All-Ireland champions in 2016 and semi-finalists a year later, many believed Tipperary to be best equipped to handle the cut and thrust of 2018’s new Munster championship format which required a loaded panel with talent in depth. In an attempt to help cultivate that, Michael Ryan blooded a number of fresh faces throughout the spring’s league campaign.
Initially, he seemed to have played a blinder. Tipperary reached the league final, beating eventual champions Limerick in the semi-final, but were once again befallen by their Nowlan Park voodoo against Kilkenny. An unfortunate result, but bigger things awaited in the form of a run at another All-Ireland. They had bypassed a relatively successful league campaign, rotating from week-to-week and introducing some fresh faces.
In 2019, Liam Sheedy is faced with a similar conundrum. Tipperary’s reliance on the old guard has become ever more apparent, even despite Ryan’s best efforts last year. Few, if any, of his young stalwarts made a suitable impression in the Munster championship and they were duly knocked out at the group stage, although two draws and a defeat at the death to Clare shows they weren’t a million miles away. If 2018 showed anything, it was that management had put the cart before the horse in finding numbers in depth before sorting their front of house.
A feeble defensive structure, questionable puck-out strategies and a work rate that didn’t match that of previous campaigns, Tipperary’s season failed to really take off. Limerick dominated their Munster opener in the Gaelic Grounds, starting 13 of the 15 that would go on to start in the All-Ireland final. Tipperary, on the other hand, would make six changes the following week to play Cork, which highlights how unsettled the team was at a vital part of the season.
In that Cork game, Tipperary were blown away in the first 35 minutes, but made a terrific nine-point comeback to rescue a draw in the dying moments thanks to Nenagh’s Jake Morris. It was a game that encapsulated Tipp’s year – capable of great things, but ultimately disappointing.
This year, in his first return to the inter-county scene since leaving the fold in 2010, Sheedy must establish his front-line forces before anything else. The aforementioned Morris should play a larger role in 2019, having impressed at various levels over the past year, while the likes of Cian Darcy and Willie Connors will gradually have their roles increased.
But more pertinent questions will be asked of the old guard. Cathal Barrett will return to his corner back position and be asked to solidify a full back line that relinquished too many chances last year. Pádraic Maher will revert to full back, a position that changed hands numerous times throughout 2018. His brother Ronan will slot into centre back and be expected to deliver immediately. Michael Breen appears to be favoured in midfield once again, having been trialed in the forwards last year, and will have a pivotal role while Brendan Maher waits on the sidelines. Seamus Callanan will slot into his favoured full forward position and, as the newly-adorned captain, be expected to deliver on his monumental talent. John McGrath and John O’Dwyer will be expected to perform to their maximum potential when called upon.
Expectaction is high, but that comes with the territory for Tipperary hurling. The league may be a chance to freshen the faces for some teams, but not for Tipperary, not this year. If Sheedy can fix some of the problems in the league that his predecessor couldn’t in his final year in charge then Tipperary will be well on their way to a brighter summer.
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