Battle lines are drawn - breaking down where All Ireland hurling semi final will be won and lost
Other than 2013, I’m struggling to remember the last time the spectre of Kilkenny, and the anxiety they engendered, wasn’t looming large over the All-Ireland series. No disrespect, but that has to be liberating, especially for the Tipperary, Galway and Waterford players.
If Tipperary’s efforts were rewarded last year, they and the others have all paid their dues at the business end of the season. But their form isn’t at the level we saw last year, and with Kilkenny gone, opportunity knocks for whoever can find their form and momentum at the right time, just as Clare did four years ago.
Cork mightn’t see it that way, especially with their history and tradition, (and Waterford’s record is so good against Galway, they mightn’t either) but in terms of experience, forward talent and all round strength, the two best sides in the country face off against each other today. The paths of Tipperary and Galway were destined to cross at some point before the All-Ireland final. Once Tipperary fell to the Rebels in Munster back in May, and especially when Wexford knocked out the Cats, the odds against them meeting in August rather than September tumbled.
If you are a Galway or Tipperary player, you have to be thinking that this is the game. There has been nothing between them in the last three years — two outstanding semi-finals, and an epic qualifier in Thurles. The players themselves know how fine the margins are and just how tough and tight those games have been.
From a Galway perspective, and especially with the problems Tipperary appear to have at the back, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to play against Bubbles O’Dwyer, Seamus Callanan and Co in the championship; but perhaps it’s better for Galway to face them now, rather than in a month’s time in the final, when those issues may well have been remedied.
Tipperary attack v Galway defence
Having proven they can hold the Tipperary forwards once - restricting them to just 14 points, and only six from play in the league final - the blueprint is there for the Galway backs to do so again.
But there are some big caveats. Firstly, there was no Seamus Callanan, who missed the game through injury. Secondly, Bonnar Maher, not long back from army duties, only played a bit part as a second half substitute when the game was gone. If Callanan remains the key focal point of the Tipp attack, Bonnar is no less important and the balance of the team looks so much better when he wears the number 11 jersey.
He may not yet be back to his best, but there were signs against Clare that all the qualities he brings - winning possession, laying balls off to better placed colleagues, taking defenders on and generally making a nuisance of himself - are starting to come together. With another fortnight's training under his belt he will be better and because of what he's capable of engineering, has to be contained for Galway to win.
Thirdly, Tipp weren't remotely ready for the intensity, aggression and physicality Galway brought. The Tribesmen, and especially Daithí Burke (below), hit hard and often, laying down markers at every opportunity. The Tipp forwards won't have forgotten the way they were bullied, a point I'd be driving home at every opportunity if I was in the Tipp camp. It guarantees there'll be an extra edge today.
The Galway management had their homework done that day. They went man for man at the back and identified who would pick up who. Gearóid McInerney's size negated Stephen O'Brien's influence, Paul Killeen picked up Bubbles O'Dwyer which meant his lack of pace was never likely to be exploited. They got their match-ups right. With Bubbles replaced and John McGrath making no impact from play and having an off-day on the frees, Tipp showed none of the cutting edge we saw so much of last summer.
But that was then and this is now. Galway have lost Killeen to a cruciate injury and Tipp have Callanan and Bonnar back. Callanan, who almost single-handedly beat the Tribesmen in 2015 but who couldn't buy a score last year off Burke, has his own point to prove.
If stopping Callanan is vital, equally so is curbing the genius of John McGrath. With 2-2 and 0-6 from play in his last two games - he's rediscovered his form. That's ominous because most people still don't realise how good this guy is. He sees things most other players don't and if it's Adrian Tuohy who's handed the responsibility of marking him, it's the biggest test he'll have faced in his career.
If Galway have analysed Tipp, you can also be sure the Tipp management have their own ideas about how to open up this Galway defence. The teams they have faced so far (Dublin, Offaly and Wexford) don't have anything like the firepower or craft of this Tipperary attack, so they haven't really been tested. In two of those games, opposition tactics have meant they've had the security blanket of a sweeper, a role Aidan Harte plays really well. He won't have that luxury today.
If Galway go man for man, don't be surprised to see Callanan drifting out the field in an effort to get Burke away from the square. As a Galway supporter that would bother me. Tipp would love to get one of the half-backs isolated in the full-back position on someone like Bonnar. That's asking for trouble, so they've got to be sensible about how they react to what Tipp do. There isn't a defence in this championship capable of completely shutting this Tipp forward line down. Not with the players they have.
Galway couldn't contain them last year, even with Callanan misfiring, and I'm not sure they can contain them this year either. But a 'bend but don't break' philosophy - disciplined defending, everyone doing their job, tracking the runs and primarily denying Tipperary goals - could be good enough to get the job done, especially with the weapons Galway have of their own at the other end of the field.
Galway attack v Tipperary defence
As well as the Tipperary defence played last summer, Kilkenny still hit 2-20 in the final and even after losing Joe Canning, Galway amassed 2-18 in the semi-final. There's no argument: Tipp have slipped back defensively from where they were a year ago. While the half-backs are excellent coming forward and attacking the ball, cracks have appeared when they are turned. Seamus Kennedy has been inconsistent, Cork exposed Ronan Maher's lack of pace in particular and if Clare had looked to take on the Tipp half-backs more often, they had the potential to really expose them and get at their full-back line.
