Colm Bonnar is in a tough spot and this is the worst time for Tipp to be heading to the Gaelic Grounds. An early exit looms and yet he must still lift his troops or the game’s standard bearers will walk all over them.
Tipp are wounded after a scutching from Clare, but they must come out fighting and show their own people that there’s something to build on for the future with their minors and U-20s already performing with credit during the week.
Rebuilding is difficult and that’s why it’s very harsh to be critical of Bonnar, given the brief that he’s been tasked with as he tries to blood new faces while also changing Tipp’s style of play to align with modern hurling.
There’s always going to be difficult days during an overhaul and trying to minimise those dark times while giving hope for the future might be Bonnar’s biggest task during his reign.
Tipp’s case is undermined by the difficult hand which Bonnar has been dealt and the absences of Jason Forde, who hit 0-7 from play against Limerick last year, and rookie full-back James Quigley stack the deck even further against the Premier.
With Séamus Callanan and John McGrath also out – as well as the high-profile retirements of Paudie Maher and Brendan Maher – that is a casualty list that few squads could recover from and you can’t underestimate their losses on and off the pitch.
Limerick won’t sympathise tomorrow, though, and they’ll be keen to keep their foot on Tipp’s throat, having already inflicted a lot of pain on them under John Kiely’s watch. Kilkenny were the masters of this in their heyday – they’d never let you up for air.
Kiely is a proud Limerick man working in enemy territory as principal in The Abbey and he’ll be anxious to do a job on the Premier. He’ll remind his troops of the dark days when they suffered at the hands of the blue and gold. Tipp had no pity when the boot was on the other foot, with the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final massacre coming to mind as they beat them by 6-19 to 2-7.
Tipp’s task is helped somewhat by the unavailability of Cian Lynch, although Séamus Flanagan is primed to return, while it’ll be interesting to see if Kyle Hayes plays a part after a hamstring injury or if they’ll make sure he’s definitely 100 per cent before seeing action again.
Kiely knows that another substantial win secures their Munster final place and puts them one step closer to another title, while victory would also give them a great opportunity to rest some front-liners against Clare and get game-time into his panel.
Like everyone else, Tipp’s difficulty centres on how they are going to break down that green wall and try to compete in the middle-third war zone, where Limerick gobble everyone up before spitting them out.
If Tipp are to have any success, lessons have to be learned from their systems failure in this area against Clare. Bonnar and Tommy Dunne will hone in on how they troubled Limerick early on last year, as they built a massive 10-point lead by half-time.
If they don’t match Limerick physically and bring a massive work ethic, then this game could be over before half-time. That’s a must against Limerick or they’ll blow you away, but there were times against Waterford when Tipp overpowered them.
My big worry is their reserves when they start flagging around the 50-minute mark. That’s when you need the bench and theirs has been gutted. So you’d have to wonder whether they will be steamrolled coming down the home stretch.
Michael Breen may be the man to try and negate Diarmaid Byrnes’ growing influence at wing-back, while still trying to deliver on the scoreboard, and Barry Heffernan could go toe-to-toe with Will O’Donoghue in the middle of the park.
Heffernan could also slip back into the half-back line to track Gearóid Hegarty if Bonnar moves their pieces around, while Cathal Barrett may be thrown in on the red-hot Aaron Gillane, with the Tipp defender always taking the fight to the opposition.
Tipp are caught between a rock and a hard place on their own puck-outs. They don’t look comfortable going short, they don’t have the ball winners going long and there doesn’t seem to be a mid-range puck-out option.
Limerick will press high and they’re the masters of turning over short puck-outs. They set traps and force you down blind alleys so Tipp must be much better from their restarts or this game will quickly pass them by.
Based on all known form this year, it’s impossible to see anything other than a decent margin of victory for the green giants and while there may be more difficult days ahead for some of these Tipp players, it’s all building towards a bright future in time.
A good showing and a loss in a similar manner as the defeat to Waterford will suffice to a disgruntled Tipp public, who need to remain loyal to their marquee team in good times and in bad. Limerick won’t let up if they smell any weakness, though, and they can prevail with a fair bit to spare.