Ryan backing Tipp to land rare double
Tipperary are poised to hit a target missed for nearly 30 years by all except Kilkenny, according to a man who is uniquely placed to assess the four Allianz Hurling League semi-finalists.
Offaly manager Kevin Ryan, who saw his side lose to Galway, Limerick, Wexford and Tipperary over the last two months, believes that the All-Ireland champions will collect the Division 1 title, prior to setting out on their attempt to become the first Premier team since 1965 to retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
"There's an awful about Tipperary to be impressed about. They look to be very determined to win this league. I think they're a bit ahead of the others," said Ryan.
Other than Kilkenny, who have done it several times, no All-Ireland champions since Galway (1988) have won the league in the following season.
Tipperary, who find themselves in the unusual position of being the only 1A side in the semi-finals, are odds-on to achieve it later this month and while Ryan believes it will be more difficult than appears to be generally thought, he fancies Michael Ryan's men to complete the autumn-spring double.
Despite conceding 3-13, Tipperary beat Offaly comfortably in the quarter-final, where the gap between the top of 1A and fourth in 1B was very evident.
"There was huge pace in everything they did. They were sharper too but then you would expect that from All-Ireland champions. They have looked well fired up right from the start of the league, like a team that never let go during the winter.
"They came back focused and ready to go and it has shown in the performances. They got into their stride straight away and kept it going until they had ensured a place in the quarter-finals.
"They are a powerfully athletic team. Even some of the smaller-looking lads are very strong, hard to knock off the ball or stop them in full flight," said Ryan.
Offaly's first outing of the league was against Galway, who hit them for 6-23 in a performance that suggested to Ryan there was something different about the Tribesmen's approach.
"Even allowing for the fact that we were very poor that day, Galway played really well.
"They got a great start and once they settled into the game, they were very hard to pin down.
"We certainly didn't do ourselves justice but you'd have to say that Galway took full advantage in the way good sides do. They have a very strong panel, with a lot of special talents," added Ryan.
Given Tipperary's and Galway's high ratings, Offaly would have expected to fare better against Limerick and Wexford, which they did. However, they still came up short, albeit by much smaller margins.
Limerick won by four points after Offaly had led by one at the three-quarter stage of a game where Ryan's men looked comfortable in the company of opposition who have now reached the semi-final.
"We should have beaten Limerick. We had a grip on the game and let it slip. In fairness to Limerick, they dug in when they had to.
"They are improving team - there's no doubt about that and they showed it again the last day against Cork," he said.
Wexford's dramatic surge rise has been the story of this year's league so far, with Davy Fitzgerald's men winning all five 1B games before beating Kilkenny in the quarter-final.
"It has given everyone a lift. We're all looking at what Wexford have done and thinking what we have to do to get to that level.
"They have got much stronger physically. I know Liam Dunne had a lot of work done and now they've moved on again. They would be very close to the likes of Tipperary in conditioning," said Ryan.
Wexford beat Offaly by five points, a win that ensured promotion ahead of 1B pre-season favourites Galway and Limerick.
"They were a bit tense at times but then they were going for promotion. They hurled more freely against Kilkenny and got a great win.
"Their confidence is rising all the time. I'd give them a puncher's chance against Tipperary but it just might be a step too far at this stage," he said.
On the basis of the four semi-finalists' performances against Offaly and on a wider scale, Ryan expects a Tipperary-Galway final, although not without both being well-stretched on Sunday.
"It will be a great occasion for Wexford, in particular. Their rate of improvement has been massive and they're now very much in bonus territory," he said.