Sunday 22 October 2017

Tribesmen have blown this championship wide openbut Tipp should maintain status quo against Déise

Premier must be on high alert against a Waterford side out for revenge, writes Jamesie O'Connor

Wow. What else can you say about the performance Galway gave in Croke Park last Sunday? With half an hour gone and the Tribesmen leading the All-Ireland champions by 2-11 to 0-1, people around me in the stand were shaking their heads and looking at each other, as if to ask is this actually happening.

In a way it's hard to blame the Kilkenny players for not being fully ready for the onslaught. This is a side that's won five of the last six All-Irelands with just a solitary championship defeat in that time. With comprehensive and emphatic victories over Cork in the league final and Dublin in the Leinster semi-final a fortnight ago, and a history of turning Galway over, there was no evidence they had anything to be worried about.

Regardless of what Brian Cody said to them during the week, I'm sure they believed that if they performed at anything close to their usual level, it would be good enough to get the job done. No doubt Galway's pathetic display in Nowlan Park earlier this year in the league reinforced that view.

In that sense the trap was laid. Dublin's poor performance last weekend in Ennis also meant that we all, Kilkenny included, probably read too much into the champions' display in Portlaoise. What no one outside the Galway camp could have foreseen, however, was the sustained intensity, aggression and ferocious physicality that Anthony Cunningham's side brought to bear.

True, Galway's movement up front, intelligent use of the ball and tactical approach, were all significant factors in their win. But their collective desire to front up physically, outwork their opponents and hit Kilkenny at every opportunity was where this win was forged. Time and time again Kilkenny players were driven back in the tackle, something we are not accustomed to seeing.

With Damien Hayes foraging to such good effect out the field and the Galway half-forwards swarming on any breaking ball, Galway dominated the middle third to an extent even Kilkenny at their best have rarely managed. Until Michael Rice's introduction, the Galway midfielders had run amok and a measure of the stranglehold they had on possession was that Richie Power at full-forward, arguably Kilkenny's greatest threat, hardly saw a ball in that incredible opening 20 minutes.

Up front, their movement created huge uncertainty in the Kilkenny defence. With defenders being dragged all over the field, the spaces opened up and whatever limitations they may have elsewhere, Galway have the forwards to make it pay. With the work he's done and the shape he's in, I expected Joe Canning to have a big summer, but his early goal was the shot of confidence Galway needed. Much like DJ in his prime for Kilkenny, a goal from Canning seems to be worth more to his team than the three points that go on the scoreboard. The manner of it too, catching it over Jackie Tyrrell, one of Kilkenny's perceived strong men, before burying it was a statement too that not only was Canning up for it and on form, but that the fight was being taken right to the door.

Obviously with the control Galway exerted out the field, their defenders' lives were made considerably easier. Yet, Cunningham will be delighted with how they performed as a whole. I questioned their ability to contain the Kilkenny attack before the game but all six were aggressive, abrasive and in Kilkenny's faces from the off. Okay, Kilkenny still got two goals, but defensively Galway had their number, and with David Collins back in his best position at wing-back, the jigsaw seems to be coming together.

From a Kilkenny perspective, they have three weeks to lick their wounds, and I'm sure we will see a backlash in the quarter-final. Yet, the fences get steeper from there on and there is no guarantee they will fully recover.

This game highlighted just how big a loss both Michael Fennelly and JJ Delaney were, and with that pair and Michael Rice back in the starting 15 they will present a more formidable force. Only a fool would write them off, but it's a big ask now given the number of battles they've fought and the mileage in the legs of most of their key players.

With the genie now out of the bottle, Galway's element of surprise is gone, but they have blown the entire championship wide open. The six sides still left, probably all feel they have a legitimate chance and it's had a liberating effect on the hurling community up and down the country. Whatever the draw holds from here, interest levels have been re-awoken in the hurling championship. For that, Galway deserve our thanks.

