TIPPERARY secured Munster for a second successive season but whether they are any better equipped to extend their dominance to the rest of the hurling world remains to be seen.
They did enough for an hour in Semple Stadium yesterday to suggest they had put together a far more cohesive case than in 2008 -- but some of the evidence didn't stand up to Waterford's tough cross-examination over the final 10 minutes. Tipperary weren't hanging on at the finish but they were certainly growing edgy as Waterford clawed their way back, point by point.
Waterford scored six unanswered points but still came up four short, after trailing with an hour gone by 4-14 to 2-10. More specifically, their problem period extended from the 24th to the 61st minutes when they were out-scored by 4-6 to 0-8.
Goals by Lar Corbett (34th and 41st min), Seamus Callanan (24) and Eoin Kelly (26), decorated a golden spell for Tipperary in which they out-classed and out-fought Waterford across many sectors.
The goals were derived from a mixture of Tipperary excellence and Waterford sloppiness with the latter a contributory factor which understandably left manager, Davy Fitzgerald, frustrated afterwards. "Some of those goals should never have been given away. We'll have to look at how and why it happened," he said.
The irony was that Waterford had some excellent goal chances themselves early on but only converted one when Eoin Kelly sent an angled 20-metre free skidding to the net in the sixth minute. Earlier, Kelly had driven a good chance wide before being denied by a superb save from Brendan Cummins.
"We could have been a few goals up very early on. In the end, that was one of the main differences. Tipperary took their goal chances and we didn't," said Fitzgerald.
That's a raw, clinical analysis of the trend and while it certainly has an element of truth there were other factors too which contributed to Tipperary's dominance and Waterford's difficulties. Waterford were relying almost exclusively on Kelly (from frees) and John Mullane from open play for their scores -- Tipperary's gold rush was coming from a variety of sources.
Seven Tipperary players had scored by the 25th minute whereas only Kelly and Mullane had hit the target for Waterford. They had deposited 1-1 each, with Mullane driving in his goal in the 22nd minute. Callanan responded with Tipp's first goal in the 24th minute, followed two minutes later by another from Eoin Kelly, and Corbett finished out the half with a third just before the break to leave Tipperary leading by 3-10 to 2-4.
It was a commanding lead and left Waterford with a massive challenge. Given what happened them against Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland final there must have been concerns that another humiliation was a possibility, but it didn't turn out that way.
Far from it, in fact. Even when Corbett drilled in Tipperary's fourth goal in the 41st minute to extend the lead to 11 points, Waterford refused to accept they were facing a lost cause. With captain Michael 'Brick' Walsh turning in an excellent performance at centre-back, Waterford began to assert themselves in a manner which hadn't been seen earlier on.
Tipperary matched them point for point until just after the hour mark when Waterford really took control and dominated with considerable style from there to the finish. Mullane tormented the Tipperary defence while Kelly kept the scoreboard ticking along from frees as they pinned the defending champions into their own half.
"Waterford came roaring back at us but then you're never going to dominate a team like that for the full 70 minutes. We got away from doing the simple things and took the wrong options at times but having said that we had put together some lovely passages of hurling earlier," said Tipperary manager, Liam Sheedy. Nonetheless, he will be worried by Tipp's tendency to fade out of games after establishing big leads. Indeed, were it not for a great block from wing-back, Padraic Maher from sub Maurice Shanahan in the 56th minute, Waterford might well have registered their third goal and made a final charge.
Maher was outstanding all through while Conor O'Mahony and Declan Fanning also hurled well in the half-back line. The full-back line was less secure but then Mullane is such a powerful presence that it's difficult to contain him when he's in the mood.
He scored 1-5 -- all from play -- and looked as if he could double it if he got the right supply. Unfortunately for him the half-forwards didn't really function, while the introduction of Dan Shanahan made no difference. Big Dan isn't the threat of old and never looked like getting in for a goal which Waterford so badly needed.
The injured Ken McGrath was badly missed, especially in the crucial area of ball-winning. Still, Waterford will take plenty of encouragement from their brave fightback as they look ahead to an All-Ireland quarter-finals.
"We could have folded our tents after what happened 10 minutes either side of half-time but we didn't. The lads kept battling and were back in the mix at the end. We have to work out why we conceded so many goals but we're still mighty positive about things," said Fitzgerald.
There's even more positive feeling in Tipperary, who succeeded in retaining the Munster title for the first time since 1988. They had to beat Cork, Clare and Waterford to achieve that but passed all three tests after running up big scores every time.
"It's never easy to win Munster titles especially when it takes three games. Winning back-to-back titles here in Thurles makes it that bit more special," said Sheedy, who now has almost five weeks to plan for the All-Ireland semi-final. He will do so from a position of huge strength as there's no doubt that Tipperary have an awful lot going for them when they're in full flow.
Noel McGrath continues to improve with every outing, while Eoin Kelly looked to be returning to his very best before retiring at half-time due to a hamstring pull. However, Sheedy said that it wasn't too serious and Kelly should be okay in a week or two.
The only real issue the manager must address is why Tipperary aren't putting teams away when they have the chance. They survived spirited revivals by both Clare and Waterford but as the stakes get higher, there will be less room for error. Losing the final 10 minutes by 0-6 to 0-0 didn't cost them yesterday -- but it did show a fault line which must be sorted if Tipp are to give themselves a chance of winning a first All-Ireland title since 2001.
Scorers -- Tipperary: L Corbett 2-2, E Kelly 1-3 (0-2f), S Callanan 1-1, N McGrath 0-3 (1f), P Kerwick, C O'Mahony (f), S McGrath, J O'Brien, B Dunne 0-1 each. Waterford: E Kelly 1-7 (all frees), J Mullane 1-5, S Molumphy 0-2, D Shanahan, R Foley 0-1 each.
Tipperary -- B Cummins 7; P Stapleton 5, P Curran 5, C O'Brien 6; D Fanning 7, C O'Mahony 7, P Maher 9; J Woodlock 6, S McGrath 7; P Kerwick 6, S Callanan 7, J O'Brien 7; N McGrath 8, E Kelly 8, L Corbett 9. Subs: B Maher 7 for Curran (34), W Ryan 5 for Kelly (h-t), B Dunne 7 for Woodlock (46), H Maloney 5 for Kerwick (56), M Webster for O'Brien (69).
Waterford -- C Hennessy 5; E Murphy 6, D Prendergast 6, N Connors 6; T Browne 6, M Walsh 9, A Kearney 6; K Moran 5, S O'Sullivan 5; J Nagle 5, S Prendergast 5, J Kennedy 5; J Mullane 9, S Molumphy 6, E Kelly 7. Subs: D Shanahan 5 for Kennedy (27), E McGrath 6 for O'Sullivan (45), R Foley 6 for Nagle (45), M Shanahan 6 for S Prendergast (55).
Ref -- J Sexton (Cork)