Victory over Kilkenny proves launch-pad for tilt at league title, writes Martin Breheny
AS Tipperary seek to book a place in the Allianz Hurling League final for the first time since 2009, the landscape looks decidedly different to the bleak night in late February when they gave Cork a 15-point start in Pairc Ui Rinn before eventually losing by 12 points.
It was their first significant test under Eamon O'Shea, who was as mystified as everybody else as to what had caused the collapse.
"A lot of our players are five years on the go and we've got to come up with something different. That's quite clear," he said afterwards.
Tipperary had been beaten across every line and as they headed for home that night, their minds must have been full of doubts, especially since they were compounded by the memory of last year's All-Ireland semi-final demolition by Kilkenny. It meant that when the total scores from their last championship game of 2012 and their first league game of 2013 were combined, the deficit stood at 30 points (4-50 to 2-26).
Worse still, defeats were inflicted by their two greatest rivals, Kilkenny and Cork. It left an awful lot riding on their second league game, at home to Kilkenny and they duly delivered, winning by two points. Their season had taken off and while they suffered one further setback against Waterford, their easy wins over Galway and Clare hinted at capacity levels which are capable of taking them on some interesting adventures this year.
In-form midfielder Brendan Maher was keen to play things down this week, claiming that Kilkenny and Galway were the top two, with Tipperary in the chasing pack. Nobody disputes Kilkenny's right to be No 1 but a poll among hurling neutrals would probably lean towards Tipperary for the second spot.
They have beaten Galway quite often in recent years, the latest victory coming last month when they won by 11 points in Pearse Stadium on a day when they scored 4-22. They have averaged 2-17 per game in five league outings, taking their total to 10-85.
That's 16 points better than Kilkenny and 23 points ahead of Galway, both of whom have prolific forward lines. It's a significant advantage, one which will please O'Shea as he works on releasing ever more power among his strike force.
O'Shea has also been keen to peddle the line that Kilkenny and Galway are well ahead of the rest, although there has been no evidence to support that theory so far this year.
"The top two teams by a country mile are Galway and Kilkenny. That's what the statistics are telling us. Therefore, if you're trying to get up to a level, you measure yourself against the best teams in the country and those are the best," he said after Tipperary hit Clare for 3-19 in their last league game.
That's not borne out by Tipperary's performances against Kilkenny and Galway, and it's now highly likely that they will get a chance to test themselves against one of the so-called 'Big Two' again in the league final on Sunday fortnight. For while Dublin have stabilised this season, they are now facing a big step up after operating in the less intense surrounds of Division 1B.
Dublin ran a good defensive campaign in the lower grouping but will find it altogether different against the likes of Lar Corbett, Noel McGrath and Shane Bourke. There has been a real swagger in Tipperary's play as they manoeuvred themselves into contention to win the league for the first time since 2008. They are 5/4 favourites to win the title, and while much of that is down to the perception that they are on the easier side of the semi-final draw, their form on their better days this spring has been ahead of anything shown by Kilkenny or Galway.
They have improved substantially since trailing Cork by 0-17 to 0-2 after 46 minutes of the opening game, and all the signs are there's a whole lot more to come as O'Shea winds them up for the big championship charge.