Henry Shefflin: Case for the defence Tipps balance in favour of Premier men
Munster champions’ rearguard are better equipped to edge semi-final shootout against the Tribesmen
I met TJ Ryan at a function in Limerick last weekend and our conversation re-iterated to me the sense that, in serious sport, you can't really bank on any big tomorrows.
TJ and Limerick were one of the stories of the 2014 Championship, pushing Kilkenny all the way in an enthralling All-Ireland semi-final. Yet he was saying how they just never really got any momentum going to kick on from that this year. Everyone believed that the next step for Limerick was a logical one, but it proved more complex than that.
It often does.
I don't doubt that TJ and Limerick will come strongly again, but their experience is surely a reminder that sport is, above all, about seizing the day. It's a mindset that, I don't doubt, Tipperary and Galway will be tuned into at Croke Park tomorrow.
Because this has the feel of a watershed game for both teams and their managers. Tipp and Galway are at points in their development where both probably feel they need an All-Ireland win now. Defeat for either will, as such, be very sorely felt. There's a lot on the line here.
I've sensed with Galway this year that they've been operating with very clear priorities. You just felt that the Leinster final was never going to be the be-all and end-all of their summer. I don't doubt that they wanted to win the game but it's as if, deep down, they've had themselves programmed for the six-week run from All-Ireland quarter-finals to final. The business end of Championship.
To my mind, there's no great mystery as to why Galway and Tipp have been Kilkenny's biggest challengers in recent times. It's simple, they have the forwards.
I would offer a word of caution here in the case of Galway. They scored 2-28 against Cork in the quarter-final and still, apparently, spilled 23 wides. Those are crazy statistics. Put it this way: if, say, Galway converted even just over half of those wides, their tally would have been up to 2-40. And that's not a score you see in serious inter-county hurling.
So there's a potential trap for them to fall into in, maybe, believing that they're going better than they are.
You also have to factor in that Damien Cahalane was sent off with maybe 20 minutes to go that day in Thurles, and that Cork, eventually, pretty much gave up the ghost. All of this, I don't doubt, will be concentrating Anthony Cunningham's mind now.
My belief is that the team with the stronger backs will be the one that wins tomorrow and that's why I'm edging closer and closer to a Tipp win in my thoughts. No question, both attacks have serious potential and I don't think this is going to be a game shaped by or pre-occupied with systems. They'll both be going for the jugular, so it's going to be about the coping mechanisms behind.
And, when I see that a defender of the calibre of Mickey Cahill still isn't getting his start with Tipp, I'm inclined to think that their strength in depth must be truly something. I rate him really highly. Galway have some inexperienced defenders by comparison and this game will ask sterner questions of them than they've probably been asked to date.
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Tipp's attacking movement can be difficult to counter. Their forwards are, generally, inter-changeable, so they have that option of constant change.
Their skill level is extraordinary too. You see the likes of 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer or Seamie Callanan, the things they can do with the ball in a tight space - à la Richie Hogan or TJ Reid or Joe Canning - would take your breath away. In that respect, it's wonderful to hear that Noel McGrath looks likely to be togging out tomorrow too because that's one man who can virtually make a ball talk.
I think Noel's return from illness will have given his team-mates a massive lift. Not in an emotional way, because this isn't a place really for getting emotional. To be honest, it's quite cut-throat. The bottom line is that Noel will be back only on merit. I've heard he's been flying with his club and the Tipp players will, I don't doubt, view his return in the strictly selfish light of thinking that it increases their chances of winning the All-Ireland.
What they don't have, admittedly, is a ball-winner in the mould of Johnny Glynn. He caused Tipp big trouble in last year's All-Ireland qualifier from full-forward until James Barry was pulled back to the edge of the square. Then, of course, the game just turned on its head in Tipp's favour.
I wouldn't be surprised if Glynn spends a little time back in there again tomorrow, albeit he is a huge weapon on the wing.
In Glynn and Cyril Donnellan, Galway have two men who are probably stronger under puck-outs than anyone in the Tipp attack. This is why Darren Gleeson's role for Tipp remains crucial. He can't just bang his restarts down on top of the half-forward line the way, say, Eoin Murphy was able to target Walter Walsh for Kilkenny last weekend or the way Colm Callanan routinely seeks out Glynn.
It's a concern for Tipp that, if the pressure comes on, they may not have those natural ball-winners in attack.
I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Cunningham has been studying last year's two All-Ireland finals and noting the difference in Kilkenny's intensity levels between drawn game and replay. Tipp just didn't have the same movement the second day because, physically, Kilkenny had upped their game so many notches.
It's clear that Galway will need to be in Tipp's faces from the off tomorrow, taking their space, hitting them hard. They achieved that against Cork, but this is a very different challenge. And Galway need to be mindful that it's not enough simply to get those hits in around the field. You must remember to hurl.
I honestly don't believe that Brian Cody will have a preference for the final simply because I don't believe there's any prospect of an easy ride against whoever manages to come through for September 6.
Maybe because of my own position, I'm generally inclined to see forwards as the most natural game-breakers. But, in this instance, I'm taking Tipp's backs to fill that role.
It's a really tight call, but I'm giving Munster's champions the nod by a couple of points.
I texted Michael Fennelly last Sunday night just to tell him what I thought of his performance against Waterford. My God, what a man! To put in that performance without the benefit of any training ... the sheer defiance that himself and Richie Hogan could show despite going into the game under such injury clouds.
I think that just said everything about the competitive integrity demanded by Kilkenny's management.
Factor in that Jackie Tyrrell and Richie Power weren't playing, factor in Waterford's youth and energy too, and the skill and fearlessness of their hurlers, and you might have expected to see some kind of deficit on Kilkenny's side in terms of appetite. But it just wasn't there.
If anything, Kilkenny's greater intensity won the match.
The composure in defence was exceptional, the communication between players top-class. Paul Murphy's career has been on an upward trajectory for the last couple of seasons, but Cillian Buckley's improvement is maybe the most striking this year. His use of the ball on Sunday was exceptional.
A key to Kilkenny's victory was avoiding the trap of just banging random ball down on top of Tadhg de Burca. They had to be precise in their deliveries, in other words make sure to play with their heads up. Nobody did that better than Buckley. He set up an ocean of scores.
Hogan and TJ Reid are setting extraordinary standards now every day they go out and for Richie particularly, as the reigning Hurler of the Year, his consistency in stepping up to the mark has been highly impressive.
Some people might only see the lads who are getting all the scores and miss the work-rate shown last weekend by lads like Colin Fennelly, Walter Walsh and Eoin Larkin.
TJ, Richie and the again-impressive Ger Aylward did the bulk of the scoring, but it was Kilkenny's general work around the field that eventually wore Waterford down. I think Kilkenny's intensity is a reflection of their training matches. It has to be. They've only had three competitive games since the end of March.
I've been very impressed with Derek McGrath all year and I thought he hit the perfect note afterwards by stressing that there were no guarantees that Waterford will kick on from this next year.
He's right. He's seen that teams like Limerick, Wexford and Clare all seemed to take a backward step this season when expectations were so high. Waterford won the National League and lost just twice all year, to Tipp and Kilkenny who are the top two in the country. So their heads should be held very high.
But they must have a mindset that they're going to have to work even harder now to take the next step. Do that and they'll pose a very real danger to everyone in 2016.