Tipp were sleep­walk­ing into an am­bush but they’ll be wide awake now

Gal­way’s ag­gres­sion and hunger sur­prised the Premier men — and it’s a wake-up call they needed

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - JAME­SIE O’CON­NOR

IT’S 20 years ago now, so my mem­ory of events may not be flaw­less, but I re­mem­ber hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with Ger Lough­nane some­time after round four of the 1997 Na­tional Hurl­ing League. We’d beaten Laois in the opener, drawn with Lim­er­ick in a typ­i­cally feisty derby, and de­feated Of­faly in front of a huge crowd in un­sea­son­ably warm weather in En­nis on Easter Sun­day. Two weeks later we went down 5-5 to 1-11 to Gal­way — can you be­lieve that score­line — in an­other lo­cal derby, this time in front of a full house in Athenry. Two things stand out from that game. The first was the five goals we con­ceded that wrecked any chance we had of win­ning the match. The sec­ond was the sight of Lough­nane dou­bled-up in agony dur­ing the warm-up after tak­ing a stray slio­tar to the fam­ily jewels. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen the man stuck for words.

With Of­faly, our­selves and Wex­ford hav­ing won the pre­vi­ous three All-Ire­lands, it was the midst of the ‘Rev­o­lu­tion’ years. Big crowds were flock­ing to the matches, and with the pitches dry and firm, the games were played at a faster pace and had more of an edge to them than would nor­mally be the case at that time of the year.

For some rea­son, in­jury I pre­sume, I wasn’t train­ing on this par­tic­u­lar evening, and found my­self chat­ting at some point dur­ing the ses­sion to Lough­nane. We were shoot­ing the breeze, when I re­marked that it was the mid­dle of April and yet it felt like we were in the mid­dle of a cham­pi­onship, rather than a league cam­paign. It just seemed that we were ex­pend­ing a lot of en­ergy, mental en­ergy, very early in the year. We still had Kilkenny, Tipp and the All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons Wex­ford to come, and I wasn’t sure we could con­tinue go­ing as hard and play­ing with the same in­ten­sity as we were and still have enough in the tank for a long cham­pi­onship run.

Lough­nane had his fin­ger on the pulse of the team to such an ex­tent that I’m sure he sensed as much him­self. I’m con­vinced that we def­i­nitely took a step back after the de­feat to Gal­way. Don’t get me wrong — we didn’t roll over for Kilkenny and the Tipp game in En­nis was full on, with a nasty edge and un­der­cur­rent to it. But we didn’t in­vest emo­tion­ally in those games to any­thing like the same ex­tent we had in the ear­lier rounds.

There was no point burn­ing our­selves out, or play­ing our best hurl­ing in May, when the big­ger prizes, the ones we craved, were at stake later in the sum­mer. Lough­nane to his credit recog­nised it, and we wouldn’t have won that year’s All-Ire­land if he hadn’t.

A journalist once re­marked of my for­mer man­ager that he was “in­ca­pable of ut­ter­ing any­thing other than good copy” dur­ing his time at the helm in Clare. Love him or loathe him, you can’t ig­nore the devil in him, and 20 years on, not much has changed. On Mon­day morn­ing he couldn’t re­sist wad­ing in with both feet after Tipp’s no-show in last Sun­day’s na­tional league fi­nal. De­scrib­ing them in his col­umn in The Ir­ish Daily Star as “not even a good team, not to mind a great one”, as well as la­belling them “soft and com­pla­cent”, won’t have en­deared Ger to the Tip­per­ary hurl­ing public. Michael Ryan too may have bris­tled ini­tially at Lough­nane’s anal­y­sis of what he only too well knows was a bad day at the of­fice.

The Tipp man­ager has to have been puz­zled by the lethar­gic na­ture of the per­for­mance his side gave. They were un­be­liev­ably flat. He’ll be dis­ap­pointed too that he didn’t see it com­ing, or de­tect any signs of it dur­ing the week. But that’s the na­ture of th­ese things. None of us saw it com­ing.

The bot­tom line is that Tipp sim­ply weren’t pre­pared men­tally for what Gal­way threw at them. While both sides might have come to the fight last Sun­day, only one of them was ready to fight — and it wasn’t Tipp. I’m sure that in their own minds they felt that they’d pre­pared well, and that they were go­ing to per­form. But as Mike Tyson fa­mously once said, “ev­ery­one has a plan — till they get punched in the mouth”. A few of the Tipp play­ers were clearly taken aback by the ag­gres­sion and phys­i­cal­ity Gal­way brought. No one typ­i­fied that more than Daithí Burke. He put in a se­ries of hits over the 70 min­utes on a num­ber of Tipp play­ers, and be­lieve me they felt ev­ery bit of them. They should have been ready for it. Ex­pect­ing it even. But they weren’t. And at this level, it’s curtains when that hap­pens.

If Tipp go on to de­fend their Mun­ster and All-Ire­land ti­tles, the events of last Sun­day will have played a hugely sig­nif­i­cant role. The Tipp play­ers now know that there is se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion still out there. Hun­gry op­po­si­tion, phys­i­cal op­po­si­tion, and if their heads aren’t right, there’ll be no back-to­back ti­tles. They got a stern warn­ing to that ef­fect from Kilkenny in Thurles a few weeks back. They got a more se­vere re­minder in Lim­er­ick last Sun­day.

No one will re­mem­ber who won the 2017 league in ten or 20 years’ time, and he ar­guably learned more about his side, and what he has on the bench, in de­feat than he would in a vic­tory. He also now has a stick to beat his play­ers with. There’s no room in the Tipp dressing room for the mental soft­ness and com­pla­cency Lough­nane al­luded to in Mon­day’s ar­ti­cle. Those words and his crit­i­cisms are likely to be nailed on the dressing room door all sum­mer.

That’s bad news for Cork, be­cause any chances of Tipp sleep­walk­ing into an am­bush in the cham­pi­onship first round com­pletely evap­o­rated seven days ago.

As for Gal­way; did we learn any­thing that we don’t al­ready know about them? The tal­ent is there, but there’s no point now in rest­ing on their lau­rels. They have to drive on and win the Le­in­ster ti­tle. If Kilkenny make it to the fi­nal, as I think they will, that be­comes a must-win game for Micheál Donoghue’s side.

Fi­nally, for any­one that wants a Na­tional League hurl­ing ti­tle, the key is to get rel­e­gated. Three-in-a-row now for teams from Divi­sion 1B. Who would’ve thought it?

Those words and his crit­i­cism are likely to be nailed on the door all sum­mer

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