THERE was a suspicion midway through the second half of Tipperary’s draw with Kilkenny in the Allianz NHL Division 1 in Thurles that Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher’s unavailability could hurt the Premier in this campaign.
Last Sunday, while monitoring the output of Tipp’s half-forward line at Páirc Uí Rinn, that suspicion was confirmed.
‘Bonner’ is, of course, away touring with the Army at present. And the Maher-shaped void in that sector was especially noticeable in the Premier’s two most recent outings.
Last season, people regularly doffed their caps to Michael Ryan’s attack.
In the championship alone Tipp accumulated 12-101 in five outings including registering 5-19 in the Munster final against Waterford and a further 2-29 on All-Ireland final day leaving Kilkenny reeling.
Tipp’s propensity to score heavy, though, stemmed, primarily, from the impact of both Maher and Dan McCormack and their insatiable work-rate.
Most people are of the opinion it is Tipp’s half-back line which represents their greatest springboard for launching attacks. To a point, that is true. Unless, though, foragers are in place to fight for the deliveries from that sector the half-back line’s efforts will be in vain. You can’t have one without the other. Or, certainly, you can’t pile praise on the likes of Ronan and Pádraic Maher without at least equally acknowledging the heel-snapping of those entrusted with making the sliothar work at the other side of the coin.
McCormack is the perfect foil for ‘Bonner’ as the fact the Borrisoleigh man is willing to put as great a shift in as Maher it means the latter can scheme a few metres further forward thus adding to the problems exceptional duo Séamus Callanan and John McGrath cause for opposing full-back lines.
However, in the absence of one from Maher and McCormack a greater workload is left for the other.
Before McCormack came along Maher was covering the yards of two people. Think N’Golo Kanté for Leicester City and Chelsea.
Yet, Tipp’s provincial and September success last term can be attributed to the combinations those players generated.
In team sport nowadays, people fawn at the finishers’ capacity to entertain, more so than ever before. And when I say ‘finishers’ it’s meant in the traditional sense of consistent scorers rather than England rugby coach Eddie Jones’ interpretation of the term.
To trigger team objectives these days, with scientific technicalities so prevalent, 'link players' tend to determine how far a group can go, what they can achieve.
And frankly, there is no more accomplished link performer in hurling at the highest level than Maher.
Fully-fit and firing, he must be one of, if not the, first name on Ryan’s team-sheet, especially when we consider how solid a workhorse Ryan was himself in his playing days. The Lorrha-Dorrha man is Tipp’s most invaluable commodity. A bold statement, I appreciate, but any time Maher is not available the Premier’s distinguished edge is less apparent.
Obviously, Tipp managed just fine without him as they took out Dublin, Waterford and Clare. Yet, two of those three teams will contest the relegation play-off while the Déise’s performances have been inconsistent so maybe that form is less reliable.
That is not to say Tipp’s loss to Cork is a true gauge of either team’s capabilities. Certainly, though, Maher’s absence against Brian Cody’s side was felt. And, if there is one county we can generally suggest represent a decent barometer at any stage of a given season it is, after all, Kilkenny.
The struggles for ‘dirty’ possessions Ryan’s outfit had on Leeside only confirmed the theory once more.
With respect to Offaly, it’ll hardly be evident next Sunday in Tullamore. Still, if the Cats overcome Wexford and meet Tipp again, keep half an eye on how Tipp’s half-forward line shapes up. Will it be as balanced and relentless as when Maher is occupying his usual berth? Probably not.
Kilkenny, for their part, will be expected to progress to collide with the Premier once again. However, do not totally dismiss the Slaneysiders.
Davy Fitzgerald’s troops may have had just five points to spare over the Faithful and four in-hand over Laois.
However, those statistical margins are an inaccurate reflection of how superior Wexford were on both occasions.
Barely out of second gear, Fitzgerald’s men were extremely dominant possession-wise but wasted a shed-load of scoring opportunities.
In ‘real’ terms, winning margins of 10 and 14 points respectively would not have flattered Wexford. Their wide tallies are concerning Fitzgerald, too, as illustrated by his quotes afterwards in Wexford Park on Sunday.
Fitzgerald said: “We had so much possession, created so many chances, but like the Offaly game we just failed to put them away.
“We must learn to put those chances away. The stats will show the number of wides, we must have had double the wide count compared to Laois.
“There is no doubt there is room for improvement ahead of the quarter-final.”
The possibility of rectifying this issue of profligacy between now and Sunday’s trip to Nowlan Park may be unrealistic. Nevertheless, one of these days Wexford’s offence will truly click and rack up a massive score. Cody’s brigade will, therefore, have to be on their guard.
Cork, though, should out-score Limerick to book a semi-final spot against either Galway or Waterford.
Kieran Kingston, while discussing the Rebels’ form following the games against Clare and Dublin, stated: “We weren’t as good as people wrote or said about that game (versus Clare) but not as bad as what was said or written after the Dublin game either. We’re somewhere in between.
A similar thought-process can be applied while assessing Cork’s 0-26 to 3-16 defeat of Tipp. Getting caught up in the result would be laughable on the part of Leesiders. Yet, beating the Premier is not to be sniffed at either as Ryan deployed a high number of first-teamers at the same time.
Tipp will be a completely different proposition when the counties meet in the championship, but Kingston can be content in the fact Cork displayed the characteristics required.
John Kiely, in contrast, was spitting feathers after the Treaty produced an “abysmal” second-half performance allowing Galway to engineer a match-clinching total at the Gaelic Grounds.
The harsher reality for Kiely and co is that Limerick are just not that good a side and are unlikely to challenge for silverware regardless this year. They have had umpteen opportunities to prove their steel in the second-tier but fluffed their lines time after time.
The Galway-Waterford quarter-final is harder to call, however.
The Tribesmen are capable of raising two or three green flags regularly which may be decisive.