect. If Tipperary are to match their ambitions this season, the Rebels will have to be quelled. One of the big sides will need to if they are to get to an All-Ireland final, because Cork look capable of reaching one themselves.

All of which means both sides will be very much up to championship speed when it throws in. Because this league has a real cut to it, it feels as if there is something on the line. The difference between Cork and Tipperary in the league versus the Rebels and Premier in the county is who is to come back. Tipp have plenty of championship experience to return, Cork maybe less so. The downside for Ryan being that the likes of Seamus Callanan, Paddy Stapleton and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher may take a little time to get back up to this frenetic pace of hurling.

Cork’s youth and young manhood again commands attention but we did see perhaps an oversight from Jimmy Barry-Murphy, or perhaps it was an intentional trial. The position of Conor Lehane on Paudie Maher might have tallied with the Cork star’s positioning in every game thus far but it was a risky game to play. Maher is often Tipperary’s most dominant player and the last thing Cork want is Lehane chasing back on the Thurles man, which is what happened at times; on 33 minutes, for example, the Cork forward was hooking the number seven on his own 21-yard line as the ball broke for Brian O’Meara to almost goal. This happened to John Conlon last year as Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin nullified one of his biggest attacking threats on Maher’s wing.

Lehane finished with 1-3 but the goal, and his biggest threat, came when he was moved to the full-forward position. His pace unsettled Paul Curran and perhaps it is something we will see again in the league semi-final, while Paudie O’Sullivan made some headway on the wing. Indeed O’Sullivan has been an underrated triumph of this league, with so much praise being heaped on Lehane, Darren Sweetnam, Stephen McDonnell and the other young tyros.

Brendan Maher hooks William Egan which allows Pa Bourke to score a point Pic: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

The Cloyne forward did not score himself but his great assist play – aided by some marvellous stick work – directly led to 1-4 for his teammates. He set up one other chance that was not put away but that five of six were converted tells you that he gives sympathetic passes.

Something which we have not seen too much of from Shane Bourke in the past, but he now seems to be buying into Tipperary’s re-found ball-playing style. The JK Brackens man most usually looks for the posts first and the posts second, but he set up a trio of scoring opportunities on Sunday and finished on 0-3 himself.

In the past, Tipp’s forwards have been accused of lacking workrate but a deeper look at the first half shows that two points came from dispossessions of Cork backs in their own half: Shane Bourke robbing Brian Murphy on 13 minutes to score himself and Sean Og O hAilpin having his pockets rifled by Noel McGrath on 27 minutes. Brendan Maher was moved to half-forward for the second half and he hooked William Egan on the hour, which allowed Pa Bourke an easy score.

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There was an interesting battle between centre-back Eoin Cadogan and Noel McGrath on Sunday. The Douglas man cleared plenty of ball but Tipp’s marquee forward of the 2012 league split the posts on five occasions – manager Ryan will lament that the Loughmore-Castleiney man was withdrawn with a shoulder injury (not thought to be serious) on 55 minutes with his side four up.

McGrath’s ghosting between the midfield and half-forward line has been exceptional throughout the league and in five games he has accrued 1-22 (0-4f). For a creative player, averaging five points per game is nothing short of exceptional. It is a level of consistency you would not always associate with a man who has only recently turned 21. Few players have the centre-forward role down to such a fine art.

There was a key battle also between Conor O’Mahony and Pa Cronin in the other 6-11 sector. Cronin caught a number of high balls – and few can stop him – but O’Mahony’s use of the ball from the half-back line typified Tipp’s return to form since a league beating in Kilkenny finally proved to Declan Ryan that route-one hurling will not do.

There are times when the stick passing might break down but it has helped stretch defences and when it works, teams cannot deal with it. Speed kills, as Cork’s Cathal Naughton continues to exhibit. The Newtownshandrum man almost found the net on 58 minutes after a searing run down the left wing took him past both James Woodlock and Shane McGrath. His low shot were just wide but had it been inside of the post, it would have been a carbon copy of his strike against Dublin recently. His threat, and that of Patrick Horgan (0-9, 0-6f), is very potent.

In term of goals, Tipp’s continues to be stifled. In their last three games, Buggy O’Meara has had their only real chances at goal from open play – both times he has missed easy chances. That is not to nay-say the Kilruane McDonagh’s man but it points out how few chances the team have created. Pa Bourke – who goaled a 21-yard free – could have laid one on for Buggy on 43 minutes as a two-on-one situation presented itself inside the Cork square but he took his point instead. Other than that, goals never looked likely.

So Cork go home happiest even though they have nothing more on the plate than Tipp do. Having lost at the death at home to Galway, JBM knows his side will fight to the end, winning the final 10 minutes 0-6 to 0-2 tells him that. But nothing is settled yet.

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Shane Stapleton

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