Jamesie O'Connor: Tipp's strength and better bench should be enough to withstand Galway onslaught
Galway will bring enough physicality to ensure today's big game goes the distance
If someone told you walking out of the drawn All-Ireland hurling final in 2012 that it would take Galway three years just to make it back to a semi-final, would you have believed them? Could you even imagine it?
They had given the performance of the year to blow Kilkenny away in the Leinster final, and it took a huge Henry Shefflin-inspired display to deny them outright victory in the All-Ireland final.
Admittedly, Kilkenny had their number in the replay, but in Anthony Cunningham's first year in charge, they appeared to have taken a huge step forward.
Invaluable experience had been gained, and having been within touching distance of the holy grail, you assumed the drive and hunger would be there for the players to go one better the following year. Equally importantly, the age profile of the side looked perfect. Half of the starting 15 were aged 24 or under. Only captain, Fergal Moore, and corner-forward, Damien Hayes, were on the wrong side of 30, and barely so at that.
On top of that, Galway had an All-Ireland-winning minor team from the previous year to draw on; a side that saw off a Clare team featuring Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin and Shane O'Donnell in the semi-final. Jonathan Glynn and Pádraig Brehony were already part of the senior panel, and Glynn actually came off the bench in the replay.
Others on that team included Jason Flynn, Pádraig Mannion and John Hanbury, all of whom start today, so the talent appeared to be there. What was there not to be optimistic about?
Somehow, somewhere, though, the train got derailed, and two bitterly disappointing years have passed. However, the optimism of 2012 is back, and Galway supporters travelling today do so with a degree of confidence we haven't seen in some time. That's based on what they have seen so far, because the side has shown steady improvement as the summer has progressed.
While Tipperary have just two games played, and Kilkenny are in the final with three, Galway already have five championship matches under their belts. With a number of newcomers in the side, it's an added bonus that two of those games have been in Croke Park. It also means Anthony Cunningham has been able to identify and settle on his best starting 15.
So far, 22 players have seen action, but the core of the side hasn't changed, and there's been a continuity of selection we haven't always associated with Galway teams in the past.
If they were a touch fortuitous to get a draw in their opening match with Dublin, they always looked the team with the greater scope to compete with the better sides. They were far more judicious with their use of the ball in the replay. On limited possession, their inside forwards had shown glimpses of what they were capable of.
That rendered much of the aimless shooting those further out the field were guilty of engaging in on that opening afternoon all the more unforgivable. But those lessons were learned, and the talents of Cathal Mannion, Jason Flynn and Joe Canning were better utilised a week later.
The full-forward line saw plenty of the ball, good ball at that, especially in a wind-assisted first half, and the results were devastating. Early goals from Mannion, and a combined 5-8 from play from that triumvirate did all the damage.
Laois were put to the sword equally impressively a fortnight later, but as ever the Leinster final with Kilkenny was always going to be the true gauge of their All-Ireland credentials.
While there were positives to take out of the game, Kilkenny still had seven points to spare. Galway's two goals, scored either side of half-time, couldn't have come at more opportune times, but they failed to kick on when the game was there to be won. Not enough of their players were able to match the intensity Kilkenny brought, which was highlighted by the number of times they were turned over coming out of defence.
They struggled to get Mannion, in particular, and Flynn on the ball, so despite being level with half-an-hour to go, it's no surprise they were outscored to the extent they were - 12 points to five - from then to the final whistle.
In fairness to Anthony Cunningham, the glass was very much half-full in the aftermath. Telling Brian Cody he would see him in the final indicated as much, and his belief that Galway were better than what they showed, and a lot closer to Kilkenny than the result implied. More importantly, his players backed that up with a really impressive win in the quarter-final three weeks ago.
Even allowing for the opposition, it was a far more aggressive and forceful display, and they took the fight to Cork from the off. To hit 2-28, shooting 23 wides in the process, against a team playing a seventh defender, sent a clear message to Tipperary that the Tribesmen have the guns if it comes to a shootout.
Yes, Cork were poor, but the movement of the Galway forwards was still excellent and deploying Mannion, Flynn and Canning out the field to evade the clutches of the sweeper proved a masterstroke. The 11 scores they contributed from play, could have been closer to 20 if Canning's radar hadn't been off, and with young Conor Whelan looking like a further upgrade, plus the ball-winning ability of Glynn and Cyril Donnellan, it's as good a forward line as Galway have had since the manager's own playing days.
Glynn's form especially, not to mind the damage he caused in the qualifier loss to Tipp last year, will have given Eamon O'Shea plenty to ponder.
If there are no doubts about the attack's ability to post a winning total, question marks still remain however, further back. In fairness, Colm Callanan has been soundness personified between the posts; Pádraig Mannion has been the find of the year, and Dáithí Burke has made a huge difference since returning from injury.
John Hanbury and Johnny Coen have been solid if not spectacular, but Iarla Tannian's form has been patchy, and I'm not convinced he's the answer at centre-back. As a unit, they struggled at times to handle the movement of the Kilkenny forwards. O'Shea has had time to analyse where the space was created and how he can exploit it.
While people have latched on to the 15-minute spell after half-time in the Limerick match when Tipperary didn't score, the reality is they still went into the Gaelic Grounds, never an easy place to go to, and came away with a 16-point victory. The Munster final performance wasn't as impressive, but the way Waterford set up always meant it was going to be a dogfight and they ground it out. There was certainly no disputing the merit of their win, and they are deserved favourites this afternoon.
But that counts for nothing. Living and working in Galway, O'Shea knows the scale of the challenge facing them. The hurt remains, from that qualifier defeat last July, particularly the manner of Galway's collapse in the last quarter to blow what looked like a match-winning position.
Tipp have been in Galway's sights ever since. They will bring a physicality and level of aggression that Tipp need to be ready for. I heard Eoin Kelly say last week that O'Shea was always up for the games with Galway.
His record against them - seven wins and only one defeat in nine competitive fixtures - is a testament to that. Clarenbridge's Michael Donoghue is also part of the backroom team, so they will be acutely aware of the mood around the county. I'll be shocked if Tipp aren't ready for whatever Galway throw at them.
How Tipperary set up to counteract the threat Galway bring is another fascinating aspect. It's not in the manager's nature to play defensively, but he has used Pádraic Maher as a sweeper to telling effect - with just one goal conceded - and I'm not sure they'll go away from it. With Canning or possibly Glynn on the edge of the square, there's a strong argument for having an extra body at the back, and Maher is no ordinary sweeper.
His switch to centre-back last summer was every bit as important as Seamus Callanan's contribution at the other end in turning the match Tipp's way. He dominated that area, and to give him the freedom to do so again, with no one marking him, is something Anthony Cunningham surely won't countenance.
At the same time, pushing an extra body forward leaves more space at the back for Callanan and John O'Dwyer to exploit, and it might suit Galway to have an insurance policy of their own.
Tipperary also knew before the Munster final that, with sweepers at either end, the match would ultimately come down to who had the better set of forwards. That's a riskier game to play against Galway. On that basis, Tipp may elect to go 15 on 15, which would have us licking our lips at the prospect of the shoot-out that could ensue.
But when it comes down to it, I think Tipperary are the side better equipped defensively to deal with the threat the opposition attack brings. It's a huge boost to have Noel McGrath back fit and healthy and, with Lar Corbett reportedly flying in training, Tipperary have the better players to spring from the bench. That could make the difference in a game likely to go the distance.
Ultimately, I think Tipperary will join Kilkenny in the final.
Sunday Indo Sport