Jamesie O'Connor: John O'Dwyer absence hands advantage to reinforced Deise
We mightn't be able to identify who's going to win the Tour de France after the first week's racing, but we have already established those who won't. Alberto Contador lost valuable time and Vincent Nibali's race already looks run. Their failure to avoid trouble, and steer clear of the crashes or incidents that can end your Tour before it begins, put two of the contenders on the back foot from the off.
Ultimately though, the Tour will be won and lost in the mountains, and we're approaching the equivalent stage in the hurling championship.
With Kilkenny flexing their muscles last weekend to steamroll Galway, they remain at the head of the peloton. As things stand Tipperary and Waterford look the likeliest challengers, and one of them can take a massive stride forward by winning this afternoon and booking their place in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Tipp have put both Cork and Limerick to the sword in emphatic fashion, which has led to a reappraisal of their All-Ireland credentials. The decision to announce Michael Ryan as Eamon O'Shea's successor a year in advance looks a shrewd move now. Not only has it guaranteed a degree of continuity and the stability a settled backroom brings, something Kilkenny can take for granted, but it's also allowed the manager to put his own stamp on things, within an already well established framework.
Tipp had definitely opted to play a more direct style in the earlier rounds of the league, but that has changed, and I imagine at the players' behest. I'm not sure the dressing room was entirely comfortable deviating too far away from many of the guiding principles O'Shea brought, with the emphasis on space, movement and creating goal-scoring opportunities. That's not ego-driven or anything like it. I think the leaders in the team genuinely believed that continuing to do a lot of the things they were already doing gives them the best chance of All-Ireland success.
With essentially the same people at the helm, and a core of seasoned veterans driving things, the channels of communication would have been considerably more open and receptive to that feedback than had a new management team been in place. This remains a collaborative process, and Tipp look very much like a team, with players and management alike collectively invested in it.
The most obvious area of improvement has been at the back. As former defenders, Ryan and coach Declan Fanning couldn't have been happy with the tally they shipped, or the way the team defended, against Galway in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Tipp have been downright miserly in comparison in Munster to date. Cork barely got into double digits, mustering just 13 points, and never looked like threatening Darren Gleeson's goal. Limerick's 1-16 tally flattered them, with the goal coming in stoppage-time when the result was beyond doubt, and that was after Tipp played much of the match with 14 men.
The changes in personnel, with more legs and athleticism now in the middle third, and consistency of selection at the back have both helped. But collectively, I think the team is working harder, and that's made them a lot tougher to break down. The relocation of Brendan Maher to midfield, his best position I think, has also been a factor, because not only are his defensive instincts excellent, but the quality of his distribution going forward makes life a lot easier for Tipp's inside forwards.
With a full complement, Tipperary would deserve to be favourites this afternoon, but the suspension of John O'Dwyer deals a considerable blow to their chances. In a game where space is likely to be at a premium, his ability to operate and conjure scores in tight windows, and from distance, will be missed. That means more of Waterford's attention is likely to be focused on stopping Seamas Callanan, who has picked up where he left off last year, and Noel McGrath, who hit four from play against Limerick.
Waterford will also have to cope with John McGrath, who missed last year's final. While he hasn't yet lit it up on the scoring front, he has hardly wasted a ball either. Players like him who make good decisions in possession nine times out of ten are few and far between, and if anyone can be a difference maker for Tipp as the year goes on, it's likely to be him. The deft pass he played to brother Noel which created the third goal and effectively put the semi-final beyond Limerick, looked nothing at the time, but was the key to fashioning the chance and indicative of his innate hurling intelligence.
Waterford are almost certain to stick with their tried and tested system, so their defence will be a far tougher nut to crack. Tipperary had to show a lot of patience last year, and it was ultimately made easier by Waterford's limitations at the other end of the field. So that's where Derek McGrath knew most of the improvement would have to be made if Waterford were to progress to the level Kilkenny and Tipp are at.
On that score, I think they have closed that gap considerably. While neither Patrick Curran nor Shane Bennett played particularly well against Clare in the semi-final, they carried the attack in the league final and replay in the absence of Maurice Shanahan and Pauric Mahony. They are sure to be more influential this afternoon, and with that duo's development - and Mahony's return from injury - Waterford's attacking options are far stronger than 12 months ago. Factor in too that Darragh Fives didn't start in last year's final through injury. His inclusion gives Derek McGrath the scope to push Austin Gleeson further up the field, without weakening the Waterford half-back line, and Gleeson showed against Clare what he's capable of doing in the opposition half of the field.
For all that, Waterford still lack the real cutting edge that Tipp possess when it comes to sensing when a goal-scoring opportunity is on. Tipp created three goal chances in the first half against Limerick and took all three. Given the conditions on the day, that was game effectively over. They also only shot four wides from open play, which tells you all you need to know about how economical they have been in possession.
While Shanahan profited from a Clare defensive lapse in the opening minutes to get a crucial goal, there were two other occasions either side of half-time when the opportunity to really bury Clare presented itself and Waterford didn't take it. The first came when Bennett failed to spot Curran in an acre of space in front of the Clare goal, having forced a turnover. The second came after half time, when again off another forced turnover, Gleeson elected to take the point, despite a three-on-two situation. A Tipp or Kilkenny player in the same situation would have kept going, drawn the man, and gone for the jugular.
The wide count was also into double digits against Clare, and to take the next step - Munster and All-Ireland titles - these are the inches, the small percentages, that Waterford need to find.
You can make a compelling argument for either side to win. It really is that close. True, Tipp's form has been excellent. But neither Cork nor Limerick came close to putting it up to Waterford in the league, which puts a question mark over how relevant that form really is. Forced to pick a winner, a hunch, and it's no more than that, says Waterford, in a game that I think will be worthy of the occasion.
Sunday Indo Sport