Sunday 17 December 2017

Tipperary's unstoppable attack should allow them to take less treacherous path to September showdown

Kilkenny's tour de force last Sunday should focus Tipperary minds today, says Jamesie O'Connor

Jamesie O'Connor

The only thing history teaches us, a wise man once said, is that history doesn't teach us anything. In the build-up to last Sunday, the consensus seemed to be that Kilkenny would win, but not before undergoing a searching examination from Dublin.

Conventional wisdom had it that Kilkenny had to be in decline. With the full-back line creaking, signs from the league final that the appetite might be waning, and suspicions that one or two of the old guard, Henry Shefflin included, might have their best days behind them, the aura this team carried for so long seemed to be slipping.

Withering is one word to describe the Kilkenny response to those perceived notions of their apparent demise. This was as emphatic a display as this team has delivered in the last couple of years. Everything we associated with them in their prime -- aerial dominance, physical supremacy, ferocious work-rate, defensive miserlineness, the desire to go for the jugular and get early goals -- were all in evidence and it was as if they simply picked up from where they left off in 2009. As Anthony Daly said afterwards, they don't lose too often when they play like that.

What it also did is destroy the growing sense up to last Sunday that for the first time in three years, we might have something other than a Tipperary-Kilkenny All-Ireland to look forward to. More than ever, that once again appears to be the only likely scenario.

From a Dublin perspective, the disappointment will be that they never performed at anything like the same level we anticipated they might. The reality is they couldn't afford to be without anybody last weekend, and with the four returning Kilkenny players all making massive contributions, it highlighted how important it is to have your best players on the field. Down the personnel they were, it was always going to be difficult.

While understandably, the manner of the defeat had to have hurt, listening to Anthony Daly afterwards, there seemed to be a resolve in the Dublin camp that they're not prepared to go quietly and let the season end just yet. Assuming results elsewhere pan out as expected, and Tipp beat Waterford this afternoon, then the Dubs will have an eminently winnable quarter-final tie with Limerick. Were they to win that and make the All-Ireland semi-final, then once again the year can be counted as a genuinely successful one, and further proof they've moved to the next level. Of course, the flip side to that is that Limerick will hold exactly the same sentiments, which makes it one to really look forward to.

The Munster title remains a prize well worth winning in its own right. Last Sunday's result is likely to have made Declan Ryan's task easier in terms of concentrating Tipp minds.

Tipp have been playing so well, and are such hot favourites, that complacency was the biggest thing likely to derail them. However, they know that steering clear of Kilkenny until September is the preferred scenario, something only a win this afternoon would guarantee.

On all the available evidence, favouritism is easily justified. At the moment, the Tipperary attack looks unstoppable over 70 minutes. Their efficiency with the ball in hand, cohesiveness and movement off the ball, has improved on 12 months ago, and they're playing with the confidence of champions. They've got a lot of players in form, none more so than Seamus Callanan, the only one of the sextet who didn't start against Waterford in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

Twelve months ago, Waterford scored 2-15 in the drawn Munster final against Cork, and 1-16 in their victory in the replay. A similar tally today and they could be beaten by ten points. Tipp have amassed in excess of 30 points in each of their two championship games so far this season. Goals have been central to this and this is a unit that knows how to get them.

Waterford appear to have a few serious problems. With the Tipp attack pulling the best defences in the country apart, how do they go about stopping them? There's certainly no way the Waterford team will line out as selected, with a debutant Jerome Maher at full-back. He is likely to be on the wing which, incredibly, means Brick Walsh will probably start at full-back, with Kevin Moran at number six. In fairness to Davy Fitz, needs must, but it's robbing Peter to pay Paul especially in terms of what he gives the team when at his best further out the field.

The move, however, may also be a nod to the problems Brick has had with Noel McGrath on the last two occasions these sides have met. Knowing the Waterford man would be trying to sit deep and protect the full-back line last August, Tipp pulled off a masterstroke by playing McGrath at centre-forward rather than in the corner where he'd played all year. Because of the space Brick's role allowed him, and the sheer class the youngster possesses, McGrath filled his boots with five points from play. Having repeated the dose in this year's league, the need to get someone tight on him and deny him that space is bound to have coloured the Waterford strategy for today.

Of course, the Tipp management will have their own views, on how and where to go after Waterford. There's no guarantee Tipp will even play McGrath at centre-forward, so Waterford should expect the unexpected.

While Waterford would prefer to take the game to Tipp, especially after the way the uber-defensive approach failed so miserably in Croke Park last year, they have to be realistic about it as well. They have to deny the Tipp attack space to stay in the game and the only way to do that is to get bodies into their own half of the field.

At least with Richie Foley back to partner either Stephen Molumphy or Shane O'Sullivan in midfield, Waterford should have parity here. But the midfielders and half-forwards will have to work very hard particularly when the game starts to open up.

Waterford will feel that their attack can prosper, given Clare's success against Tipp's defence. Newcomers Brian O'Sullivan and

Paudie Mahony looked the part against Limerick; Shane Walsh has a knack for scoring goals and John Mullane, after the torrid time he gave Paddy Stapleton last year, has to be confident too, especially after his last-minute heroics in the semi-final. With Eoin Kelly to come off the bench, Waterford also have somebody with the ability to change the match, and the heavy reliance on Mullane to do the bulk of the scoring isn't as evident as it was last season.

Yet the feeling remains that while they will accumulate a reasonable total, the superior firepower at the opposite end of the field will find a way to surpass it.

In 2002, the last time Tipp were All-Ireland champions coming into a Munster final, Waterford produced a stunning display to strip them of their title. Could a similar fate befall them today? I don't think so.

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