Munster to go down to the wire
With the Leinster final pairing determined last night, an extraordinary Munster Championship gets a step closer to its denouement today. Six matches down, four left to play, and irrespective of what happens this afternoon, it looks like going all the way to the final whistle next weekend.
We always believed Munster was wide open, but just how exhilarating has been a revelation. Last weekend was just fantastic - drama, controversy, heroic effort - and two more draws.
I don't teach maths, but apparently there are 81 permutations still possible in Munster! Incredible. Here's one potential scenario. Three home wins and a draw. Tipp beat Clare and Limerick and Waterford draw today. Next Sunday, Clare beat Limerick, and Waterford beat Cork. That would leave all five teams finishing on four points. Crazy as it seems, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility.
The fact that Tipperary have yet to win a game heading into their fourth and final match this afternoon is one of the hardest aspects of all to get your head around.
Trying to analyse where Tipp are is very difficult. On one hand, they have shown incredible resilience and fortitude to claw back deficits in the last two matches. On the other, we have to wonder how they found themselves in those positions in the first place. For whatever reason, they've yet to put anything close to a 70-minute performance together. We have seen very little of the swagger and confidence they played with in 2016, and they are running out of time to find it.
Was there evidence in the second halves against Cork and Waterford that they were starting to find their rhythm? We certainly saw glimpses of the intricate movement and accurate stick passing that was their hallmark under Eamon O'Shea. But only fleeting glimpses, and a horrendous umpiring decision last Sunday saved their season.
A lot of Tipp's woes are down to the quality of service the inside forwards are getting. Bubbles O'Dwyer and Noel McGrath are dropped today, and in doing so Michael Ryan loses two accurate shooters - one from inside and one from outside - to gain the energy and work-rate the players coming in will bring. There's no great pace in the Tipp forward line, but there wasn't two years ago either. Normally, they beat you with sheer skill and class. That's all predicated though, on the right type of ball going in, angled to the forward's advantage; the type of ball they were so good at playing in front of Seamus Callanan in particular two years ago. This summer I'm seeing a more direct style, a lot of hit and hope stuff, with little sympathy for those trying to win it.
I'm not sure that's something that's fixable in a week. Nonetheless, in the familiar surrounds of Thurles, John McGrath, Callanan and Jason Forde remain a match-winning threat, as long as their team-mates get enough of the ball into their hands. Clare have conceded goals in their two matches that the opposition forwards didn't have to work particularly hard to create. That's a concern for Banner supporters. They have to defend better this afternoon than they did against Tipp in the quarter-final last summer.
What Clare have going for them is an equally potent-looking inside forward line. John Conlon created mayhem against Waterford when he went to the edge of the square, and that was after a stellar performance at number 11 against Cork. Either side of him, he has Shane O'Donnell, who Tipp couldn't stop last year, and Conor McGrath, who's brilliance I retain faith in, even if we've yet to see him produce it this summer.
Clare have picked Tony Kelly at centre-forward and David Reidy on the wing, both of whom will run all day, and if they can prevent the Mahers in the Tipp half-back line from wrestling control of the match, Clare have the legs and potential to run the Tipp defence ragged.
For whatever reason, Tipp's energy levels haven't been where they need to be. Coming off the bye week, and a really positive performance against Waterford, Clare's should be sky high. There are only so many times in a season a team can go to the well. Tipp have been there twice in the last fortnight. How much have they left in the tank?
Cathal Barrett and 'Bonner' Maher both gave them an infusion of energy off the bench in the second half last Sunday, without which the show was well and truly over. They both start today, but the three hard matches Tipp have played have to take their toll.
This is a defining game for this Clare team. The draw has favoured them and they'll never get a better chance to knock Tipp out of the championship. For these players, it's time to get back to Croke Park. I give them the nod to take a giant step in that direction.
If the goal that never was made all the headlines last weekend, the grace and magnanimity shown by both Pauric Mahony and Derek McGrath in their post-match interviews deserves to be applauded. I was in the Gaelic Grounds, and Waterford had every right to feel aggrieved. To put in that performance minus Tadhg de Burca, Darragh Fives, Barry Coughlan, Kevin Moran and Maurice Shanahan and only have one point to show for it was disheartening. That said, offered the draw boarding the bus in Waterford, McGrath would have taken it.
Mathematically, Waterford are still alive too. The margin for error is gone, though. Lose today and their season is over. That makes them dangerous opponents. Moran will be back, and with a week to recover, Shanahan may also be fit to play some part. Mahony and Austin Gleeson, who both missed the Clare match, will benefit from 70 championship minutes in their legs, as will the players who came in, such as DJ Foran and Stephen Roche.
With Limerick feeling really good about themselves and coming off the high of rescuing a point from the epic battle in Cork, this game has ambush written all over it. It's not John Kiely or the players' fault, but the hype is building in Limerick.
It's very easy in those circumstances to start dreaming of Croke Park and Munster finals. That's a potentially fatal mindset to have. This is a streetwise Waterford side, with big-game experience. They have a pair of shutdown corner-backs, a ball-winning half-back line that can negate one of Limerick's key strengths and ball winners in their own half-forward line.
Both sides have issues at full-back: Shane Fives definitely doesn't look comfortable there, but equally, Waterford's Tom Devine will cause problems at the other end for whoever Limerick deploy to mark him. It'll also be interesting to see if Waterford revert to the sweeper or go 15 on 15 as they did last Sunday.
I don't think there'll be a whole lot in this. The home team has yet to be beaten in this year's Munster championship. I've tipped that record to fall in Thurles. Two home defeats would be stretching it. Limerick, after a scare, to survive.
Sunday Indo Sport