As Tipperary prepare to dampen the demons that have denied them the league title for the last 10 years, Michael Ryan and his backroom staff will be quick to acknowledge the strides they’ve made in the past ten weeks.
With a return to All-Ireland glory no doubt top of their priorities, they knew establishing a well-rounded panel to handle the cut and thrust of the expanded new Munster format would be a necessity.
Of course, their depth – or lack thereof – was notable in the All-Ireland series last year.
Against Clare in the quarter-final, they made four substitutes; Sean O’Brien, Jason Forde, Niall O’Meara and Stephen O’Brien. The latter two were in the closing minutes of the game, and altogether the changes contributed just two points.
In the semi-final against Galway they used just two substitutes – first bringing on Jason Forde, for Michael Breen, and then taking Forde off again for Niall O’Meara. Forde scored just one point.
Of course the common denominator here, Silvermines clubman Jason Forde, has been the good news story in Tipperary this spring, suddenly emerging as a super dangerous threat at full forward. He has contributed 5-60 in the league and established himself as a premier free-taker, something Tipperary have lacked since the retirement of Eoin Kelly.
This has given management some food for thought as they await the return of Seamus Callanan to the fold, who has missed the entire league with an injury. The Drom & Inch talisman has been a fixture at full forward for the past eight seasons but Michael Ryan will have to identify some way of getting the best out of both of his forwards.
Others you would expect to have a say in the Munster championship are John O’Dwyer, Dan McCormack and Noel McGrath, who have all missed a huge chunk of the league. This has allowed Tipperary to experiment with various different attacking options.
Michael Breen and John McGrath have been steady throughout the league, the former proving to be a handful in a new position of corner forward. Sean Curran has been efficient with his scoring, opposite Patrick Maher who has been industrious as always. Niall O’Meara looked dangerous against Kilkenny before injury ruled him out for the rest of the campaign.
They’ve had a chance to blood some youth, introducing Thurles Sarsfield’s Billy McCarthy to a centre forward role and he appears to be top of the pecking order of fresh faces.
Mark Russell has been a handful whenever he has been introduced to the fold, while Kiladangan’s Willie Connors showed fine glimpses in his first start in the semi-final against Limerick. Cian Darcy of Kilruane is another youngster who has started and contributed three points. Ger Browne and Conor Kenny have also seen some action, which has been limited.
All in all, Tipperary used no less than 15 forwards throughout the league, of which Seamus Callanan, arguably their best, was not one.
Of course, Tipperary’s main problems lie further back-field, with their much maligned full-back line. Many expected Cathal Barrett to immediately return to his All-Star corner back position, but he has been utilized in midfield, meaning Michael Ryan has allowed depth to grow at the position.
Kiladangan’s Alan Flynn has emerged as the starting #2, while Sean O’Brien of Newport, Michael Cahill and Donagh Maher seem to be vying for the other side. The latter made the position his own towards the end of last year, but #4 seems to be up for grabs and unless Barrett is moved back to more familiar surroundings in the championship, it looks like Michael Cahill will enter the summer on top of the pecking order having started the last couple of games.
Cahill has been plagued with injury and lack of form but if he can rekindle his 2016 mojo, it will hugely solidify the corner back area.
At full back, the battle seems to be between James Barry and Tomás Hamill. Similarly to Cahill, Barry needs to find his 2016 form or else Hamill will slot in at full back.
There’s healthy competition across the full back line and all have a lot of league hurling under their belts. With the Cathal Barrett wildcard, Tipperary should see a major improvement on last year’s woes.
In goals, Daragh Mooney has been impressive in the league and has beaten Paul Hogan and Paul Maher to the number one jersey.
The wing back-line has also seen some rotation throughout the league. Aside from the undroppable Páidí Maher, Michael Ryan seems to have settled on Nenagh’s Barry Heffernan at right wing back.
That leaves Joe O’Dwyer, Seamus Kennedy, Paudie Feehan, Tom Fox and Ronan Maher as alternative options. The latter is establishing himself as the starting midfielder alongside Brendan Maher, which would see Cathal Barrett as another option should he not be deployed at corner back.
Ryan has an embarrassment of riches across the wing back-line, enough to perhaps leave Ronan Maher flourish in midfield.
On the topic of midfield, Brendan Maher is a certainty to start here. Ronan seems to be leading the race to partner him, but should he return to the wing back-line, Ryan can look to Seamus Kennedy, Barrett, or perhaps reverse Michael Breen or Jason Forde into the role, but given their attacking capabilities this would be a last resort.
Altogether, Tipperary have used 34 player in the league, and have Callanan and Joe O’Dwyer to return from injury.
It’s a very healthy position to be in going into the new Munster format, with four games in consecutive weeks. Michael Ryan has ensured his side will be very well equipped to deal with the grueling schedule and can trust a plethora of players across every position on the pitch, adding a depth most counties will envy come the summer.