The back-door qualifier system may have taken some of the gloss off the Munster hurling final but it’s still a very desirable prize.
On Sunday the spotlight falls on Semple Stadium where Tipperary chase a forty-first title and Waterford seek their tenth. The bookies give Tipperary a substantial nod but there’s more than usual interest in a Waterford team which has brought exciting novelty to the hurling world this year.
The old glorious institution that is the Munster final lives on regardless of its modified role in the championship structure. Long gone are the days when it was an essential visa requirement for Croke Park. Those were unforgiving times when there was no second chance and many a dream floundered on the whim of a day.
Few were as painful as July 28 back in the year of John F. Kennedy’s demise. 1963 is that sandwich year separating the double All Ireland wins of ’61/’62 and ‘64/’65. It was Waterford who stood between Tipperary and that elusive five-in-a-row and then as now they went into the provincial final as league champions – not an omen hopefully.
That ’63 Munster final at Limerick reads like something of an oddity during Tipperary’s golden age. The raw stats of the game read like something from a bad football match. Tipperary led at half time by five points to three and ultimately lost by 0-11 to 0-8. Twelve first half Tipperary wides were part of the script as was the free-taking of Waterford’s Philly Grimes; the Deise scored a paltry three points from play. A Sean McLoughlin goal for Tipperary was disallowed so it sounds like one of those nightmare days where the gods frowned on the blue and gold.
Anyway that was just one of two occasions when Waterford beat Tipperary in a Munster final, the other being 2002. Our last final meeting with the Deise was in 2012 when the margin was seven points; the previous year we ran in seven goals against them in a twenty-one point whipping.
This year Waterford brings a new sparkle to the hurling scene. Derek McGrath bravely decided to go with a policy of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. Several old stagers stepped aside as he opted for youth and exuberance over experience. The minor win of 2013 no doubt fed that narrative. A few old reliables like ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran stayed on board but otherwise it was the precocious talents of players like Austin Gleeson, Tadhg de Burca, Maurice Shanahan and others who would drive the engine.
To fit the new player profile there was a change of tactic too. The new game plan is built around high fitness levels with players funneling back to crowd the defence and then breaking sharply to launch attacks. High work rate and high energy have been the stand out features. Crisp point taking from distance has been part of the arsenal too. Thus far they’ve had the players with the flair and confidence to work the system and the similarities with Clare in 2013 haven’t gone unnoticed.
So far nobody has cracked the code so there will be much interest in how Tipperary approaches the job on Sunday. Tactically we out-witted Limerick in the semi-final but Sunday presents a different conundrum.
The team news from the Tipperary camp is mostly positive so hopefully nobody does a Rory McIlroy during the week! Paddy Stapleton is still hampered by that injury that saw him retire against Limerick so he looks unlikely to feature. The good news, though, is that Cathal Barrett is back in action playing in-house games during the week and coming through without reaction. Along with James Barry, Conor O’Brien and Mickey Cahill you then have the four who are vying for the three full back spots. One view seems to be that Cahill is still not back to peak condition so perhaps the other three will line up to start.
Otherwise it seems likely that the remainder of the team will start as against Limerick. Interestingly if that is the case only two of the defence that started against Waterford in the league semi-final, Paudie and Ronan Maher, will again fill the same positions.
Elsewhere there was some surprise that Michael Breen didn’t start the last day against Limerick and again people will speculate on his prospects this time. He’s clearly pushing for a start though he may well have to wait once again to be introduced during the action. Lar Corbett is fit and ready for action too so don’t be surprised if he appears at some stage. John McGrath is also ready so there are options available throughout the team and in any case games nowadays tend to be a twenty-man affair.
There’s no denying Tipperary go into this final in positive mood after the victory over Limerick. Route one seems to be the target to aim straight for an All Ireland semi-final so this is seen as a must-win game – and that’s apart altogether from the desire to put silverware on the sideboard.
Tactically we’re told that Tipperary have been working on counteracting the Waterford approach. That means trying to bypass the covering defenders with diagonal ball into the corners as against Limerick. It also means intense work rate all over to counter the mobility of the Waterford team as well as judicious use of puck-outs. There’s no doubt that in a stand-up, man-for-man contest most pundits would expect Tipperary to have enough to win through, but it’s how Waterford play this one which makes it fascinating. The Deise win over Cork should have removed any element of surprise so there can be no excuses on that score.
Speaking of Cork wasn’t it interesting to see how they revived their season with that strong win at Wexford Park. Their game next Saturday with Clare really is a stand-out fixture. I think Clare, with Conor McGrath back and Colm Galvin also now available, are shaping nicely and I wouldn’t be surprised if they pipped that one. Limerick and Dublin should be a ding-dong battle too. The bookies have the Shannonsiders as favourites but I’m not so sure. Both of those games at the Stadium on Saturday look to be really finely balanced with potentially cracking games in store unlike the lopsided qualifiers last weekend.
Incidentally let’s not forget our minors on their big day next Sunday also. They might have expected to be meeting Cork but that prospect was scuppered by Limerick last week with their late snatch and grab. The Shannonsiders are going for three Munsters in a row so we wouldn’t want to be facilitating that, would we?
I saw our minors in the opening bout against Waterford but missed their semi-final versus Clare. They haven’t been earning lavish praise but they’ve got to this vital stage and sometimes with teenagers you’re better off if they go in with low expectations. The injury to centre forward, Stephen Quirke, the last day is obviously a blow. He missed the football defeat to Kerry and I’ve no idea if he’ll be ready for Sunday. He was certainly a big ball winner in the game I saw against Waterford. Our minor production line has stalled since 2012 so it would be nice to see that conveyor belt moving again. Long gaps at under age carry a price down the line; ask Cork about it.
Finally a weekend when we play Waterford always has me remembering the late Johnny Murphy. If you wanted the lie of the land on Waterford there was no better mine of information than Johnny who off the cuff would give you chapter and verse on every player and issue around the Deise set up. We’d have had a long chat this week. Gone but not forgotten; I certainly miss him.