Tipping the balance in favour of a repeat of last year's epic showdown
Jamesie O'Connor believes Tipperary are the side best equipped to challenge Kilkenny's dominance
A week is a long time in politics. It can also be a long time in sport. Last Sunday, with only three minutes left on the clock and a two-point deficit to overcome, all the negativity and doubts that had been expressed about the Tipperary team in the last two months, looked like being confirmed.
To be fair, those who have studied the form throughout the summer were entitled to express those sentiments. The form that propelled them to the brink of an All-Ireland last September didn't look as if it had been fully retained. Neither could you say that the weaknesses in the team, especially in the half-forward line, had been fully addressed. Nor was the fluency and confidence of an attack that carved its way through opposition defences time and again last summer evident in their play
And there were plenty of naysayers, especially within Tipperary, all too ready to write this team's obituary. A crazy situation given the talent they possess.
A week later, on the back of what was a massive win in Croke Park, and with the Munster under 21 title also bagged after an excellent display to dethrone All-Ireland champions Clare on Wednesday night, the prognosis for the Premier is considerably stronger.
At senior level, while there's a healthy scattering of experience, it's still essentially a very young team. Five of the side that started against Galway were also in battle midweek, and outside of the three Mahers, Mickey Cahill and Noel McGrath, the three other senior panelists, Seamus Hennessy, Michael Heffernan and Brian O'Meara, all underlined their credentials by playing really well in the under 21 match. Clare mightn't have been as strong as last year, but the slickness of Tipp's hurling was seriously impressive and their future looks brighter than just about anybody else's.
In terms of the bigger picture, it was probably the right result last Sunday. Tipp were the better team, and should never have found themselves in the position they were in. They wiped Galway out under their own puck-out, and in the second half when they looked like taking over, twice contrived to let Galway back in by coughing up cheap scores. Both Paul Curran and Pádraig Maher would have had nightmares had they lost, given the apparent lack of danger that preceded the mistakes that led to both of Galway's second-half goals.
With Shane McGrath and the excellent Brendan Maher dominant at midfield and the half-back line on top until Kevin Hynes and Aonghus Callinan came in, Galway just couldn't get enough quality ball into Joe Canning and Damien Hayes. While the Tribesmen may point to the chances they missed at the death to nail Tipp's coffin shut, Tipp too had a surplus of bad wides when they should have been pulling away in that rollercoaster second half. Yet it was a game the Westerners could so easily have won.
The devastation evident on the faces of so many of the Galway players afterwards spoke volumes of their investment in the maroon jersey this year. Shane Kavanagh and Tony óg Regan were immense in the Galway defence, and along with some of the other longer serving players like Damien Joyce and Damien Hayes, looked to be inconsolable at the final whistle. The greater the commitment and sacrifice, the greater the pain, and it was clearly evident that this loss cut to the bone. The raw emotion displayed by John McIntyre in his post-match interview also highlighted what it meant to the Galway manager, even more so given he's a Tipperary man.
So after defeat in the quarter-finals in the last two years, two matches which could have been won, where do Galway go from here?
One priority has to be getting Joe Canning fully fit. If his groin injury requires an operation, then someone has to make the decision to act in his long-term best interests and ensure he has it done sooner rather than later. Unpalatable as it may seem to those accustomed to seeing Portumna in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day, probably the last thing Canning needs is another long club campaign. Given his Fitzgibbon, underage and club commitments in the past, a break from the game mightn't do him any harm and, more importantly, allow him get the injury cleared up. Furthermore, while his natural talent, raw strength and sheer brilliance is unquestioned, his physical conditioning is an issue which, as he matures, will need to be addressed.
The top players in the game are marked men. The ones who stay at the top are usually the ones who also work the hardest. Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, John Gardiner, Lar Corbett, Brick Walsh and the rest occupying that top echelon all possess the physique of top-class athletes. As long as Canning's injury persists, he can't subject himself to the physical regime required to ensure he's in the best shape possible to perform when the pressure and heat is at its greatest in the last 15 minutes of big matches.
Galway need Joe Canning at his very best and central to proceedings at the business end of the championship. What he can't afford is to allow himself to be pushed to the periphery of the big games, as has happened often this summer for a player of his calibre. The Galway management can't afford a malfunctioning midfield or half-forward line and thus a failure to supply him with the ball, which as much as anything else is what undid them this year.
Of the remaining contenders, Tipp still look the side best equipped to pose Kilkenny problems. They have pace, athleticism, hunger and, after last week, a growing confidence and belief that they're finally starting to hit their stride. While Waterford may yet have something to say about that, and there may also be one almighty kick left in the Rebels, it's looking more and more like a repeat of last year's final.