Cyril Farrell: Waterford's rapid rise will be checked but not choked
Who would have thought last February that of all the teams in the country, Waterford would be the only ones unbeaten heading towards mid-July?
It’s some achievement for a squad in transition and highlights what can be achieved if all the component parts are fitted together neatly. Of course, that can only be done if everyone buys into the plan.
You won’t find many in Waterford now who admit to being sceptical about (a) the squad Derek McGrath put together or (b) the playing system he devised as best suited to his own philosophy and the type of players available to him.
It was different at the start, with mutterings that he had made too many changes. Indeed, if it had backfired, he might not even have survived beyond this season – such are pressures of modern-day management.
Instead, Waterford are thriving and, by all appearances, have a lot more to come over the next few years. For now, though, I suspect they are headed for their first defeat of the year, but even if that does happen, it will be no more than a temporary setback.
They would still have a quarter-final to aim for and, rest assured, the winners of the qualifiers would be very wary of them.
The reason I back Tipperary to win tomorrow is this: they are more advanced in terms of team development than Waterford. Plus, they also have home comforts to call on.
Everyone will say that if a player can’t hurl in Semple Stadium, he can’t hurl anywhere. True, but it’s still Tipperary’s home ground. Their players know every blade of grass on the pitch for years. Also, they can head in as often as they like for training. Now, that’s a clear advantage.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Tipp than that. Their hurling during the better spells against Limerick was sublime. Limerick looked off the pace, but how much of that was down to Tipp’s excellence? Quite a lot, I reckon.
One concern Tipp will have is whether the full-back line holds solid. It won’t be man-to-man, since that’s not how Waterford play, but it can still be problematical, even if the opposition is outnumbered close to goal.
The Tipp half-backs, anchored superbly by Pádraic Maher, take a lot of pressure off their inside men. If I were Derek McGrath, I’d target Maher, making sure he has plenty to worry about. Apart from being a commanding figure in the centre, he’s good at making himself available to take popped passes and his deliveries are usually accurate.
With that in mind, I’d put ‘Brick’ Walsh on his case. Walsh is big and strong and reads the game well. He’s the ideal man to take the battle to Maher, engage him physically and make sure he’s never left free.
Maher is the key man in Tipp’s defensive half so if he’s kept busy dealing with a direct opponent, which can happen with Walsh, the channels towards Darren Gleeson’s goal could open up.
Waterford will, as ever, crowd the middle third but I still fancy the Tipperary forwards to get enough ball to run to run up a bigger score than Waterford will manage at the other end.
Tipp need to win more than Waterford, who are still in the developmental stage – that too could be a factor.
The winners and losers will still be in the All-Ireland race, unlike the losers of this evening’s qualifier games. They really are two fascinating clashes, with Cork v Clare, shading the intrigue stakes. The Cork attack was given far too much space by Wexford last Saturday and once that mistake was made, the likes of Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan were always going to exploit it.
Clare will make it a whole lot harder for them. Offaly were very poor last week, but it gave Clare a chance to settle down and get back in the winning groove.
I think they’ll win. One small point. They will be hoping for a better day with referee Barry Kelly than they had against Cork in the 2013 Munster semi-final. They got very few breaks from him on that occasion.
Limerick have more scope to be contenders
The one dead cert amid a sea of uncertainty swirling around Dublin and Limerick is that both are capable of a lot better than we have seen so far.
Basically then, this evening’s clash will be decided by whichever side comes closest to delivering at full capacity.
With the hangman’s noose around their necks in championship terms, you would expect both to raise their games to a level where they can be judged purely on their merits.
If both consign their earlier sloppiness to history, it will come down to which has the better credentials as top contenders.
I side with Limerick on that one. They ended up 16 points shy of Tipperary but the critical damage only came in the final quarter. Up to then, Limerick had hung on, despite not playing well. And, in fairness to them, few teams would have coped with Tipperary that day.
As for Dublin, they could easily be in the quarter-finals by now, having been caught on the line by Galway first time out. I doubt if they would have beaten Kilkenny but they would have been free of this evening’s dangerous terrain.
Ger Cunningham has been criticised for making changes but then it’s easy to hurl from the ditch with hindsight as your guide. He made changes because he felt he had to and while some didn’t work, it doesn’t make him all wrong.
He has been unlucky to be without Peter Kelly, a key defensive figure for a long time.
The criticisms will have a unifying effect on Dublin, who are still a very good side, although perhaps not as powerful as Limerick if TJ Ryan’s men get their game working.