Cyril Farrell: Tipp's defensive solidity to pave way to Munster glory
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
Now it really begins. The only remaining safety net in the hurling championship is fitted under tomorrow's Munster final, poised to break the fall for the losers and return them to the All-Ireland race through the quarter-final door.
Otherwise, it's knock-out all the way, real championship hurling where the difference between winning and losing is vast.
However interesting and competitive the games might be, the provincial championships aren't what they used to be in the pre-qualifier days and before Galway entered Leinster.
As for Galway, there were times in my managerial days in the 1980s when we didn't have our first championship game - an All-Ireland semi-final - until the second Sunday in August.
The system is much better now but at the same time it has to be acknowledged that the real drama only begins when defeat means departure from the All-Ireland.
With the exception of Dublin, the top eight teams in the country remain in contention, six of which are in straight knock-out territory.
By this evening, two more will have departed, most likely Wexford and Limerick.
I wouldn't see Cork as serious All-Ireland contenders either, leaving it a five-way contest between Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Galway and Clare.
From what we've seen so far, Kilkenny remain ahead of the rest, with very little to choose between the other four. So for them, it's all about getting that little extra as they go and hope it's enough to make the difference.
For Tipperary and Waterford, the Munster title isn't all of what tomorrow is about. Sure, they want to win it for local prestige purposes, but booking a slot is in the All-Ireland semi-final is equally important. It means they can bypass the treacherous quarter-finals, no small prize at this stage of the season.
For what it's worth, I expect Waterford to join Galway as provincial final losers, with Cork and Clare coming through from the qualifiers.
Tipp have done nothing spectacular so far but I like the look of them, especially from No 1 to No 9, where they are very stable.
Ronan Maher has settled in comfortably at centre-back and while he's still learning the No 6 trade, he has the natural talent to make it work.
Brendan Maher and Michael Breen are working well at midfield in what are clearly pre-defined roles. Maher stays at home while Breen goes wandering, a pursuit that yielded two early goals against Limerick last month.
There's plenty of scope for a high score in the attack and while the absence of 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer weakens them, it might not be to the same degree that many seem to think, as they have good back-up.
The test for Tipp is how they cope with Waterford's set-up. All opposition known how Derek McGrath has his men playing - certainly the broad outline anyway - but that makes it no easier to cope with.
It's intense and relentless and it's also performed very skilfully. Still, Tipp handled it pretty well in last year's Munster final and while Waterford's young brigade are more experienced now, the structure is much the same.
It places huge demands on players' energy but Waterford have no problems there. In fact, they are well-programmed across all the key areas but I still fancy Tipp to be sufficiently solid defensively to set their forwards a manageable winning target.
I saw Clare getting back on the championship horse last Saturday and while Laois weren't exactly pulling at the saddle, it was still an informative exercise.
There was a real energy and bounciness about Clare, as if they were really enjoying themselves.
There are people in Clare who don't like the systems and game-plans that Davy Fitz operates, but it's the way he does things and he's not going to change - certainly not in the middle of the championship.
David McInerney looked to be back to the player we know he can be when free of injury, which is crucial for Clare if they are to continue on the road to Croke Park.
Tony Kelly was flying too and overall the side looked very happy in itself.
Limerick know precisely how Clare will play but can they stop them? It will be very difficult. Many of the Limerick players underperformed against Tipp and paid the price.
For whatever reason, they lacked the fire and brimstone you associate with Limerick teams but presumably a winner-take-all clash with their fiercest rivals will prompt a change of attitude.
If they get in Clare's faces, they have a chance but even then, I think Clare will be able to work their way through the problem.
The same applies to Cork in their clash with Wexford, who beat a poor Offaly team last Saturday. Cork are a long way from the force they once were but their win over Dublin had enough enterprise to suggest they will win this evening.