Tipp must be ready to meet higher level of intensity and savagery
Galway are wounded but Tipperary are finding form at the right time, says Jamesie O'Connor
I f there's a theory out there that the back-door system has devalued the provincial championships, you couldn't say the evidence was there to support it in Thurles last Saturday night.
The honesty of effort and level of endeavour shown by the players over what was a gruelling and attritional 90 minutes made for compelling viewing, even if as a spectacle it hardly endeared itself to the purists. The contrasting emotions shown by both sides when Brian Gavin finally blew the full-time whistle highlighted just what the Munster title, and the history that goes with it, still means to players in the province. The absolute despair and dejection on the faces of the Cork team was a stark contrast to the genuine elation shown by their Waterford counterparts and Cork will have a job picking themselves up for today.
Although the elusive Celtic Cross remains the medal the Waterford players still clearly crave, Munster titles are too hard won to be trivialised and with silverware now in the bag, the pressure is off and their year, regardless of how it ends, can be considered relatively successful.
The only other one of the six remaining teams that could arguably settle for their lot at this point in the season is Antrim.
It hardly required a crystal ball to forecast that Kilkenny, Waterford, Cork, Tipperary and Galway, the five best teams in the country, would still be standing come quarter-final stage today. But I don't think anybody expected the sixth and last spot to be filled by Antrim. Remember this was a side that finished sixth in Division 2, behind Clare, Wexford, Laois, Carlow and Westmeath, so in that context it's some achievement.
While Dinny Cahill in his previous tenure up north had appeared to treat the league with a measure of disdain, you still couldn't ignore the results or apparent lack of form they showed earlier in the season. All in all, they looked like a team going nowhere. But, coming from Tipperary, Cahill's focus was always going to be about getting the team prepared for the championship and ready to hurl in the summer.
Getting someone as respected as Cork's former physical trainer, Jerry Wallace, to join the backroom team was a stroke of genius in terms of the experience and knowledge he brings as well as the message it sent to the players. In addition, with the distances the management are travelling and the level of commitment that entails, the least they would have expected from the players in return was a performance on the field in the championship.
In fairness, they got that in their Leinster campaign opener with Offaly. Joe Dooley's side may have underestimated them, but Antrim did everything bar win the match. Had they got the outcome their efforts on the field probably deserved, it would have been the result of the championship. In the circumstances, having been seconds from tasting victory, Shane Dooley's last-gasp equaliser was a cruel blow and they were always going to struggle in extra-time.
But they've kicked on from there and shown a stubborn streak that's stood to them when games have been on the line. They had a big win in the Ulster final over an admittedly poor Down side. Getting Carlow at home was a bonus in their opening qualifier game but they still had to come from behind over opposition that are a lot better than people give them credit for, and the win last Saturday was a massive result.
Some have argued that Dublin blew it given they were six points up entering the last quarter, but Antrim kept their nerve and once they got the sniff of an upset were the ones who kicked on and won the game when it was still there for both teams.
The biggest difference, however, coming into today is that while Antrim had absolutely no fear of Dublin last weekend, and deep down would have felt they had every chance of turning them over, that's not a state of mind they're likely to be able to bring into today. In their heart of hearts, unless Dinny has worked a miracle, the Antrim players are unlikely to really believe they can pull it off.
Without that belief it's impossible to see them winning, as vulnerable and all as Cork are, because when the hard questions are asked, it's that belief and mental toughness that gets you through.
From a Cork perspective, they can consider themselves lucky it's Antrim and not one of the more established sides they are facing. The exertions of the last two weeks are bound to have taken a toll physically, especially the punishing nature of last week's game. Mentally as well the players have to be down, given the energy they expended and the knowledge that they were in sight of the winning line in the drawn match. And the prospect of an earlier than hoped for meeting with the grim reapers in black and amber in just a fortnight must also be somewhere in the back of their minds.
