Michael Ryan was true to his word. When he took over as Tipperary senior hurling manager last year, the former All-Ireland winning corner back vowed that Tipp would be more physical and direct in their approach under his watch.
A no-nonsense, teak-tough defender in his day, Tipp played Championship 2016 in his image and likeness. If a team is a mirror of the man who leads them, well this was Tipperary as Michael Ryan had imagined.
As he spoke to reporters following Sunday’s nine-point victory over Kilkenny, Ryan also paid a generous tribute to the past. In the previous three years, he’d served, once again, as a selector. From 2008-2010, Ryan was on board with Liam Sheedy’s regime and he returned to work with Eamon O’Shea from 2013-2015.
Confirmation that Ryan would succeed O’Shea, before the latter had served his final year at the helm, raised some eyebrows but it’s a move that has paid rich dividends.
Tipp, under O’Shea, played with verve and panache but Ryan noticed that they were playing without the required intensity levels that would take them to the very top. He took the O’Shea template but tweaked it and allowed the county become a different, All-Ireland winning animal.
There were some key switches made throughout the season that transformed Tipp though.
Ronan Maher, U21 captain this year, filled the centre back slot like a seasoned veteran, allowing older brother Pádraic to revert to number 7, where he’s far more comfortable.
Captain Brendan Maher, operating at centre forward in 2015, was back at midfield. Michael Cahill returned to form and fitness and regained the number 4 shirt, while Seamus Kennedy was plucked from the footballers to play at right half back.
Midfielders Shane McGrath and James Woodlock retired and the new midfield pairing of Brendan Maher and newcomer Michael Breen worked a treat. Even when Breen struggled on Sunday, Ryan reacted by bringing in Jason Forde and slotting Dan McCormack from wing-forward to midfield.
Forde scored two points, a cameo role reminiscent of Seamus Callanan’s in 2010, and McCormack provided extra cover to Tipp’s six backs down the home straight. Ryan was the man with the Midas touch.
Tipp’s six starting forwards against Galway in the 2015 All-Ireland final were Forde, Brendan Maher, Patrick Maher, Niall O’Meara, Seamus Callanan and John O’Dwyer.
Four started on Sunday – three up front with one shifted to midfield – as O’Meara and Forde came off bench.
Noel McGrath, one of the fairytale stories of the year, came off to a standing ovation, over a year since he received one after he was introduced as a sub against Galway in August 2015.
McGrath has been through the mill, overcoming testicular cancer to collect a second Celtic Cross. He was joined in Tipp’s attack by his sensational younger brother John on Sunday as a brother even younger, Brian, captained the minors to glory. If Carlsberg did great hurling days…
Ryan’s philosophy for the year was, in some ways, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But there were changes – as just nine players who lined out against Galway 13 months ago started on Sunday. That’s a fair rate of flux in a year but Ryan trusted his instincts and was granted the ultimate reward, 25 years since he lined out on the 1991 team that beat Kilkenny.
Symmetry, history and a return to some old values. Everything in sync and Mick Ryan, ‘Church’ as he’s affectionately known, as captain of the ship.
Before the fixture was played, we suggested that Sunday’s All-Ireland final was a test that Tipperary could not afford to fail. As it turned out, we need not have worried.
Jackie Cahill, Pundit Arena