Defeat won't mean an end to summer
Last week I would have had no problem going for Tipperary, this week it's a harder call to make
This afternoon's clash between Tipperary and Cork in Thurles, with all due respect to Dublin and Wexford, is the game that launches the hurling championship.
Considering that this is arguably the biggest traditional rivalry in the game, has there ever been as little talk, hype or expectation in the week before they meet? Clare and Waterford's headline-grabbing exploits in the league final may partly account for it, but it's as if the hurling public has chosen to dismiss them as contenders and ignore the fact that Cork in 2014 and Tipperary last year were Munster champions.
And don't forget that Cork in 2013 and Tipperary in 2014 were literally a puck of the ball away from being All-Ireland champions.
New management teams, changed playing styles and league campaigns that provided more questions than answers may explain it, but it seems that no-one outside of those involved directly in the two camps is fully sure of what to expect this afternoon.
Talking to some of the locals at the recent league final, what struck me was how low key the build-up and how wary the general mood in Tipperary seems to be. That's a reflection of the uncertainty that surrounds their own side - and their lack of form - as much as the doubt about just what Cork are going to bring.
Over the last couple of years, I think there's been a feeling in Tipp, certainly in Kilkenny and probably in Waterford as well, that when it really came down to it, they had Cork's number. There's no getting away from it. As brilliant as they could be on a given day, Cork just seemed to lack that hard edge, that killer instinct, or that ability to tough it out when things weren't going according to plan.
There was no better illustration of that than in the All-Ireland semi-final two years ago when the sides last met in the championship. Going in as Munster champions, and with the experience of losing the previous year's final to drive them on, Cork simply had no answer's when Tipp rattled them early, and never looked like recovering.
While their half-forward line hasn't been blameless, it's Cork's defence that stands indicted as their Achilles heel over the last three years. The stats in this year's league confirmed as much. No team, in any division, conceded more scores - 9-118 - in their first five matches. With Diarmuid O Sullivan and Pat Hartnett in the backroom team - two physically abrasive defenders to say the least - that's something that couldn't have sat well with the new Cork management.
It's no surprise therefore, that there appears to have been a clear emphasis on getting their defensive structure sorted, and making themselves a lot harder to break down. While the league campaign was a disappointment, going to Salthill in the relegation play-off and coming away with a win to retain their Division 1A status was a hugely positive way to end it. Keeping a clean sheet in the process, pivotal to the outcome, offered reassurance that if they defend properly and keep the goals out, they have enough firepower at the other end to trouble anybody.
By all accounts, they've trained ferociously hard, and while the injured Stephen McDonnell is definitely a loss, it's a strong-looking team on paper that should have Cork supporters travelling with significantly more hope than would have been the case a couple of months ago.
With Mark Ellis and Christopher Joyce occupying the central defensive positions, Cork's spine looks adequate. William Egan appears the likely sweeper, and Cork know that stopping Seamus Callanan will go a long way towards winning this match. If Egan does his job properly, he'll be parked in front of Callanan all day. Cork will drop plenty of bodies into midfield, and trust that Seamus Harnedy can win enough ball further up as the focal point of the attack.
The set-up may not yield too many goals, but because that was something they struggled to do playing in a more orthodox manner anyway, they lose nothing from it.
What this side has repeatedly shown is the ability to hit points from play, and plenty of them, including from distance. Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan will need to bring their shooting boots, but if they and Harnedy fire and play to their potential, calling the outcome of this game becomes a lot trickier.
To say that Tipp's league campaign was topsy-turvy is an understatement. I saw more of them in action than any other side, but much like Clare in 2014 and 2015, they were losing the type of matches that they really should have been winning. They had the chances to beat Kilkenny, Galway and Waterford, yet came away with just a solitary point from those three games. Missed frees cost them dearly against Clare in the quarter-final, and another eminently winnable game was allowed to slip away.
In such circumstances, their confidence is bound to have taken a hit, but at least they were creating the chances. To me there was nothing in those performances that couldn't be fixed, and I think their stock is currently undervalued.
Obviously reports that neither Callanan, nor 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer have fully rediscovered their best form is a concern, but at least in John McGrath, Tipp have found another finisher par excellence, capable of picking up some of that slack.
Of course, how Tipp go about breaking Cork down requires some thought and analysis. In the earlier rounds of the league, they were far more direct than had been the case under Eamon O'Shea. However, with the skill level and hurlers they have, the more cerebral, accurate stick-passing style they're accustomed to arguably suits them better. Tactically, with the defensive strategy they're likely to encounter today, going long all the time would be folly anyway.
Michael Ryan will want to put his own stamp on the team and while that may mean a more physical and direct approach, it would be foolish for Tipp to completely forget who they are and what they've been good at.
It won't have been lost on Ryan either that while Tipp showed the required patience to beat Waterford in the tight, claustrophobic affair that was last year's Munster final, it was the open shoot-out they engaged in with Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final that they lost. A tighter, lower-scoring tactical game may play into their hands every bit as much as Cork's, with neither side as gung-ho in their approach as might have been the case had they met a year ago when O'Shea and JBM were still in charge.
Forecasting this game a week ago, I'd definitely have plumped for Tipp. At home in Thurles and forewarned as they are of what Cork are coming with, I'd have backed them to get through. But seeing the teams announced on Friday night has clouded things.
Tipp have three debutants and while Michael Breen was outstanding at times during the league, he made no impact against Clare when the pace went up and was completely peripheral in last year's Munster final, meaning it's a big test for him as well.
Pushed to call it - Brendan Maher can get on top at midfield and my belief that, regardless of form, Tipp still probably have more potential match-winners up front, which leads me to think they'll just about squeeze home.
The irony is the loser may arguably end up with the easier path and the opportunity to build momentum through the qualifiers. Defeat today so for Cork, but by no means a season-ending scenario.
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