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Ignoring the writing on the wall — COLUMN

Shane Stapleton reflects on the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final clash of Tipperary v Waterford, as the Deise ran riot late on

Shane Stapleton reflects on the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final clash of Tipperary v Waterford, as the Deise ran the Premier off the road late on.

BY SHANE STAPLETON
There’s a prevailing notion in Tipperary that Liam Sheedy has earned the right to decide when he will walk away from the job.

The Portroe man has been behind some of the Premier’s greatest successes in modern times, and certainly his place in Tipp folklore is forever secure.

Sheedy has had the locals eating out of the palm of his hand for a long time, but a miasma now hangs in the air after a second disappointing season in a row.

The players went down fighting once more, as they tend to do, but the thrilling All-Ireland final win of 2019 could scarcely feel farther away at this point. Nor could the underage successes of 2016, 2018 and 2019 spearheaded by Liam Cahill.

It would be trite and lazy to simply state the issues after the fact; this notion which amounts to saying the Waterford loss was yesterday’s manager leading yesterday’s players with yesterday’s tactics.

That would be over-egging the pudding, yet the truth is to be found there somewhere in the middle. On Thursday’s Hurling Show, the issues that came home to roost once more at Pairc Ui Chaoimh were highlighted — before the fact (click play below).

Very few teams these days are lining out with players in their thirties, with one or two being the maximum. A blend can be found, without question. Look at Cork, whose 33-year-old star Patrick Horgan conducted the orchestra on Saturday night as the young guns whizzed about him.

Kilkenny’s TJ Reid — soon to turn 34 — is thriving in a team full of energy, Joe Canning has called it quits at 32 whereas 31-year-old Davy Burke was unused last week, while Limerick and Waterford are backboned by youth.

The spine of the Tipperary team is built on legendary names that will forever be heralded. But going by modern standards, starting more than two of the elder statesmen was a huge risk. Indeed, holding back young winners made little sense.

Just one of the 2018 All-Ireland winning Under-21 team (Jake Morris) started in the defeat to Waterford, while Mark Kehoe also came in. The Cork group they beat that day had ten players on the field in their win over Dublin on Saturday: Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Robbie O’Flynn, Conor Cahalane, Tim O’Mahony, Jack O’Connor, Ger Millerick, Niall O’Leary, Shane Kingston, and Billy Hennessy (while Declan Dalton was an unused sub).

Four of the Rebels side that lost the 2019 All-Ireland Under-20 final to Tipp — Millerick, Sean O’Leary Hayes and Robert Downey — featured on Saturday while Ger Collins was the back-up goalkeeper to his brother Patrick.

Meanwhile, the Tipp side who walloped those Leesiders by 5-17 to 1-18 had only Paddy Cadell and Morris on the field against the Deise, with Eoghan Connolly on the bench throughout.

Many of those Cork players have three or four seasons of championship and league action behind them, pandemic or no pandemic. John Meyler and then Kieran Kingston trusted them.

In fact, Kingston continues to force youth through. Pat Ryan’s Under-20s recently retained the Munster crown against Limerick despite Shane Barrett and Alan Connolly being unavailable due to senior involvement — with Ben O’Connor backing their promotion.

In Tipperary, deference is rightly paid to the men who have delivered so much for the county, but time moves on. Would Jim Gavin have picked all of the older players, who between them have approximately 50 years of inter-county service? Certainly not, but he would have found key roles for some starting and others coming on. Those decisions edged a couple of All-Irelands in their direction.

As you get older, your leg power begins to wane, and at times you are simply trying to survive in a game. No longer able to burst out all game, no longer able to bail another man out, and decision-making clouded by tiredness. Getting rid of the ball is all you can do at times.

This is where youth has its part to play. A young man bounces off a tackle, whereas an older man feels that contact much more harshly. This is where the blend was wrong, and perhaps loyalty clouded judgement. Just one of them was substituted.

It is difficult to turn away from those who have delivered, and those so close to you. Hard decisions have to be made at this level and, truth be told, this has been obvious for some time.

A management team of Sheedy, Eamon O’Shea and Michael Ryan was appointed in late 2007 and, other than 2011 and 2012 under Declan Ryan, at least one of the three has been steering the ship ever since.

No one will question the service given, but the question is whether a new approach is required. Is Tipperary hurling evolving? Can it do so without change? Certainly, the defeats at minor and Under-20 level in recent weeks — coupled with senior failings — suggest the county is at a fork in the road.

Cahill’s cubs have not yet been brought through, while the modern style he has brought to Waterford has turned them from two-season losers to strong contenders. It couldn’t have been more starkly displayed down by the Lee.

Waterford outscored Tipp from open play by 3-25 to 2-18 — which is alarming given the talent at the Premier’s disposal. The Deise ran their rivals to a standstill despite being out for a third weekend in a row and, after being hit by a thrilling comeback, burst clear in injury time.

Why? A number of reasons. Cahill is a modern manager whose team attacks from all angles, and because they have pace in most areas. They have their own Kyle Hayes in the form of Calum Lyons, while Cork have one in Tim O’Mahony.

Tipp’s answer when they get the ball in similar positions is not to give and go, or to run at the opposition. It’s to take pot shots from 100 yards. In a game lost by seven points, where Waterford countered for 1-3 in injury time, missing on 11 occasions with low-percentage shots from distance made little sense.

Barry Heffernan hit two early wides from his own half, Ronan Maher scored three but missed four, while Paudie Maher had misses at the end of either half. A team must shoot, of course, but management must ensure their team is coached to take the right options. To drive at the opposition, or deliver the ball to those who can do damage.

It’s not a new development, of course. This was flagged against Cork last season when errant shots from distance almost cost Tipp the game.

It will be a winter of soul-searching in the Premier County. Will the management team go again? Will the older players? Will the approach change?

When it is said that Tipperary don’t have pace and energy, it is more a case of management picking the team that way. That, along with the use of ball, must change.

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