Henry Shefflin: Blow of Bubbles absence may prove crucial as Tipp search for firepower
After watching Munster finals with envy and awe throughout my entire Kilkenny career, I finally had the chance to witness one of hurling's great spectacles first-hand last year but I left Thurles thoroughly underwhelmed. I don't expect that to be the case tomorrow.
The hell, fire and brimstone of previous epic deciders was absent but Waterford and Tipperary get the chance to make amends in the Gaelic Grounds and with both coming to the boil at the right time, be ready for some fireworks.
Twelve months ago we said Waterford would play negatively but Tipp had the firepower to keep the scoreboard ticking over and that's exactly how it panned out. Derek McGrath's side are a different animal this time around though.
There were reservations about whether they had enough attacking intent to secure top honours but they've transitioned their game offensively and I like everything about them at the moment. They know their system inside out, they're a serious team.
In Austin Gleeson, Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran, they have three of the best up-and-coming forwards in the game with Austin really stepping up to the mantle. For such a young man, he's become a real leader for Waterford and he's got limitless potential.
When Clare were firing back at them the last day someone needed to take things by the scruff of the neck and inspire all around him. Up he steps to slot over a line ball. He just has that X-factor which every great team needs.
Having him further up the field has helped them reach new heights while Bennett is a different player in 2016. Last year he got a shoulder against Tipp and was knocked off his feet, that just won't happen this year, they've all bulked up and matured over the winter.
And by pushing more bodies forward the focal point has changed. We're now speaking more about Austin, Patrick and Shane than Tadhg de Búrca, Noel Connors and the 'system', which was last year's hot topic of conversation.
I'm sure people going to Limerick tomorrow will be thinking, 'Why can't this game be in Thurles?' But it shows just how ruthless Derek has become. Whatever he was being advised he would have said, 'I'm not going to Thurles, I want it in a neutral venue'.
He doesn't care what the county board or the Waterford public think, he is only concerned about his team and what's best for them, and that's what you have to do to be a top manager like Brian Cody.
That shows how comfortable and focused they are; they're going to Limerick to win and they're going to try play the game on their terms. The words he's using to describe his players like character and resilience sound remarkably familiar too.
He seems to be trying to create a spirit that Brian Cody and Kilkenny always talk about. And I think he's achieving that. A title would be massive for them but does it have to be a Munster title? Probably not. Do they have a say in the All-Ireland series? Definitely.
But winning the Munster final would be a great step for them, rubberstamping their credentials while it also keeps them away from Kilkenny until the final, if they get there. In their way first stand a hardened Tipp side however.
What has impressed me most about Tipp so far is their defence. We're usually waxing lyrical about their forwards but defensively they've been rock-solid. Their most significant defeats have always been high-scoring thrillers which highlights issues at the back.
But their boss Michael Ryan is an old-school defender and that's being reflected in his team with guys like Cathal Barrett and Ronan Maher, much like the younger Waterford players, coming on in leaps and bounds physically.
Pre-championship there were doubts whether Tipp had it, were they gone past their sell-by date? During their two games I sensed that the Tipp public are believing again, and that's a powerful dynamic. It breeds confidence into a team which already has serious hurlers but John O'Dwyer is a massive loss. They nullified the sweeper expertly against Cork and Limerick but neither of those two teams play it with anything like the efficiency that Waterford do.
Patrick 'Bonner' Maher and Dan McCormack are brilliant team players, savage workers, whereas I think you need shooters in your midfield and half-forward line to beat Waterford and that's where the absence of 'Bubbles' will be felt.
After being marked out of the game completely last year, it'll be interesting to see if Seamus Callanan drifts away from the goal tomorrow in search of possession while Jason Forde's ability to strike from distance will be a key weapon.
I fancy an underdog to win this weekend though and I'm predicting Waterford to edge it.
The four managers in Semple Stadium tonight are under pressure because their counties are expected to be progressing further than the Qualifiers and, in particular, it's do-or-die for Clare. I got the vibe after the Waterford loss that they think, 'We'll be there come the back end of the championship', and they have the team to do so but sometimes if you expect it, it doesn't happen.
Everyone's talking them up again but this is a dangerous assignment against Limerick just seven days after hammering Laois, and with that heated local rivalry. They're on a high again but while you'd expect them to win, it'll be far from easy.
Meanwhile, having sat in Páirc Uí Rinn last Saturday there's no doubting that Cork have serious talent but defensively they cough up far too many scores. They're scraping through games they should be winning easier and you never know what you're going to get. But they'll account for Wexford.
Things like gutless, lack of heart, lack of spirit are all being thrown at Galway since Sunday's Leinster final but these are over the top. For 45 minutes none of those words would've described them.
The game hinged on two bad hurling decisions, both were Galway mistakes, and one good management decision in Brian Cody bringing Richie Hogan in. Johnny Coen made a rash decision to leave his man to tackle Conor Fogarty in the build-up to Jonjo Farrell's goal; no way would Paul Murphy have done it. And that's the difference.
The most Conor was going to score was a point but instead it turned the game. It was something Kilkenny wouldn't do but Galway did it. In the next play Aidan Harte gets the ball at wing-back with three Kilkenny men coming to him.
He thinks, 'Oh I'll go for a point here', his big swing is blocked by Michael Fennelly, lands into TJ Reid's hand and it's over the bar. Cillian Buckley wouldn't have done that, he would've seen the danger and put it into the corner.
That for me was game over, there was only going to be one winner then. Kilkenny were in front and you could hear it in the crowd, supporters thinking, 'Oh yeah, we are back' and players feel that too.
I think back to the 2009 All-Ireland final where we were struggling up front and Tipp were the better team for over an hour. But when I looked up the field I saw PJ Ryan making miraculous saves, I saw Tommy Walsh plucking balls out of the sky. It inspired me.
Even though we're not hurling well I'm saying, 'We can still win this game, up your game Henry and work harder, things will come for you'. And Richie's introduction did that to the Kilkenny players.
They were probably thinking at half-time, 'These Galway boys are good, they're on form, this mightn't be our day' but having someone like that to come in and do what he did drags the performance out of other fellas as TJ said earlier this week.
How Galway react to the criticism will be intriguing. In 2011 our character was questioned after losing the 2010 final and Dublin then annihilating us in the league final, where the headline 'Croker chokers' appeared in these pages.
Did we use it as motivation? Yes. Did we talk about it in the dressing room? No, we knew ourselves. But we had a different mindset to Galway, we were used to winning whereas Galway are trying to win.
Are Galway as good as Kilkenny? No. Is there a lack of leadership at vital moments? Yes. And rectifying that is easier said than done.
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