It’s been a long wait since that Munster final on July 12 but the sands of time have finally brought us to Croke Park and a crucial semi-final set-to with Galway.
Kilkenny – as ever – await in the final, though nobody hereabouts will be looking beyond Sunday and what promises to be a ferocious struggle. Many see it as one of those fifty/fifty collisions that will come down to the mood of the day, though the bookies have Tipperary listed as strong 1/2 favourites ahead of Galway’s 2/1 offering.
Tipperary seeks a fifth All Ireland appearance in seven years. That statistic alone underlines our prominence in recent times though the shadow of Kilkenny has left the sideboard quite bare. Getting back for another tilt at the ‘cats’ will be a deep desire for all of us.
Galway always have the potential to be very awkward opponents even if our championship record against them is quite healthy. Our last two championship clashes with the Tribesmen highlight the point. Twelve months ago we were in deep difficulty entering the final quarter until a dam-burst saw us sweep them aside in that final phase. That’s the thing about Galway: they can be quite dashing and daring at their best but equally they can be quite brittle when under the cosh.
Our previous championship meeting was in the quarter-final of 2010. Again Galway looked likely winners entering the closing stretch before we just squeezed home in the final hectic moments, helped in part by an injury to Ollie Canning. Our last championship defeat to Galway was in the ’05 quarter-final while ’93 was the last time we lost a semi-final to the Westerners.
Undeniably Galway come to this semi-final in upbeat mood following their demolition of Cork in the quarter-final. Even allowing for the poverty of the Cork effort – in particular the manner in which they wilted in the closing stages – it was still an eye-catching display from Galway. From the time Jonathan Glynn waltzed in unimpeded for that opening goal Galway set out their stall and ultimately Cork couldn’t cope.
Significantly the Galway attack is motoring well this season without any stellar input from Joe Canning. Others have stepped into the breach on different occasions such as Cathal Mannion, Jonathan Glynn or Jason Flynn. Youngster Conor Whelan has brought a new dimension also while Cyril Donnellan is grafting well on the ‘forty’. Against Cork they racked up 2-28; even in defeat to Kilkenny in the Leinster final they still hit 2-15.
There was a time when Joe Canning was the go-to man in that attack but against Cork particularly he was so marginal that the manager could have replaced him. Now if Canning regained his former impact then you really would have an attacking force to reckon with.
Either way I think that Galway’s attack has the potential to really test our defence. I assume Cathal Barrett and James Barry will once again front goalie, Darren Gleeson, but the left corner seems more problematic. By all accounts Mickey Cahill is still not at peak fitness following recurrences of that old injury. Conor O’Brien is seen as a strong contender for the number four jersey unless Michael Breen is named in defence as he was for the Munster final. A likely half line is Kieran Bergin beside the Maher brothers. Incidentally there have been various rumours circulating about the state of Paudie Maher’s AC joint; those whose opinion I trust assure me that he’s fully recovered.
Woodlock and McGrath are again the front runners for midfield, the latter recently taking a knock while playing with his club, Ballinahinch. Michael Breen, who seems to be a player with no fixed abode at this stage, might come into the reckoning here also. It seems likely that the same six forwards from the Munster final will again line-up on Sunday.
The good news story is the return of Noel McGrath to full training. He won’t start but won’t there be a mighty cheer if he makes an entry at some stage? Lar Corbett is moving well at training too so I’d assume we’ll see some input from him during the afternoon. Shane Bourke is said to be catching attention also in training and I’ve heard very complimentary reports on Bill Maher. Denis Maher took a knock in that club game against Drom, which has set him back a bit.
While Galway’s attack might bother our defence there is a general expectation that the Tribesmen will worry about our offence also. Thus you get this speculation about a possible shoot-out. However, if sweepers come into play, as I assume they will, then that diminishes the scoring potential of both sides.
Ultimately if we can work enough decent ball into our attack then the likes of ‘Bubbles’, Callanan and company should prosper. There is a feeling that the Galway defence is vulnerable so we’ll certainly hope to thrive in that area. Brendan Maher remains a utility player who can be drafted to wherever the need is greatest.
Overall you’d expect that this game will take many twists and turns during the seventy-plus minutes. We managed to pull back a six-point deficit last year to win emphatically in the end. I wouldn’t like to depend on such a twist this time. If Galway, in their present mood, get a run on Tipperary it will be very difficult to retrieve the situation. Thus the importance of getting ahead early and sustaining the momentum.
On known form Tipperary deserve to be marginal favourites but this has the potential to be very tricky. I’ve been impressed by Galway’s intensity and physicality this year so we’ll need to be able to match that on Sunday. There’s a lot at stake so hopefully the bounce of the ball goes our way.
Meanwhile nothing changes with Kilkenny who stick to the same formula year-on-year and simply grind out those results. I thought they were well in control in that second half on Sunday and could easily have won by much more. The lack of a goal threat from Waterford was very noticeable and ultimately it’s that attacking end which will have to be enhanced if they are to build on what has been a great year for the Deise. When they look back on this game they’ll realise how costly a few key mistakes were.
For Kilkenny the fundamentals remain as important as ever. Of course they focus on tactics and skill and all the modern manipulations of the game but ultimately their core principles revolve around hard work and the ability to win possession. You won’t see any fancy drills at their training sessions but instead a tough match where knocks are given and taken and players are battle hardened for championship fare. In that regard Ger Loughnane is right. Much modern coaching misses the point that hurling is ultimately a physical contest where winning possession is everything.
Waterford need not be too despondent. They brought freshness and colour to the hurling scene this year and now have a genuine platform to build on. I like their manager, Derek McGrath. His honesty and decency shines through in every interview where he avoids the type of clichéd waffle you get from others.
Incidentally co-commentator at last Sunday’s match, Donal O’Grady, made one surprising statement. When a Kilkenny player was fouled and play continued and the ball was driven wide Donal announced that they got their advantage and you can’t bring back play like in rugby. Really? I thought the whole point of the new rule was that you get advantage and if none accrues within five seconds then you come back for the free.
Actually the best of the co-commentators in my view is Michael Duignan with Donal O’Grady and Liam Sheedy as joint-seconds. As for some of the others I’ll be charitable and say nothing.
Some of the football pundits refused to say nothing last weekend after another nasty display of all that can be ugly about Gaelic Football, especially when some northern counties are involved. Colm O’Rourke and Kieran Whelan were admirably strong in their condemnation of events in the Tyrone/Monaghan game. Quite right too. Tyrone’s conduct especially was shameful but will have been no surprise to our U21 players.
Finally good luck to our minors on Sunday who make it a double date at Croke Park. Dublin were unlucky losers to Kilkenny in the Leinster series so our lads are likely to face a tough challenge. By play-time they’ll know who’s in the final after the replay of Kilkenny and Galway.