If complacency contributed to Kilkenny's downfall last weekend, then Tipperary need to be on their guard this afternoon. I played in two Munster finals where we were on the receiving end of maulings akin to that inflicted by Tipp on Waterford last year. In both years, we as players burned for nearly 12 months to atone for the embarrassment we had suffered, especially with the numbers our supporters had travelled in.

In each case, despite being given no hope, we avenged those defeats the following year. Waterford's subsequent heroic quarter-final win over Galway allowed them to get some of that poison out of their system, but the seven goals Tipp put on them isn't something easily forgotten, and only a win today can provide true redemption.

With their experience as much as anything else allowing them to get the job done against Clare, Waterford are in a great position going into today's game. There are no expectations within their own county, and with so much focus last week on Galway's performance, they've slipped in to today's game nicely under the radar.

Tipperary have had to expend considerably more energy to get here and with comfortable wins over Waterford in their last three championship meetings, there's a real danger that Tipp's desire and hunger won't match that of their opponents. It won't have been lost on the Déise players either how Kilkenny's physicality and tight marking upset the Tipp forwards in last year's final and as Galway proved last Sunday, any side playing with a level of aggression and manic intensity that Waterford's hurt should ensure they bring has to have a genuine chance.

Don't forget too that by selecting the inexperienced Jerome Maher to police Lar Corbett, and playing Brick Walsh out of position at full-back, Waterford shot themselves in the foot. This time around, they have a proper full-back in Liam Lawlor, someone who understands the nuances of and knows how to play the position, and two good corner-backs in Noel Connors and the impressive Stephen Daniels.

With Walsh back at centre-back, and Kevin Moran hurling well on the wing, it's an experienced half-back line, although whether Tony Browne, recalled on the other wing, still has the legs for 70 minutes in the Munster championship at this stage of his career remains to be seen.

Up front, Waterford will need a couple of goals to win and that means big games from Shane Walsh and John Mullane. A fully fit and on-form Eoin Kelly would also be a help, but that hasn't been the case and he may have more to contribute coming off the bench when the game has opened up than would be the case if he were starting. The return of Pádraic Mahony, is another positive and they have ball-winners in their half-forward line, another area they were cleaned out in last year. So, overall, Waterford appear better equipped than they were a year ago to handle a Tipp side that has yet to show anything like the same form.

That said, they are improving, and heading in the right direction. Serious questions were asked against both Limerick and Cork, and on both occasions they found a way to get the job done. Admittedly, John O'Brien's sending-off in the Cork game made life more difficult than it should have been, but having to grind it out in the last quarter will serve them better in the long run. Corbett's return is a huge boost and his role in setting up Noel McGrath's crucial goal highlighted his importance to the team.

The standout statistic from this year's league was how few goal opportunities Tipperary actually created, but that was without Corbett and Bonner Maher in the side. With Lar back, and Bonner creating mayhem since his return after half-time against Limerick, that goalscoring menace should start to return.

Defensively, while Mickey Cahill's form hasn't been what it should, Pádraic Maher has been outstanding. So if Waterford are to get any joy in attack, it's more likely to come by directing the play down the left flank of the Tipp defence. I still think they miss Paddy Stapleton from there and while Conor O'Brien and Tom Stapleton have performed adequately, his return would strengthen them further.

I'm expecting a big Waterford performance, especially given what happened in Croke Park last weekend. The desire for vengeance if channelled properly can be a great motivator, and provided they live on the edge without crossing it and wire into Tipp from the start, Waterford could make this very interesting, especially if they get off to a quick start.

The falseness of last summer's seven-goal result certainly won't be repeated and I expect it to be considerably closer. That said, when the dust settles, Tipp have enough warriors of their own to ensure victory.

Last weekend's result and what can happen when you're not fully ready for the battle should have concentrated the minds and their greater weapons on the bench and the facility to spring players with the ability to change the match such as Eoin Kelly, Shane Bourke and Seamus Callanan may prove decisive. From here it's looking more likely we'll see Tipp and Kilkenny go head to head in the semi-final in August rather than, as we all thought a week ago, in September.

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