With the second half of the Munster final largely an exercise in damage limitation, we will have a good indication as to the extent of the psychological harm inflicted by Tipperary on their southern neighbours by 5.30 this evening.
The saying goes that when you get thrown from a horse the best thing is to get straight back up again but it would be perfectly understandable if the Waterford players had no desire to see a hurley any time soon after the events of a fortnight ago in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Given the extent of the beating they took, much soul-searching will have been done in the immediate aftermath by both players and management. However, trying to ascertain how well they have recovered and just what the mindset of the players will be this afternoon is something that is hard to be definite about. The sight of an almost broken John Mullane apologising to the Waterford supporters after the Munster final showed the level of hurt and even embarrassment the players were feeling. In that sense, the senior players like Brick Walsh, Tony Browne, Kevin Moran, Mullane and Stephen Molumphy will have endeavoured to pick things up in training and we should see a passionate response this afternoon.
But it may not be that straightforward. There's also the possibility that the wounds haven't sufficiently healed and the players just want the season to end. When you're on the wrong side of a seven-goal mauling, it's only natural to want to apportion blame and doubts have to exist among the players about management, as well as the inherent weaknesses in the team that were exposed down in Cork.
The players will know too that those problems are likely to take more than a fortnight to fully address. It also has to be in the back of their minds that with their confidence on the floor, Kilkenny in a fortnight's time is a dubious prize to be playing for, especially considering the demolition job the Cats did on Dublin in the Leinster final.
In that sense, the players would do well to remember that championship hurling is a hard-nosed business. The danger for Waterford is that if the hangover from the Tipperary performance is still lingering and they haven't addressed some of the flaws that Tipp so ruthlessly laid bare, then they run the risk of a similar scenario today. Galway have suffered at the hands of Waterford often enough in recent memory for them to have no issues about putting the Déise to the sword, and it's not exactly rocket science to deduce that, like Tipperary, a key element in their strategy will involve going after the Waterford full-back line.
With no Waterford team named, we can only assume that Liam Lawlor will be selected to wear the number three jersey. Whatever limitations he may have, at least he's a specialist full-back and familiar with the nuances of the position. The imperative this afternoon is that regardless of who they play in their inside line, Waterford don't allow the acres of space that Tipp's constant movement created, which left them so badly exposed. In their last two games it's been noticeable that Galway have withdrawn their half-forward line, and tried to isolate Damien Hayes and either Joe Canning or Iarlaith Tannion close to goal. If Waterford allow that to happen as easily as Clare did, they will pay a similar toll to the one the Tribesmen exacted in Salthill three weeks ago.
As brittle as Waterford's confidence is likely to be, Galway's has experienced a transformation in the last month. For a side with genuine All-Ireland ambitions, the performance against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final, when they were outfought, was unacceptable. However, backed into a corner as they were, the team has responded in the right way and come out fighting. In that regard, drawing a young, inexperienced and tactically naive Clare side was the perfect first step on the road to recovery. While Clare were easy pickings on the night, there was a much better balance to the Galway team given the changes made by John McIntyre, and more importantly a clear gameplan that was noticeably absent against the Dubs.
The confidence they gleaned from that performance was carried into the Cork game and again there was evidence of a clearly defined pattern to their play. Another encouraging aspect of that win was that after the worst possible start, 1-3 to no score down inside 10 minutes, they didn't panic, stuck to their guns and outscored the Rebels 2-23 to 0-11 in the remaining hour.
As comprehensive as those two qualifier victories have been, the real dividend has been the infusion of confidence and momentum that's now clearly evident in the team. Hayes in particular has the pep back in his step, Tannian, who missed the Dublin game through injury, has been excellent and there are also signs that Canning is beginning to motor and rediscover his best form.
The defence, which performed credibly against Dublin, especially considering the pressure they were under, also has a more solid look to it with Shane Kavanagh restored to full-back, David Collins in the corner and Donal Barry recalled to the wing. Barry, Andy Smith at midfield and Tannian also bring an increased level of physicality and drive that was sorely lacking that night in Tullamore and with the same side selected for the third game in a row, Galway finally appear to have settled on their best starting 15.
After contesting the All-Ireland final in 2005, it's hard to believe that the Tribesmen haven't been past the quarter-final stage since. In each of the last two years, on John McIntyre's watch, they have blown what appeared to be a match-winning position and gone down by the narrowest of margins. Because anything less than a semi-final appearance would be regarded as a failure, they will be hell-bent on atoning for the pain inflicted by John Mullane's last-ditch winner two years ago. Galway's need is far greater than Waterford's this afternoon and I expect them to win. If Waterford find it as hard to pick themselves up as I think they will, don't be surprised if it's with something to spare.