Yet, overcoming adversity is second nature to many in this group and the return to Croke Park may also help to galvanise them. Despite the injuries, the fatigue and the limitations in attack that Waterford exposed last weekend, Cork still operate in a higher stratosphere than Antrim, and will come through in the end.
While the second game has the potential to be a real thriller, the stakes are so high that it may well turn out to be a tense, tactical and claustrophobic affair. Having had three weeks to reflect and lick their wounds after the second-half mauling they got from Kilkenny in the Leinster final, there is bound to be a backlash from Galway this afternoon.
Being only three points down at half-time was a decent position to be in, but they were blown away in the second half, and the manner of the performance more than anything else must have hurt. The half-forward line failed to function, both midfielders were replaced and tactically they showed a lot of naivety, both in how they deployed their resources and the way they used the ball. It won't have escaped Tipp's notice too how they were cleaned out on their own puck-out.
Compounding matters is that Joe Canning's long-standing groin injury appears to be hampering him and without their talisman firing on all cylinders, Galway present a far less potent threat. The Tribesmen need to have him where he can be most effective and that's surely in his best position on the edge of the square, close to goal.
You would also wonder if taking the free-taking duties from him has affected his confidence. As a player, I felt that knocking over a couple of frees did no harm for your self-belief, especially on the days you were struggling to get into the game. Either way, Galway have to find a way to get him on the ball as often as possible.
Elsewhere in attack, only Damien Hayes has consistently delivered, but for him and Canning to prosper, the half-forward line has to provide a better supply than they managed three weeks ago.
While John McIntyre has wrung the changes in this sector, it's worrying from a Galway perspective that with Declan Fanning and Pádraig Maher on the two wings, Tipp have a half-back line capable of shutting the Galway puck-out down. Both David Young and Brendan Maher at midfield are defenders by trade, and are likely to sit deep, meaning space for the Galway attack is likely to be at a premium. Neither can I see Shane McGrath playing as an orthodox wing-forward and he's likely to drift out to the middle as well. If he does, it's likely to open up more space for the Tipp forwards and while they have yet to play with the fluency and confidence of last summer, there were signs against both Wexford and Offaly that they are starting to find their rhythm.
While Patrick Maher at centre-forward is still learning at this level, at least he now has a couple of games under his belt and both he and Gearóid Ryan on the wing are energetic and hard-working. Seamus Callanan's poor form meant he had to be dropped but he's a valuable asset to have on the bench and with a point to prove, well capable of making a decisive contribution if and when they spring him.
With McGrath, Corbett and Kelly in their inside line and all looking like they're starting to come good, Tipp have to fancy their chances of opening Galway up at the back.
From a Galway perspective, at least with David Burke back from suspension, Niall Healy and Kevin Hynes on the bench as well as John Lee, who for some strange reason continues to remain out in the cold, Galway have a full hand to play from, and that's a positive. But questions and doubts still remain, especially if Canning is contained.
As a team, this is as big a test, and of their character as much as anything else, that this Galway side have faced. While they have flattered to deceive, there can be no excuses now given the four competitive matches already under their belts in Leinster, plus the fact they have had an ideal three-week gap to prepare. All of which, coupled with their own expectations within the squad, puts them under added pressure to deliver.
This could well be Ollie Canning's last year, possibly his last game in a Galway jersey, so there's likely to be no shortage of emotion and adrenalin in the dressing room. Rightly, McIntyre will demand a level of intensity and savagery that they have yet to display this year in the championship, so there is bound to be a serious element of aggression and physicality in the early exchanges.
If Tipp weren't ready for and failed to match the ferocity and intensity Cork brought to Páirc Uí Chaoimh at the end of May, I don't expect them to be found wanting in that regard today.
While their stock has risen since the Cork defeat, on the back of Galway and Cork's failings as much as on anything they've done themselves, I still think they are the side best equipped to challenge the champions. With Canning alone you can't rule Galway out, but Tipp appear to be the side finding form at the right time. Provided they front up physically and meet whatever Galway throw at them head on, I think they will be a step closer this evening to a rematch with the champions in September.