That's where the major issues lie. Cathal Barrett is obviously missed, especially considering his pace, but he won't be back. Donagh Maher, however, is still a capable replacement. The big conundrum is James Barry. He didn't play well against Cork, but clearly looked uncomfortable in the corner since being moved there and Michael Ryan's decision to name him at number three is still the correct one for me. He's probably their best option at full-back but there has to be doubts about his confidence.
Still, he's never let them down in Croke Park. In the left corner, Mickey Cahill has the experience, but the question is, does he still have the legs? Michael Ryan had to make changes because the full-back line that started against Clare would not have been good enough today.
The other issue concerns the number one jersey. It wasn't that Darragh Mooney was terrible against Clare, but given the uncertainty over the full-back line, the last thing they or Michael Ryan needed was an inexperienced goalkeeper behind them. Better the devil you know and because Darren Gleeson has a proven big match temperament it doesn't surprise me that he has been recalled.
If the form of the Tipp forwards has been excellent, Galway's hasn't been bad either. They have been racking up huge totals as well.
Conor Whelan is having a really good year, and the two Cooneys played as well as they ever have in a Galway jersey in the Leinster final. Their confidence should be high. After a poor first half, Niall Burke improved as that game went on and Jason Flynn will bring an injection of pace off the bench. Jonathon Glynn, and what he brings, is another super option to have in reserve that Galway didn't have last year.
If there's a worry, it's that two-thirds of their half-forward line, Joe Canning and Cathal Mannion (below), are coming back from injury. How fit are they? Is there 70 minutes in either of them given the pace this match is likely to be played at? The tactic of playing Mannion at wing forward on Pádraic Maher in the league final worked a treat. Tipp's captain remains the heartbeat of this team and minimising his impact by deliberately keeping the ball away from him makes sense.
Mannion's too accurate a shooter to be let go and roam free, but given Maher's importance, it's not in Tipp's interest to allow him become marginalised as he was that day. They'll have their own plans and match-ups in mind, but Galway are stacked with weapons.
Clare shot 18 wides, had a goal disallowed and butchered another couple of chances. Galway won't be as wasteful. Here is where this game will be won and lost for Tipp.
With the ball travelling as far as it does, the modern day midfielder can easily find the game passing them by. There were large parts of the Wexford and Clare games when David Burke and Brendan Maher, the senior midfield partners for Galway and Tipperary respectively, were virtually anonymous. In Burke's case, he had Lee Chin for company and my Leinster final half-time impression was that they'd cancelled each other out. That may have suited Galway more than Wexford, but while Chin struggled to make any real impact, even when moved, Burke's influence grew as the game progressed. He's a top player, and if I've criticised the lack of creativity or selflessness in the Galway attack, he's capable of compensating for it.
Beside him, Johnny Coen is a capable lieutenant, and his defensive instincts will help in tracking the runs Michael Breen will make from midfield. While Breen got six points from play against Cork at centre forward, it felt like they were the only six balls he hit in the match. He looks more comfortable at midfield and I think Tipp function better with him there and Bonnar at 11.
Brendan Maher's value to Tipp is in a more defensive role, which allows Breen the scope to get forward. It was noticeable that after Clare's second goal, he dropped deeper into the half-back line which allowed Ronan Maher the freedom to sit that little bit further back and shut down the space that Clare were profiting from. If his form has been patchy so far, he's still a massive player for Tipp, and the long range free he drove over the bar with a couple of minutes left in the quarter-final, just when the momentum was swinging Clare's way, was testament to his character. Brendan Maher may no longer wear the captain's armband, but in terms of leadership on the field he remains one of Michael Ryan's key generals. Burke came out on top in their individual battle last year and Maher won't want to allow that to happen again, especially with the quality of Burke's distribution.
That makes this one of the key individual contests that could decide the outcome.
The closer this game gets, the less certain I am about the result. If there was nothing between them a year ago, the case can certainly be made that Galway are better, while Tipperary, defensively at least, have regressed.
The flipside to that is that we don't really know how good Galway are, because they've yet to meet a side capable of posing the questions Tipp will ask this afternoon. They're also coming off a five-week break, something historically almost everyone outside of Kilkenny has struggled to come to terms with. Tipperary, on the other hand, have momentum, are battle hardened and their forwards are buzzing. They have also had another two weeks to sort out the problems in their full-back line.
True, Galway won pulling up in the League final, but does that bear any real relevance for the reasons mentioned earlier? If anything, Michael Ryan learned more from it and Tipperary will draw huge motivation - not from the result, but the manner of it and the beating Galway dished out.
After the epics of the last two years, we have no right to expect another and this could be a tight, tense and tetchy affair. But you can't ignore the fact that, there's so much quality in both forward lines, we could get another shoot-out. That's a prospect to savour.
Who wins? A hunch says Galway.
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