The stakes are every bit as high for both Limerick and Dublin in the curtain-raiser. It was interesting to hear Dublin's John McCaffrey quoted last week saying that the year would be considered a failure if they didn't make the All-Ireland semi-final. I'm not sure what the Limerick take on that will be, but to my mind it's simply indicative of how the Dublin players now view themselves and the change in mindset that Anthony Daly has wrought in the last 12 months. Genuine ambition exists within this group that serious silverware can be annexed in the coming years, and McCaffrey was merely articulating those sentiments.
However, while Limerick will respect Dublin and the progress they have made, don't think for a second that they'll be in any way fazed by the prospect of meeting them. Regardless of what Dublin have done or won this year, Limerick will expect to win this afternoon. Their history and tradition demands it.
Just two years ago, Daly's side made the trip to Thurles for the quarter-final with their tails up on the back of a highly credible Leinster final display, expected to win and had their colours duly lowered. Tactical naivety as much as anything else cost Dublin that game, as Limerick, once they got ahead, simply crowded their own defence and squeezed the life out of the Dublin attack. On that occasion, it was apparently the Limerick players who devised the gameplan.
Now with Donal O'Grady, arguably the shrewdest and most tactically astute manager in the game at the helm, they're bound to feel it's an area they'll have the edge in again. In the big matches this season, the Division 2 win over Clare in the league and the games against Waterford, Wexford and Antrim in the championship, Limerick have for the most part, got it tactically right.
In full-forward Kevin Downes, they have arguably the young player of the year, and with Declan Hannon, who sat his leaving cert in June and missed the Waterford game, also included, they have found two genuinely good forwards. Downes' battle with Peter Kelly in particular will be crucial in determining today's outcome, because if Limerick are going to get goals, as they will look to do, Downes is the likely conduit.
Of course, goals, or rather Dublin's lack of them, is something that's likely to have exercised Daly's mind, especially since Kilkenny put four past them three weeks ago in the Leinster final.
The Dubs have registered just two green flags in the four big games they have played since May -- including the League final -- and, worryingly, I can't recall them having a shot on target from play in either the Leinster final or in the game against Galway. With the way Tipperary, Kilkenny and lately even Galway have been playing, to be considered as serious contenders, it's an area they have to address.
From that perspective, there appear to be weaknesses in the Limerick defence that Dublin have the personnel to exploit. Centre-back Brian Geary's lack of pace has to be targeted and while pace and athleticism are attributes Seamus Hickey possesses in abundance, full-back is far from his natural position. Hickey by nature is a ball player and whether he yet possesses the required levels of guile and, dare I say it, cynicism that the position sometimes requires is something I'm not convinced about.
While all three of the Limerick full-back line attack the ball and are good coming forward, I still feel they're prone to making the odd mistake and over 70 minutes they will cough up a couple of goal opportunities. The question may be whether or not Dublin are good enough to take them.
To be fair to the Dubs, they're a far better side now, even with the players they've lost to injury, than the one that succumbed to what was a far more experienced Limerick team two years ago. With what they've been through, there's a harder edge to the team now. The four wins on the road in the League, in addition to the victory in the final and wins over Offaly and Galway in the championship when the pressure was really on confirm it.
Conal Keaney is a grievous loss, but at least Ryan O'Dwyer's availability and the positive vibes about David Treacy's return to form go some way towards offsetting it. After the needless act of indiscipline that cost the team his services for the Leinster final, O'Dwyer will feel he owes the team a big performance and while Geary reads the game well, the Tipp native will have the legs on him. If he can win that battle, and Liam Rushe can curb the influence of Donal O'Grady, who has been outstanding in the middle of the field for Limerick, with the ball-winning ability they have elsewhere, Dublin have every chance.
While it's still a 50-50 game, Waterford and Clare's subsequent performances against Tipperary and Galway respectively, force a reappraisal of just how good Limerick really are. A side that's improving, and a work in progress? Yes. The finished article? No.
Because of what he's given them all year, I think Keaney's loss will galvanise the Dubs. Even after the Leinster final, and the disappointment in their own performance, the noises emanating from their camp were the ones you'd want to hear. This is a team that aren't prepared to settle for what they've got. Like Galway, their need is that little bit greater. That may make the difference in the end. Dublin to shade it.
Sunday Indo Sport