Wednesday 21 August 2019

John Mullane: 'Tipp's old guard are the stars but it's fresh blood that could topple Wexford'

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Liam Sheedy may be tempted to throw in the likes of Conor Bowe, who will be full of confidence after Tuesday’s Munster U-20 final win against Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Liam Sheedy may be tempted to throw in the likes of Conor Bowe, who will be full of confidence after Tuesday’s Munster U-20 final win against Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

John Mullane

The permutations of this year's All-Ireland hurling final pairing tell you all that you need to know about the excitement in store this weekend as the last four put it all on the line.

Could it be a Limerick/Wexford final, with the Treaty seeking revenge for 1996 or will we have an all-Munster final with Liam Sheedy's Tipperary looking for a shot at redemption after being humbled by the reigning champions Limerick last month?

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Will there be a first Kilkenny/Wexford final with Brian Cody looking to get one back on Davy Fitzgerald for their Leinster defeat, while Davy hopes to banish the scars of the 2008 final with Waterford when they last collided on the game's biggest occasion?

Or could we end up with something few thought possible - the deciding final in the Sheedy versus Cody trilogy with the Kilkenny boss hungry for revenge after the Premier ended their five-in-a-row dreams nine years ago? It's some weekend in store.

I was in Gorey on Thursday for a live edition of The Throw-In podcast and excitement has reached fever pitch in Wexford with everyone thinking that this is a glorious chance to reach their first final since 1996, and I have to agree.

It's the third semi-final meeting of Sheedy and Davy - with one win apiece - and this reminds me a lot of the 2008 clash between Tipp and Waterford when we were on our last legs but sensed an upset could be on the cards.

This time it's Sheedy waiting in the long grass to pounce and Tipp are a lot like our side back then. They come into the Wexford game on the back of below-par displays against Limerick and Laois but there may be one last kick in them.

They have big-game players all over the pitch and the know-how and big-game experience that could propel them to another All-Ireland final and cap what would be a sensational return to the helm for Tipperary's messiah.

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However, the Tipp team that beat us in the 2010 semi-final were primed for Liam MacCarthy and you get the feeling that Wexford are at the same stage of their project and are willing to do whatever it takes to get them over the line.

Davy will relish facing Tipp and he'll come with a detailed plan to exploit Tipp's weaknesses. Wexford will target a good start - like we achieved in '08 - and they could go for the Tipp full-back line. If they start well and get the 'Wexicans' behind them, they will be so dangerous.

One thing Davy will really have picked up on is Laois's decision to leave James Barry free to take the puck-outs from Brian Hogan and it was a position he didn't look comfortable in so that's something Sheedy will look to change up and possibly free up the likes of Ronan Maher to deliver the ball down field with greater accuracy.

Goals will be crucial and while Wexford have only averaged one green flag per game this summer, their mean defence has conceded just two goals in their five games so Tipp will know that they need to hit the net if they are to prevail.

When these sides met in the 2017 league semi-final, it was Tipp's five goals that blew Wexford away and it's something Tipp have done in the past against sweepers. Goals are the best way to dismantle that type of system and they tore Waterford to shreds in the 2016 Munster final.

Fireworks are expected if Cathal Barrett picks up Rory O'Connor, with both so influential for their teams, and if Barrett can curb the influence of the Wexford ace Tipp will be well on their way to victory as so much of what they do goes through the livewire O'Connor.

Wexford will need another big day from the key trio of Lee Chin, Conor McDonald and O'Connor and if these three perform the rest seem to follow suit, with Chin's free-taking imperative if they are to repeat their Leinster final heroics.

Tipp's forward division is frightening to watch when on form and Liam Ryan's duel with Seamus Callanan will be fascinating with both men on top of their game while Sheedy will surely have a plan to counteract the influence of Kevin Foley.

Foley has transformed Wexford's attacking and defensive systems with his ability to surge forward and assist on the scoreboard while also minding the house. It will be interesting to see if Sheedy decides to man-mark Foley and leave someone else free instead, while I would expect Brendan Maher to be the seventh defender at the other end having sampled the role against Laois.

While Tipperary's Munster U-20 success against Cork on Tuesday night was a huge lift, it poses a lot of big questions. Will Sheedy spring a few of those players - the likes of Craig Morgan, Jerome Cahill, Paddy Cadell or Conor Bowe - to provide the kick which Tipp need right now? Throwing in an unknown quantity who is full of confidence and full of running could be just the X-factor to freshen things up.

Sheedy gave Tipp a few days off after the Laois game to re-energise and he'll hope that John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer and John McGrath have rediscovered their mojo up front with a golden opportunity to make an All-Ireland final on their doorstep again.

Before watching that frenetic game earlier this week I thought Wexford might edge it, but that victory could help tip the balance and if Sheedy injects some fresh legs and regains the enthusiasm which they had in the early rounds of Munster then Tipp can prevail.

Appetisers don't get much better than a re-run of last year's epic All-Ireland quarter-final and it's equally as hard to confidently call a winner.

If Limerick repeat their Munster final performance they will prevail but anything below that and the Cats will get the sniff of blood and do a number on them. Unlike others, Kilkenny have the personnel to hurt Limerick and match them physically.

Cody knows the middle third is where Limerick win the majority of their games so that will be a battlefield and the game will be won or lost there with Kilkenny following the plan they used against Cork and flooding this area.

Limerick have been blowing teams away physically but they will meet their match tonight with the Cats and they will essentially mirror each other in how they play. It's going to take everything they have to get over Kilkenny.

It will be intriguing to see how John Kiely approaches the TJ Reid conundrum. Will they man-mark him like Cork did with Stephen McDonnell with a view to Declan Hannon sitting in the pocket as normal? Does Cody put Pádraig Walsh on Aaron Gillane from the off? Will Walter Walsh come in from the start? How will the rookie midfield of Richie Leahy and Conor Browne face up to the huge test against Cian Lynch and Will O'Donoghue?

You couldn't rule out extra-time in either game - and particularly in this clash - but my crystal ball tells me that my original prediction at the start of the year will come true with Tipp and Limerick colliding in the final.

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