People have short memories in sport. Good times are forgotten about if turmoil follows and vice versa. Recent results and performances by Tipperary hurlers coupled with the axing of Cathal Barrett can only add fuel to the fire regarding Tipp’s ability to handle success.
Tipp have struggled to build consistent senior success. They don’t like the comparison with their near neighbours and arch-rivals, Kilkenny. But despite threatening to build a similar legacy to that of Brian Cody and the Cats, the clichéd term of ‘experts in one-in-a-row’ has followed Tipp as far back as the 1970s.
Most recent history points to the Premier performances of 2010 and 2016. Both years supplied a chance to stop a Kilkenny milestone. Five-in-a-row lay at the Cats’ paws back in 2010, while three-in-a-row was on offer in 2016. Both years saw Tipp buck the trend in emphatic style. In both finals, Tipp played a brand of hurling that nobody could match, leading to deserved plaudits.
But their inability to back up these performances and create a sustained period of success is mind-boggling. Their showings in 2016 were exceptional. Galway were the only team to really push them to the limit. Outside of that, comfortable hammerings of Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny saw the Premier men secure a first All-Ireland in six years. The discussion of a legacy began almost at the final whistle in Croke Park last September, but as now it seems like more of the same from Tipp.
The winter saw a low profile from a lot of Tipperary hurling personnel. A reported invitation to appear on The Late Late Show was declined. Despite a public backlash from the general Premier public, no player voiced any real displeasure at Austin Gleeson being picked for Hurler of the Year over Padraic Maher and Seamus Callanan.
It was figured nationwide that there was something different about Tipp under Michael Ryan. The opening games of the league backed this up further. A dismantling of Dublin led to further comfortable victories over Waterford and Clare. Next up were a struggling Kilkenny side in Thurles.
This was the time. This was Tipperary’s chance to make the statement of all statements. Even if it was the league and a very early part of the season. The form team in the country had the chance to inflict more pain on their age-old rivals in their home at Semple Stadium. The game started as many felt it would, Tipp racing ahead, but it wore on and the statement was never made.
The headlines were about hurling. ‘Hurling was the real winner’ and ‘that’s the way hurling should be played’. The headlines should have been about Tipp, but they weren’t and this has been the beginning of the downfall.
That game was the Tipperary that has become known to most in the last decade. They are a team filled with skill, pace, flair and class, but they cannot be relied upon to close out games. They can dominate teams for 60 of the 70 minutes, have a better team than any on paper, put patches of play together that make them look unstoppable, yet the result can never be certain until the final whistle.
Their next big test came in the league final against Galway. A statement was made against Wexford. Not even Davy Fitzgerald’s antics could completely cloud over people blossoming at the quality of Tipp’s hurling that day. It looked like order had been restored, lessons had been learned from the Kilkenny draw, it was like 2016 all over again.
Then the league final arrived, and Tipp plummeted. This was a collapse that had not been seen since the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny. But, ‘it was only the league’. The championship was around the corner and they had an early chance to redeem themselves against Cork.
This was now the ‘real’ time for Tipp to show everyone that the experts in one-in-a-row wanted to change the perception. ‘Sure Cork are in crisis’ and Tipp were ready to brush them aside. Think again. To the surprise of pretty much everyone, Cork bettered Tipp and ran out deserved winners.
The fallout from that defeat has now escalated with the axing of Cathal Barrett from the squad. Further rumours of discontent have simultaneously followed. What is definitely clear about Tipp to anybody, speculating or not, is that they have been very poor in their last two outings.
Cracks are starting to appear and with the benefit of hindsight, one must ask how much of a surprise it is?
“Classic Tipp” was the term used to describe their draw with Kilkenny in the league. This result was seen as a major negative in Tipp’s aim to win back-to-back titles. Despite being early in the year, it displayed all the failings that have been associated with them over the last 15 years. If the shoe was on the other foot, one can be sure that the mid-2000s’ Kilkenny side would have chewed Tipp up, spat them out and kicked them while on the ground.
That streak of ruthlessness or nastiness was not there that night, nor has it been seen since.
As things stand, Tipp can only be seen as a county that really struggles to cope with success. Since 1965, their title defences have not always been poor, but there is something lacking in this group’s ability to build that legacy.
At the moment, one can only look in from the outside and see that all is not right. A hammering at the hands of Galway followed by an unexpected loss to Cork were two things that nobody could have predicted, then the team’s best defender is dropped.
This has now become an uphill battle for Tipp. It should be said that they were in a similar position in 2014. A loss to Limerick was followed by talks of players socialising and all not being well in the camp. Whatever happened, they regrouped that year and found a way back to the All-Ireland final.
The possibility of Tipp repeating that trick is not impossible by any means. But currently, it can only be asked as to why Tipperary have found it so hard to deal with success.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena