Rachel Wyse: O'Shea points Tipp in the right direction
In what is a big week for Tipperary hurling, their manager Eamon O'Shea has certainly got one thing right. He was quoted as saying this year's All-Ireland Hurling Championship is extremely open.
He elaborated to suggest that nine teams may well be in the frame for ultimate glory. Nine genuine All-Ireland contenders may be fanciful, but there are plenty in with a shout.
What a difference a year remakes. Twelve months ago, the majority of hurling enthusiasts expected another chapter in the Tipperary and Kilkenny dynasty. They duly delivered, but events conspired to deliver such an epic far earlier in the summer than we had foreseen.
The rapid demise of the two superpowers of recent times resulted in a championship that was laden with twists and turns.
Clare peaked at just the right time and ended 16 long years in the wilderness. As they struggled to maintain Division 1A status and required extra-time to see off Wexford in the qualifiers, Davy Fitzgerald's young team weren't obvious All-Ireland champions.
But as momentum and belief grew so too did their competence with Fitzgerald's preferred style of play. Their manager had very specific ideas on how he believed Clare's abilities could be best harnessed and his young men duly delivered when the dazzling lights of Corke Park on All-Ireland day would have blinded men of lesser substance.
They embraced their opportunity without ever hinting that the enormity of such an occasion was going to stifle their natural free-flowing abilities. In bringing Liam MacCarthy back to the land of Biddy Early, their modus operandi changed perceptions about inter-county hurling.
Fitzgerald's emphasis on speed and movement caught people's attention. Minds began to tick over, new questions needed to be answered. In some traditional strongholds, such development has had radical effects.
Just ask Kilkenny's Tommy Walsh. Emphasis has changed. Conversations now focus around players' capability to live in an environment where speed is the most valued commodity.
In some minds, the ferocious physical battles we witnessed in the finals of 2009 and 2010 have been devalued by the purity of last year's offering. The open, free-flowing hurling appealed to certain senses.
They declared it the best hurling championship for many years. And realistically, few saw it coming.
In this respect, making definite statements about what will unfold in the coming months is pure folly.
We know the superiority of Kilkenny has been eroded; the fear factor of the black-and-amber onslaught is gone.
Brian Cody's men prepare for another championship with the league title tucked away, but does the vulnerability we witnessed last year remain? Should they remain injury-free, it may not be as pronounced as 12 months ago, but the passing of time has lessened the powers of men who once lifted Kilkenny to such heights.
Those who have followed on Kilkenny's conveyor belt have yet to convince they are made of the same material.
O'Shea's reference to nine contenders was media-savvy – I reckon there are considerably fewer who have the potential to reach September.
Tomorrow in Thurles we will see one such team, those in blue and gold. Tipp are a work in progress. They are far from the finished article, as we witnessed in the league final. That day they had a naivety about them, a greenness.
But as O'Shea introduces new personnel, such scenarios are unavoidable. Slowly O'Shea is finalising a team with personnel who are beginning to play in a fashion associated with their coach.
In the latter stages of the league they were progressing from match to match and while a final defeat to the Cats was disappointing, I see no reason why Tipp won't carry substantial momentum into the Munster semi-final.
Their opponents are in a very different place. Having lost out on promotion to Division 1A, their preparation has been disrupted by a disagreement between the county board and joint-manager Donal O'Grady.
The Corkman's resignation left TJ Ryan in charge and just as he did in his playing days, Ryan will give everything for his county's cause. But the loss of O'Grady's know-how won't aid Limerick.
While Waterford proved last Sunday that you should not read too much into the league campaign, I believe Tipp will avenge last year's defeat at the hands of Limerick.
While Tipp appear to be headed in the right direction, events in Thurles last week suggest Cork, after significant development last year, have regressed.
They are fortunate to get another shot at Waterford, and had Cork faced a more experienced opponent, perhaps a nine-point deficit in the second half would have been unassailable.
Waterford's young talent gave their supporters plenty of reasons to look to the future with optimism.
Cork started slowly, but championship hurling isn't a time for excuses and they had due warning from their league encounter against Tipp about the perils of granting opposition an early lead.
It's possible the performance we saw last week is as good as Cork are – perhaps they were flattered by their run last year and maybe expectations are too high. Maybe they are simply over-rated.
Considering they were seconds from winning an All-Ireland until the intervention of Clare corner-back Domhnall O'Donovan, is there a message to be garnered about the standard of last year's finals?
There is no doubting the entertainment factor, but questions over the substance of the form remain.
With respect to Waterford, Cork did little to dispel such doubts last Sunday. Just as appearances were deceptive last year, I suspect the same will be said when we reflect on this hurling championship.
No doubt it's open, but not as open as some would have you believe.