Tipp coming good at the perfect time
IT'S amazing how perceptions poke their little heads up, open their mouths, talk rubbish and somehow gain credence. Before you know it, theory comes to be regarded as fact, even if it lacks substance.
The latest example doing the rounds on the hurling circuit is that if Tipperary win tomorrow, the All-Ireland final will be a real contest, whereas if Waterford qualify, they will be eaten alive by Kilkenny.
That's based on trends in the last two finals, where Tipperary pushed Kilkenny to the verge of breaking point last year, whereas Waterford were overwhelmed from the start in 2008. My view is that whoever reaches the final will test Kilkenny far more than the odds suggest, especially now that the injury bug is taking an unhealthy interest in the five-in-a-row trail.
Tipperary showed last year that they were certainly the best-qualified contenders to challenge Kilkenny, even if they came up short in the end. As for Waterford, they will be a completely different outfit if they reach this year's final than they were two years ago.
Waterford have undergone quite a change under Davy Fitzgerald. There was a view after 2008 that they were an ageing team whose last chance of an All-Ireland success had been cruelly squashed by their merciless neighbours.
Tony Browne (35), Dan Shanahan (31), Clinton Hennessy (31), Ken McGrath (30) were the four 'elder statesmen' at the time. Browne, the most enduring talent of his generation, is still there, as is Hennessy -- but then 33 is not old for a goalkeeper -- but both Shanahan and McGrath have been used mainly as subs this year.
Fitzgerald has freshened up the squad -- especially this year -- and, equally importantly, has put his own imprint on how they play. The days when Waterford always tried to turn in a swashbuckling performance, irrespective of the occasion, have been replaced by a measured approach.
They are more defensive-minded these days, quite often waiting until a game opens up in the second half to return to their former style. What's more, it's working. Most people thought this year's Munster championship would be won by Tipperary. And when they were beaten, Cork moved to the top of the betting lists.
However, Waterford's compact game saw them come through on the inside to take the title. Michael 'Brick' Walsh, John Mullane and Eoin Kelly are the big leaders nowadays and there's no doubt that when Waterford crank their game up to full power, they are an imposing force.
And Tipperary? It really is a county of extremes. After running Kilkenny so close in last year's final, their supporters didn't hide their confidence for this campaign. They had Kilkenny in their sights and the rest were dismissed as mere support acts leading up to the big duel in September.
Cork were included in that cast. That is until they hit Tipp for 3-15 at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in May. Suddenly, everything changed in Tipperary. Liam Sheedy hadn't a clue and the team were over-rated and over-hyped. It was funny really because the only ones over-selling Tipp were their own fans.
As always in that type of situation, the reality lay in between the 'zero' and 'hero' rating. Tipperary were still a formidable team and Sheedy remained a good manager, albeit one who now knew how tricky an existence it can be. Tipperary's rehabilitation through the qualifiers worked well, with wins over Wexford and Offaly, which was just what they needed to step up to the challenge against Galway.
And while that game showed that they weren't yet back up to last year's levels, it did suggest they were getting closer. It was a most enjoyable clash, even if the error count on both sides was ominously high for teams with genuine All-Ireland ambitions. Tipperary have to step up another gear if they are to drive on to the final.
Certainly, they will need to be more secure, as two of the three goals they conceded against Galway were of the sloppy variety. They go with the same defence but have, predictably, re-structured midfield, with Shane McGrath moving from the half-forward line and John O'Brien returning at No 12. O'Brien has had his critics over the years but he's a dogged performer who has kept battling back and now gets another chance in the big time.
I would expect midfield to be very crowded as Waterford will drop back -- initially at least -- in an effort to keep things as tight as possible before attempting to inflict their game on Tipperary in the second half. Waterford have a huge work ethic, which they can see through to the end thanks to their super fitness, and if they can close down Tipperary's dangermen in attack, they are in with a really good chance.
I know there's huge confidence in the Waterford camp but I would still have a marginal fancy for Tipperary. They are coming good at exactly the right time and are now well clear of the hangover which settled in after the Cork defeat.
This will be a whole lot closer than last week's semi-final but Tipperary have enough to edge them over the line.
Cats' quest a whole lot harder without henry
WHEN Henry Shefflin was chosen as No 1 in the all-time 125 top hurlers compiled by the Irish Independent late last year, it met with an approval rating that nobody would have thought possible some years earlier.
Christy Ring was generally regarded as top man but once people assessed what Shefflin had achieved throughout the last decade, it became clear that he had a very solid case to be regarded as the best ever.
Of course, comparing players from different eras is an inexact science but, whatever the criteria used, Shefflin could provide the answers.
That's one of the reasons why there was such genuine sadness for him this week when it emerged that he would miss the All-Ireland final. It's a huge personal loss for Shefflin but it's also a severe blow to Kilkenny. One of Shefflin's greatest attributes is that he invariably does the right thing -- on and off the ball.
That's quite a talent and not even a team of Kilkenny's stature can afford to lose a player like that. Coupled with the absence of John Tennyson and the question marks over Brian Hogan's fitness for the final, Kilkenny will be wondering if the gods are turning against them just as they approach a historic milestone.
One of the interesting things about their five-in-a-row bid is that, whereas people usually want to see long-time champions beaten, there's a feeling that this Kilkenny team deserves to set a record. They have worn their success with impressive humility and if they do win the five-in-a-row, nobody will begrudge them. Mind you, it's going to be a whole lot harder without Shefflin.
As for Cork, last Sunday was a really bad day. They were beaten all over the pitch and looked like a squad in urgent need of overhaul. However, they haven't won a minor All-Ireland since 2001 or an U-21 title since 1998 so there must be concerns on Leeside that the next few years will be very difficult.
You don't always have to win underage titles to build senior teams but it's helpful to be getting to All-Ireland finals, which Cork haven't been doing very much over the past decade either.