Henry Shefflin: This Tipperary team need to start closing out a few big deals
Tipp have the marksmen to cope with Déise defensive system
The process of detachment from life as an inter-county hurler quickened somewhat for me over the weekend.
Before retiring I could count on one hand the number of games at this level I would have gone to watch that didn’t involve Kilkenny.
I’d often be asked why I wouldn’t go to, say, an All-Ireland semi-final to watch opponents who we’d be playing in the final. Could I not learn something from seeing the man who might be marking me in the flesh?
But after a tough week with work, recovery, training, maybe something with the club, you tend to want to sit down and relax on that Sunday and not get caught up in the distraction of another day out to Dublin. I existed in that bubble for the best part of 16 years, it suited me that way, focusing on my own game.
I honestly never had any urge to go to Croke Park to watch a game. If I was going there I felt it had to be there as a player. I wasn’t interested in being a supporter. I never saw it as a ‘day out’.
It’s only when you go to a venue like Wexford Park on a Saturday night, heaving and buzzing with anticipation, and meet the likes of Nicky English, John Conran, Tom Dempsey and Martin Storey, that you realise how much you have had your head down to these occasions in your time as a player.
Same thing in Croke Park the following day. A hurling supporter watching a hurling game with no other angle than wanting your team to win.
The ‘bubble’ has always prevented me from being a Munster hurling final ‘pilgrim’. I’ve heard so much about it. If I’m honest I’ve always been a little envious of the occasion and the billing it gets.
We were playing in Leinster and I always felt our province was stronger. So I’m looking forward to the occasion, to try to get that sense of why people speak so reverentially about it.
For me the Semple Stadium ‘sod’ makes it a great place to hurl. Croke Park for the occasion, Nowlan Park for the familiarity, homeliness and connection with the crowd, but the Thurles surface is just perfect for hurling.
You can see what Waterford were thinking by agreeing to go there for this game. They need the fast surface and wider spaces too to play their counter-attacking game. The likes of Colin Dunford and Kevin Moran cover a lot of ground quickly. Plus, it puts an extra bit of pressure on Tipperary, stitching something in their minds that their opponents are quite relaxed about coming into their backyard.
Waterford keep climbing in everyone’s estimation. Even the idea that getting ahead of them early will draw them out of their defensive structure and force them to set up differently has been successfully challenged against Cork the last day and Tipperary in the League semi-final.
They’ve got better as the year has gone on. To put in an improved performance the last day against Cork than the League final speaks volumes about them. Once again they’ll be underdogs and that suits them.
Tipperary need to win this match more – they need to win a trophy again. They’ve been close to Kilkenny over the last couple of years but they haven’t closed the deal. They need to start sealing some deals.
Winning becomes a habit. Winning finals breeds more confidence. Look at Kilkenny last Sunday. You have it in the locker so that, when the pressure comes on, you can draw on it. You don’t think it at the time but it’s there. You know you’ve been down this road before and you’ve come through it. Tipp need to start experiencing that again.
Small percentages make the difference and not closing out big games when they should have has taken something from them.
If they don’t do it soon some of the players will probably suffer the consequences in that they’ll have to change things up.
That said, I feel they will have learned from the League semi-final and the need to be patient will be paramount.
Tipp’s skill level is something that’s quite natural to them. Their wrist work, movement, striking and anticipation of players in different positions is all top-class. They can do stuff so quickly, their touch is so good.
Take Richie Hogan in the Leinster final; three players around him and he’s still able to get the shot off and get it over the bar. Galway didn’t have that, that’s the difference. But Tipperary have.
Their defenders can all hurl well, they are all very comfortable on the ball and their forwards love space.
But Waterford will try not to give them that space, just as Kilkenny shut them down in the All-Ireland final replay.
How Tipp perform in such potential congestion is, I feel, the question that underpins this Munster final most.
Waterford’s faith in their own system must be unyielding by now after a nine-game unbeaten run, virtually the same players executing it week in, week out.
Derek McGrath will want them to remain compact, keep the bodies back and fill that space around the half-back line. Invite Tipperary in.
Can Tipp be patient enough in that environment, can they win the 50/50 balls, recycle efficiently and take some of that Waterford cover out of play? I feel they have the hurlers and the ball strikers throughout the team to win this game from the middle third.
In that sense no one is going to have to be more patient that Seamie Callanan. I’ve watched Tipperary county finals on TG4 where he has been simply breathtaking and he’s fulfilling that potential now.
Waterford’s attacking game plan is predicated on getting support up quickly to Maurice Shanahan and Stephen Bennett across the last line. The demands on players like Moran and Dunford is quite incredible but it was a run from Dunford in the Munster semi-final against Cork that I feel turned the game their way. They didn’t score from it but you got the sense from it that they said to themselves, ‘Yes, this is the way we have to go about it’.
It seems strange to be going against a team that hasn’t lost a game all year and continues to improve but, for me, Tipperary have the long- and short-range marksmen to play it either way.
McGrath's return to attack gives Banner edge in seismic showdown
Cork and Clare’s repeat of the 2013 All-Ireland finals is, arguably, of greater significance to the hurling season overall than any other game this weekend. Defeat won’t sit easily in either county.
Cork hurled really well in the first half against Wexford, which they needed to after back-to-back defeats to Waterford.
Everyone is talking about the momentum Clare are going to build, and this is the first real test of that.
They are a team that seems to feed off momentum and this is shaping like a potential catalyst.
Conor McGrath’s return from injury and the restoration of Darach Honan may just give them an edge in attack over Cork.
Michael Carton’s defection from Dublin earlier this week was a surprise. You don’t need those things at this time of year, and it points to a camp that is maybe just a little unsettled, something Limerick might just exploit.
A word about Kilkenny last weekend. They took a lot of belts, a lot of hits and were put under a lot of pressure by Galway, but the character and hunger they showed to pull away – in the absence of Richie Power and Michael Fennelly – was just immense.
I have to single out TJ Reid for his contribution, not just the scores he took but those he laid on for Walter Walsh and Eoin Larkin late in the game.
That’s the leadership every manager will be looking for on what should be a glorious weekend of hurling in Thurles, one I’m really looking forward to.