IT may sound strange, but when I first started to think about today's Munster semi-final meeting of Tipperary and Cork I couldn't get Dublin out of my mind.
I gave Anthony Daly's men a real chance going into their Leinster semi-final meeting with Kilkenny and I thought that even if they lost, they could have blown the whole championship wide open by presenting a serious threat in the qualifiers.
The thought of possibly having to face Dublin, I imagined, would be an extra incentive to win today's encounter in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. But after what I can only describe as a totally disjointed display last night, Cork, Tipperary, or indeed anyone else, will have nothing to fear from Dublin.
There will be a backlash, of course. The players owe it to themselves and Daly to prove that they are better than they showed last night, but they were so devoid of ideas up front, so far off the pace, that I can't see them recovering sufficiently in the two weeks they have to prepare.
So, the consequences of defeat today for Cork or Tipperary are nowhere near as bad as they might have been and that's just as well, because in Cork there's a general acceptance that this Rebel team is a work in progress.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy can probably afford to lose today and still be cut some slack by the Cork public. People know the scale of the task involved, and that time and patience will be required.
To date, the year has been largely positive and, the final apart, the league was a success. The younger players making their championship debuts today, Conor Lehane, Darren Sweetnam, and Jamie Coughlan, were given plenty of game time to acclimatise to this level. And the players introduced under the previous regime, such as William Egan, Lorcan McLoughlin, and Luke O'Farrell, were all given the opportunity to nail down starting positions.
Furthermore, the consistency of selection throughout the league meant that the likes of Patrick Horgan, Pa Cronin and Paudie O'Sullivan seemed to grow in confidence with the faith the manager showed in them.
While getting to the league final was a bonus and raised expectations within the county, the hammering dished out by Kilkenny has restored optimism to more realistic levels. Yet, as sobering an experience as that day was, it was far better to have the flaws Kilkenny exposed identified seven weeks out from the championship, rather than finding out this afternoon.
The reservations I had about Stephen McDonnell at full-back prior to that game were confirmed, but facing a dominant Kilkenny, with Eoin Larkin playing at the top of his game, was always going to be the severest of tests. That means Brian Murphy is handed the number three jersey today and, while he'd be more comfortable in the corner, at least he has had time to prepare and has enough experience at this level to cope.
Elsewhere, I'm not convinced about Cork's centre-back. Up to the final, Eoin Cadogan had a great league, and he certainly lends a physical presence to the position. However, Kilkenny exposed the limitations in his hurling and with the pace up another notch today, he may struggle, especially given his dual commitments. At least with both John Gardiner and Seán óg ó hAilpín on the bench, Cork have cover and experience for this area and Tom Kenny's inclusion gives them options further up the field.
Attack wise, there was much to be impressed about in Cork's display against Tipp in the league semi-final at the end of April. The fluidity and movement of their forwards was excellent and they've picked skilful and pacy players suited to that style. However, whether they can win enough primary possession, especially in their half-forward line, to play that game given the injury to Niall McCarthy, is another story.
So while the Cork public may have to be in a forgiving mood, that's not the case in Tipperary, where a loss this afternoon would see the knives coming out for Declan Ryan. Despite the rumblings of discontent emanating from the Tipp camp, all the pieces of the jigsaw are still in place to enable this team to go all the way.
Whatever grievances the players might have, it's surely time now for the strong personalities and leaders in that group to circle the wagons and drive the team forward. They know they didn't perform well against Limerick last time out. Yet, with 20 minutes to go, and defeat staring them in the face, enough of their key players stood up and were counted when the need was greatest. There was no sense of panic, either on the sideline or on the field, and to outscore Limerick 1-10 to 0-3 in that last 18 minutes was indicative of what they're capable of when the team gets the bit between its teeth. The manner of the win as much as the victory itself has to have them feeling better about themselves, and it may well prove a turning point in their season.
All the changes made by Ryan on the day strengthened the team, and Tipp are now considerably closer to having their best 15 on the field than they were three weeks ago. Conor O'Brien had a fine second half at corner-back replacing debutant Donagh Maher. Shane McGrath improved matters considerably when introduced at midfield and Brendan Maher looked far more assured and comfortable with McGrath in the engine room beside him.
Up front, both Seamas Callanan and Shane Bourke got their names on the scoreboard, and while neither start today, both players, and Callanan in particular, can give Tipp an impetus coming off the bench. In addition, with Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett also in reserve, Tipp have potential game changers that few other counties have the luxury of being able to call on. Obviously Kelly is nearing the end of his career, and his effectiveness may not be what it was at the height of his powers, but in a tight match, if a score was needed, his experience and accuracy ensure he still has the ability to make a contribution.
Of course, the most telling upgrade made to the Tipp team is the return of Patrick 'Bonner' Maher at centre-forward. Maher's introduction really turned the game against Limerick, and it took his enforced absence to highlight how important he has become to the way Tipp play. His ability to create space for others, draw frees and generally make a nuisance of himself meant that an attack that had been misfiring badly suddenly began to operate with the smoothness we have become accustomed to over the last three years. It also frees Noel McGrath to the inside line, and because of his and John O'Brien's aerial ability, it's easy to see Tipp creating goal opportunities.
If a much improved forward performance put the scores on the board to win the Limerick game, the platform was provided primarily by the half-backs. Padraic Maher and Conor O'Mahony destroyed Limerick in the last quarter, winning 10 of the last 12 opposition puckouts. Were they to begin to exert a similar influence today, Cork would really struggle.
Having failed to win in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for so long, Tipperary finally broke that hoodoo in 2008. With such an edge in experience, and far greater strength in depth on the bench, I expect Cork to be the ones going into tomorrow mornings qualifiers draw.
Sunday Indo Sport