Tipp's sub-plot saves the day
SWAP subs and we'll play you again. It's a thought that would have been prominent among Waterford supporters as they left Pairc Ui Chaoimh yesterday after watching Tipperary subs Eoin Kelly and Shane Bourke exert a match-winning influence.
Kelly and Bourke contributed 1-4 between them in the second half, which was in marked contrast to Waterford's subs, who made no impact.
Strength in depth is a key component of the Tipperary machine and it certainly made a difference yesterday. Kelly scored 0-3 (0-2 frees) and, equally importantly, raised the pressure on a Deise defence which gradually began to unravel.
That process was helped by Bourke's arrival as his poaching instincts took him into the right position to avail of an opportunity which presented itself when Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe batted down a long-range free from Kelly in the 54th minute.
Bourke reacted quickest and whipped the ball into the net for a goal which put Tipperary five points ahead and well on their way to retaining the title. Mind you, Waterford would had legitimate grounds for querying the free as it was unclear whether Brendan Maher was pushed or just slipped.
Referee Cathal McAllister gave the benefit of the doubt to Tipperary, a break which proved crucial. Momentum was already building their way and once they opened up a five-point lead, they protected it carefully for the next 15 minutes before extending it to seven points right at the end.
Tipp's task in the final quarter was made all the easier by Waterford's inaccuracy in open play and from placed balls. Maurice Shanahan, who had done well on frees in the first half, mislaid his target finder in the second half and eventually handed over to Kelly, only for him to miss a '65' late on.
Tony Browne and Seamus Prendergast also drove wide from scoreable position, while Kevin Moran hit a post with a long-range effort. It was all going against Waterford and, to compound their problems, they encountered Brendan Cummins at his imperious best on the few occasions they got in on the Tipperary goal.
Tipp outscored Waterford by 1-8 to 0-3 in the final 27 minutes, completing a victory which, in terms of longer term value, was much better than last year's seven-goal demolition.
Waterford have long since dispatched that horrible memory to the back of their minds and with their defensive structure much more reliable, Tipp were always going to have to work harder for their scores. Moran, Browne and 'Brick' Walsh formed a solid barrier in the half-back line while 'keeper O'Keeffe also did well.
Waterford started briskly, leading by 0-4 to 0-1 after eight minutes, with John Mullane and Shane Walsh prospering against a Tipperary full-back line whose credentials were questioned after recent games.
They looked to be heading for a difficult day but settled into the game and were very effective in the second half, especially Michael Cahill, who made a number of timely interventions.
John O'Brien was Tipp's main threat early on, helping himself to 1-2 in the first quarter, the goal coming in the 10th minute after he was put through by 'Bonner' Maher after a trademark burst through the defence. Tipperary held a three-point lead for much of the remainder of the half but Waterford finished strongly and were level (0-11 to 1-8) at half-time.
Tipperary had sent Kelly in for Pa Bourke in the 33rd minute, a move which brought huge rewards. It wasn't that Bourke was playing badly but Kelly's cuteness brought a new dimension to the attack.
"He has been going so well that we couldn't keep him on the bench too long," said Declan Ryan.
Lar Corbett's return for his first start since his self-imposed exile worked well, even if he didn't score. It wasn't that he didn't have chances, but he repeatedly opted to lay the ball off to a colleague when he could have pulled the trigger. Presumably, his predatory instincts will become more refined as the season progresses.
Just as they had done in the first half, Waterford made progress early in the second period, twice going into the lead before Tipp hit a match-turning spell which yielded 1-4 in 10 minutes.
It left Waterford with a challenge which they took on with commendable determination, only to have it undermined by poor shooting and questionable decision-making.
Still, they have plenty to work on and, as they proved in previous years when they came up short in Munster, they are well capable of rebuilding their All-Ireland challenge into something really substantial.
"We played some good hurling at times. The last 10 minutes of the first half we played as we wanted to. We got quick ball into the forwards which worked well for us. It's disappointing to lose, but we can take positives. We'll be back strong, fitter and faster," said Waterford manager Michael Ryan.
For Tipperary, it was the culmination of a solid provincial campaign where they racked up three wins with improved performances each time. They still appear to be playing very much within themselves, which is a highly satisfactory situation to take into the All-Ireland semi-final.
There is, of course, every chance that the August 19 showdown will be against Kilkenny, a possibility which, according to Declan Ryan, hadn't even registered prior to yesterday's game.
"Our only focus was on the Waterford game. It had to be because they showed what they're capable of," he said. "The lads will go back to their clubs for a while now and then we'll start focusing on the semi-final and whoever our opponents are."
They will do from a position of real strength. Ryan admitted that he wasn't happy with the manner in which Tipperary started both halves, but there was an awful lot to admire about the rest of their game.
There's a huge sense of energy coursing through the team, and with such a talented bench applying constant pressure for places, Ryan is playing with an exceptionally strong hand.
Waterford don't have the same resources, but they still have enough big-day performers to trouble the best. They did that for a long time yesterday, but once their accuracy deserted them in the second half, they were always heading for defeat against slicker opposition who still have plenty of areas where they can improve.
"We haven't played at our best so far," said Declan Ryan. Perhaps, but it was still good enough to rule Munster and head for Croke Park in a very positive frame of mind.
Scorers -- Tipperary: J O'Brien 1-3, S Bourke 1-1, E Kelly (2f), N McGrath 0-3 each, B O'Meara, P Bourke (2f) 0-2 each, Padraic Maher, S McGrath, M Cahill 0-1 each. Waterford: M Shanahan 0-8 (5f, 1'65'), J Mullane 0-3, S Walsh 0-2, Pauric Mahony, S Molumphy, E Kelly (f) 0-1 each.
Tipperary -- B Cummins 8; C O'Brien 6, P Curran 7, M Cahill 7; T Stapleton 7, C O'Mahony 7, Padraic Maher 8; B Maher 7, S McGrath 7; P Bourke 6, Patrick Maher 8, L Corbett 7; B O'Meara 7, J O'Brien 9, N McGrath 8. Subs: E Kelly 8 for Bourke (33), S Bourke 8 for O'Meara (51), D Maher for Stapleton (64), S Callanan for N McGrath (66).
Waterford -- S O'Keeffe 7; N Connors 7, L Lawlor 6, S Daniels 6; T Browne 7, M Walsh 7, K Moran 8; S Molumphy 7, Philip Mahony 6; M Shanahan 7, S Prendergast 7, Pauric Mahony 6; J Mullane 7, S Walsh 7, G O'Brien 5. Subs: E Kelly 5 for G O'Brien (45), P O'Brien 5 for Pauric Mahony (45), M O'Neill 5 for S Walsh (61), J Nagle for Browne (62).
Ref -- C McAllister (Cork)