Ryan's powerful army to roll over rebels
THIS weekend a year ago ended with Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy trying to figure out how the so-called second-best team in the land had played as if they had met for the first time on their way into Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
The Tipperary players were confused as to how the energy and enterprise which took them so close to Kilkenny in the 2009 All-Ireland final had disappeared, while supporters wondered if the high points of the previous year were no more than an illusion.
Nor were they especially considerate of how the players and Sheedy were feeling, with the manager, in particular, shipping so much criticism that you would think he had deliberately sabotaged the campaign.
A year on, Sheedy is a spectator, having presided over a season-defining turnaround; the players are trading high on confidence and the supporters are smiling contentedly while proclaiming: "sure we never really doubted the lads." Really?
Such are the changes that three months can bring. Indeed, an awful lot can happen in three minutes in a hurling game, something that Tipperary will very wary of in Semple Stadium tomorrow. It will also inject Cork with a real sense of optimism.
Cork's form since that 10-point win over Tipperary last May hasn't been anywhere near a level which suggests they can win tomorrow. In contrast, everything about Tipperary has been so impressive that it's impossible to make a coherent case as to why they should lose.
That is, of course, unless you believe -- and, in fairness, history supports this view -- that when Cork and Tipperary meet, just about anything can happen. However, if we stick with the evidence, everything points to a Tipperary win, albeit not by as convincing a margin as their 4/11 odds suggest.
It's unusual for All-Ireland champions to be heading into a new campaign with a change of management but it happened so seamlessly in Tipperary that's it's likely to have had minimum impact. Sheedy stepped down for personal reasons, and when it came to replacing him, Declan Ryan and Tommy Dunne were obvious choices.
They know the players extremely well and will, as much as is possible with any new regime, remain loyal to the style and philosophy which underpinned Tipperary's impressive advance under Sheedy.
Problems will only arise if they start missing beats, in which case comparisons between the new and old management will be made. But if Tipp get into their stride, then the management change won't be an issue.
Ultimately, players win All-Irelands, which is why supporters are enthused about the campaign ahead. Tipp's strength in depth is hugely impressive, as proven by the players they were able to bring off the bench to help in last year's restructured All-Ireland bid.
Paul Curran, John O'Brien, Shane Maher, Seamus Callanan, Pa Bourke, Seamus Hennessy and Benny Dunne were among those who came on as subs in the course of the campaign (some retained positions), underlining the extent of the available talent. It was later augmented by others from the very impressive U-21 side.
Led by the main bulk of the consistent starters, this comprises a powerful army to take into battle in pursuit of the All-Ireland double.
Cork aren't as lucky. Nobody would dispute their technical skills but they don't have the same breadth of talent as Tipperary.
On top of that, Denis Walsh had to make a call on whether to nudge some very experienced players down the queue. He has opted to go that route and it now remains to be seen if the balance is capable of holding up against such strong opposition.
It will need to if Cork are to have a chance of defying their 11/4 outsiders' rating. It's unfortunate for Cork that they will be without centre-back Ronan Curran, always a man for the big occasion.
However, it's further afield that their bigger problems may be more apparent. They have gone for Patrick Horgan (below), Paudie O'Sullivan and Luke O'Farrell in the full-forward line and while all are quick and skilful, it's not exactly the most physically forceful inside line in hurling. Presumably, they will be trying to use mobility as a destabilising weapon in the Tipperary defence.
Tipperary came unstuck as favourites against Cork last year but it's unlikely to happen again.
Tipp's rate of improvement has been phenomenal since then and that, coupled with the confidence that winning an All-Ireland brings, should ensure they get the job done efficiently.
DUBLIN TO GO UP ANOTHER LEVEL
OFFALY in familiar mode as underdogs -- Dublin in brand new territory as hot favourites.
It adds to the intrigue of tomorrow's clash in Croke Park, a game that has taken on a whole new dimension following Dublin's outstanding league campaign.
The Dubs will feel they should win, but also know that Offaly have always been a summer team. The latest example of that came against Galway last year when they were unlucky not to win the drawn Leinster semi-final.
Dublin play a direct, running game, with their physically strong players taking on the opposition, accompanied by runners on the overlap. They build up a powerful force, so I'd expect Offaly to work on moving the ball quickly, constantly changing the point of impact in a hit-and-whip style.
Dublin should cope with their new-found status as favourites. I'd also expect Offaly to cause them problems but, on the basis of everything we've seen this year, it's Dublin to build another layer on an already fine season.
MODEL MEN CAN KEEP PEP IN STEP
WEXFORD won't -- or can't -- admit it at this stage, but the prospect of hosting Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final will have been at the back of their minds ever since the championship draws were made last October.
Nothing wrong with that provided they maintain a tight focus on the means of reaching that attractive target. Antrim have some handy forwards, led by Neil McManus, but aren't as solid defensively as they would like. That's an area Wexford will be hoping to exploit.
There's pep in Wexford's step after a good finish to the league and with home advantage to further boost them, they should clinch that Kilkenny deal.