Outfighting a slick Waterford won't be easy
Tipperary will look to deadly duo to overcome in-form Déise outfit.
In the early days, the plan was centred on plugging holes in a leaky rearguard. Now, however, the mechanics of Waterford's hurling has become much more sophisticated.
It might look complex, and it's taken a while to master, but the first aim of Derek McGrath's style was to cut down on conceding goals. Last year, they let in 17 in six games. This year, they conceded three in their first six and just two more en route to winning the hurling league title. Incredible really.
Like the most effective systems in the game, the core principle is work rate. Waterford completely dismantled Cork by gobbling up loose ball, hunting in packs and darting forward in numbers. The middle sector of the field is their battleground; they drop their half-forwards back to row in with the midfielders, who themselves drop to help their half-back line.
Yes, they retreat and they defend like demons, but they also average 22 points and that's on top of about 15 wides per game. Unlike some teams in Gaelic football - not all - who cover themselves with a blanket, Waterford are putting up big scores and they're entertaining, too.
There is a huge onus on Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh to ensure this system gels - their craft and link play are key. So, too, are the hungry youngsters who cover the ground foraging for possession. It's an energy-sapping game they employ, but we saw against Cork the quality they boast on their bench, with the free-scoring Shane Bennett and Tom Devine crucial in this regard.
The silent assassin Tipperary have to look out for today is Colin Dunford, who ghosts in behind defences from deep time and again and has made a regular habit of being in the right place at the right time.
So far this year, Waterford had shut-outs in their wins against Laois, Antrim, Wexford, Galway and Cork and their defensive prowess has seen them compared to the Donegal footballers. They have baulked at that comparison, but maybe it's not a million miles away, as the Donegal class of 2015 are playing with more attacking focus.
The truth is that systems only work when a team is committed, in sync and super-fit. Donegal have those traits in abundance and Waterford have long since ticked the same boxes.
Ironically, though, the most impressive aspect of their play this season has been their hooking and blocking, traditional values within a set-up that is very much new to the game of hurling. They have also shown on more than one occasion - remember slow starts against Tipperary and Cork - that they have the composure to ride out a storm when it comes. Against Cork, Pa Cronin got five points and Tadhg de Búrca could have dropped his head, but he stayed tuned in and played a massive role as their most valuable defensive screen. He sweeps up a lot of possession, is good in the air and is a stopper, too.
Tipperary will have to match them in the crowded middle area and outfight them to gain a foothold in this final. That won't be easy. Not once have Waterford been outfought this year. Every side has fitness, strength and skill, but it's Waterford's teamwork that sets them apart.
So how do Tipperary set up against this in-form team, the only unbeaten side this year?
The first thing is Tipperary have their own way of setting up. They boast some of the best forwards in the game, especially Seamus Callanan and John O'Dwyer, but if they play any more than these two inside, it could be a waste of resources, given how Waterford line out defensively.
In recent weeks, Tipperary have played challenge matches and held training sessions with the Waterford test in mind. They could take a gamble and leave the dangerous duo inside on their own and play to the corners to take de Búrca out of the game. They could put Bonner Maher on de Búrca and lessen the number six's influence.
But despite the penetration problems they may endure, Tipperary probably have to take that chance and leave their two top men in and around the red zone. They are going to need goals and Callanan has become one of the most economical forwards in the game. O'Dwyer, too, has shown that when the ball is in his hands, there's a 90 per cent chance that it's arrowing over the bar.
The furthest Callanan will roam is to the left wing, and that's far enough for Tipp fans. Eamon O'Shea will surely position his captain Brendan Maher around midfield again and maybe even move him as deep as centre-back. That could allow Pádraic Maher to revert a little further and monitor the runs from deep that Waterford make. Maher's clearances will be crucial and he is well capable of finding the inside forwards.
Waterford won't make the mistake Limerick made by leaving Richie McCarthy on his own against Callanan, so Tipperary's link play will be vital if they want to find their main men in space.
In this regard, Jason Forde and Niall O'Meara, both unsung players, but hard workers, have a massive job this afternoon. They may not be as well-policed as the other marquee Tipp forwards, but that could mean they have more space. They have already started to make a name for themselves. By the end of the day's play, they should be looking to have their names up in lights.
Darren Gleeson is central to Tipp's chances. For 10 years, he has been the best goalkeeper in north Tipperary and his shot-stopping and booming puck-outs are the stuff of legend. Against Waterford, however, it could be his short pucks that unlock the opposition defence. He is usually pretty lethal in finding a man and he is unruffled if one or two go astray. The last time out against Limerick, he came into his own and his confidence should be high.
Tipperary can choose to run at Waterford, go around them or go over the top. We trust that they will rotate positions frequently in attack, try to pick off a few long-range scores. At home in Thurles, an early start is crucial as it might force Waterford to come out and play a little more. That would suit the hosts.
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