No horse sense writing off Tipp's All-Ireland chances
LIAM Sheedy heads for Semple Stadium today probably feeling like the trainer of a highly-rated horse who was leading coming to the last fence in the Aintree Grand National, only to hit the top, stumble on landing and be overtaken on the long run-in by a patiently ridden opponent.
Tipperary's gallant effort to unseat Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland final tucked them in behind the champions in the 2010 betting but, as everybody with an interest in horses knows, finishing second can mean very little next time out. To continue the Aintree analogy, all the fences have to be jumped again so there's no point worrying if the horse that stumbled at the last will negotiate it better next time.
The first priority is to get there. In hindsight, maybe that was at the source of Tipperary's problem against Cork. I'm not suggesting Sheedy or his players were over-confident but there's no doubt they were regarded by their supporters as the heir apparent to Kilkenny.
It's never that simple. Every year is different and while it's encouraging to take momentum forward from the previous season, it guarantees nothing, as Tipperary have discovered.
So while Kilkenny head for another Leinster final, Tipperary are re-mounting in the qualifiers, having tipped over at the first fence this time. Now, the pendulum has swung against them and, listening to some of the gloomy talk coming from their supporters, you'd think it's all a lost cause.
It's not. Tipperary are still very much in the All-Ireland running. It would, at the very least, be a surprise if they didn't make the semi-final and once the likes of Tipp get into Croke Park in August, anything can happen.
They have reshaped the defence, with Padraic Maher -- last year's All Star full-back -- switching out to left half-back. Luckily for Tipperary they have another All Star to replace him at No 3, with 2007 winner in that position Declan Fanning dropping back from the half-back line. Both will be comfortable with the switches.
Wexford have a decent championship record against Tipperary but the odds are piled against them today. They could have done with a home draw instead of travelling to Thurles and, of course, they will be without captain and main free-taker, Diarmuid 'Gizzy' Lyng, who is suspended.
Wexford's pool of players is nowhere nearly as deep as some other counties so Lyng's absence is a huge loss. It's wrong that he's ruled out -- he should not have been sent off against Galway. Rules designed for football have been imposed on hurling, where they have no place.
There was nothing deliberate or malicious whatsoever in the foul for which Lyng was dismissed and while Croke Park's disciplinary authorities will say that's irrelevant, it shouldn't be. Boxes may be ticked by sending Lyng (and others) off for minor transgressions but how does it improve hurling?
How does the game benefit from sending Wexford to Thurles today for what is the most crucial game of their season without Lyng? Fine if he were guilty of a serious offence, but he wasn't. Even with Lyng it would be a major assignment for Wexford but, without him, it's difficult to see how they can match Tipperary for the full 70 minutes.
That's precisely the challenge facing Galway against Kilkenny tomorrow because any drop in tempo or concentration will scupper their chances.
If you were to pick the ideal scenario for a team heading into a clash with Kilkenny, then this is it for Galway. A progressive league campaign, which ended with the Division 1 title, followed by three games against Wexford and Offaly (replay) should leave them better primed than any team in Galway hurling history at this time of championship season. There were negatives from the games against Offaly but, on the plus side, the extra matches should bring them on quite a bit.
However, a number of jigsaw pieces must be pieced together by Galway if they are to win.
They need a minimum of three goals, with at least one coming early on, to have a real chance. As Galway and Waterford discovered last year, scoring three goals guarantees nothing against Kilkenny but it does give you a fighting chance.
Kilkenny's average score comes in around 28 points, so if you're to match that you simply have to get goals. Alternatively, the challenge is to seriously restrict Kilkenny's scoring flow, something that hasn't been achieved for a long time.
Galway defensive performances against Offaly doesn't point towards a shut-out of Henry Shefflin and company, so it's up to Joe Canning and his fellow hitmen to match Kilkenny's scoring rate at the other end.
Worryingly for Galway, they have been susceptible to the high ball dropped in on their full-back line, so you can expect an aerial bombardment by Kilkenny and I'd be surprised if Shefflin isn't posted close to the Galway goal once things settle down.
One of the problems for teams facing Kilkenny is they tend to be spooked by the sheer scale of what Cody's boys have achieved. They tend to look over their shoulders even when they get into a good position. Galway led Kilkenny by five points twice last year, yet ended up losing by four.
Full credit to Kilkenny for the revival, but you've got to ask to what degree it was facilitated by the confidence imbalance between the sides. After all, it wasn't as if Kilkenny blitzed them with goals -- they didn't score any in that period, but instead calmly slotted over 10 points.
Kilkenny believed, Galway didn't. But then Galway aren't the only ones to be snared by uncertainty against Kilkenny. However, Galway are one of the few teams who are capable of really stretching Kilkenny if they hit a good day, as they did in 2001 and 2005.
The big question for Kilkenny is whether they can maintain the incredible momentum they have built up since 2006. There was no evidence of a dip against Dublin but you never know on the day when things start to go wrong. After all, we're talking about human beings here, not machines.
Still, I can't think of any other county which would have managed to keep things as low-key if they were chasing the five-in-a-row. I can think of several counties who'd give the impression that they owned the game and the GAA if they were in a similar position.
Kilkenny's humility is one of their great strengths and has, no doubt, been a huge factor in their extended period of supremacy.
Will it last this year? One game at a time, but I'd expect them to win tomorrow, with Galway putting up a powerful resistance to leave them well primed for a second coming in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, it's qualifier time at Casement Park today, where Antrim will probably beat Carlow. Antrim ran Offaly close and while Carlow's improved enough to beat Laois, they just might come unstuck here.
A final word on Niall Rigney, who stood down as Laois manager this week. He did a good job with them, even if they lost to Carlow last Saturday and is in a position to answer 'yes' to the ultimate question for any departing manager -- did I leave the scene in better shape than I found it?