Tipp still struggling to overcome Kilkenny hoodoo

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“Once we got a run on Tipp we mowed them down. It was the same old Tipp again-shaping and hiding behind their bullshit. They hadn’t the balls to come out and take us on man for man….If that Tipp team were any good they would have beaten us in 2013. We were on the floor at the time..They were too scared to beat us”

Jackie Tyrrell wasn’t Tipperary supporters favourite person when he was a player, and he hasn’t done anything to dispel that perception since he became a pundit. The James Stephens clubman hasn’t been the most effusive in his praise of the Premier county in his role on the Sunday Game, but it was his autobiography last year that really set tongues wagging.

In the book, Tyrrell was more than happy to laud the achievements of his own team, and dismiss the failures of others. In particular, the Tipperary team of the last decade came in for scathing criticism. The likes of Bubbles O’Dwyer and Lar Corbett were labeled “flaky” and scared for their antics. The rest of the team were admonished for being intimidated by the sight of the Black and Amber jersey. It was a withering attack and over the top in some instances. Here’s the worst thing about it for Tipperary fans though. A lot of it was probably right.

It may seem a bit anachronistic now, but for a long time Tipperary hurlers held a bit of an Indian sign over their rivals. “Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men” used to be the old adage in the 50’s and 60’s. And the stats backed that up. From 1887 to 1991 the sides faced off against each other 17 times in championship action, with the Munster side emerging victorious on 12 occasions. It was an exceptional stranglehold, in a rivalry, that was supposedly between equals. But that line has been spun on it’s head in the past 20 years, and it shows no signs of abating any time soon.

In the Brian Cody era, Kilkenny and Tippeary have met 10 times in the championship, with the Cats victors on 7 occasions, Tipp winning twice, and there being one draw. It’s been an astonishing turnaround, and the dominance hasn’t just been confined to the main competition either. Kilkenny have defeated Tipp in 15 of the 23 National league games during that time (Tipp have won just 6), including four finals, with Sunday being just the latest display of the Cats pre-eminence.

Now how much can be read into Sunday’s game is anyone’s guess. There are those who would say, that as both sides featured were only at half strength (if not less) the game didn’t mean anything. Then again, for the patrons of Nowlan Park, some of the most passionate hurling fans in the country, the idea that any Kilkenny Tipperary game wouldn’t mean something is anathema. Even if they were just playing Tiddlywinks, there’s an innate desire for a Kilkenny person to beat Tipperary. And if they can do it by a point in the last minute, then all the better.

Even if the game was played between two shadow sides, it was still massively entertaining. And it was also instructive for Michael Ryan. The introduction of Mark Russell to the Tipperary forward line looks like a significant addition. The big Latin Cullen man, is someone who could be a real asset for the side come the summer, as in a side of artists, he’s got strength to go with skill. He gave Joey Holden a hell of a time when he was on the field, and along with Michael Breen, was the main reason behind the sides comeback.

That determination to battle back from 7 points down, to edge 2 in front with 13 minutes to go, showed there is some character in this Tipperary team, but once they were in that position, and had all the momentum on their side, they should really have been able to close the game out. But then closing games out, particularly against their greatest rivals, has been the biggest problem of Tipperary teams over the last 20 years.

Think of how many tight clashes have occurred between the sides over that time. 2002, 2009, 2013 and 2014 are all championship games that could have gone either way, and with the exception of the draw in 2014, they all came down on the black and amber side. Similarly in the league finals of 2003, 2009, 2013 and 2014, there were only a few points seperating the teams, but it was always the Leinster men coming out on top. The times Tipperary won, in 2010 and 2016, were blowouts. If the teams were neck and neck coming into the final stretch, you always had the sense Kilkenny held the upper hand.

After 2010 the team were supposed to take over the mantle as the “The Premier” force in hurling but it hasn’t really happened. Sure they did hammer Kilkenny in the final in 2016, but after losing against the same opponents four years in a row from 2011-2014, that was one game they couldn’t countenance defeat in. So Tipperary were 9 points better than Kilkenny in 2016, and they looked that, if not more. But they’ve yet to win either of the games against their neighbours in the league since. And considering that this is possibly the weakest Kilkenny have been in more than 20 years, that doesn’t bode particularly well.

Now of course there are caveats to be added to Sunday’s loss. If that game was played in five months time you’d imagine Cathal Barrett, John McGrath, Noel McGrath, Seamus Callanan, Padraic Maher, Bubbles O’Dwyer, Jason Forde, Dan McCormack and Michael Cahill would all play some part. But Kilkenny could also reasonably argue they were without some of their best players in the form of Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly, Eoin Murphy, Padraig Walsh, Conor Fogarty and Paul Murphy. Basically, this was pretty much a game between both team’s second choice, and yet the same familiar characteristics were still there. Tipperary were stylish and threatening, Kilkenny were dogged and ultimately victorious.

Now I know that at full strength Tipperary probably have one of the strongest sides in the country, but despite the fact that they’re second favourites to win the All-Ireland this year at 11/4, I, for one, wouldn’t be putting any money on them to regain it. Because, while there’s no doubting their ability in a shootout, there’s still a large question mark over their resolve in a dogfight. Even in last year’s semi-final against Galway, Tipp had an infuriating ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sure, they did manage to overturn the same opponents in a close one the year before, but you can’t imagine the great Kilkenny sides of the last 20 years being edged out in the same manner. Barring the 1999 All-Ireland final against Cork, the first of the Cody era, they very rarely have been.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much to Michael Ryan. At the moment he’s just in the process of building a team for the summer and assessing where his squad is at. And, of course, as regards championship games against Kilkenny goes, his record as Tipperary manager stands at an impressive, won one, lost zero. So maybe Sunday’s loss in a humble league game won’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. But if they continue to come up short in close games like Sunday, the belief that the team are underachievers, especially against Kilkenny, won’t go away.

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