Tipp's forward momentum can keep them on final path
Waterford's defensive set-up will be hard to crack but Tipp have the firepower, says Jamesie O'Connor
H aving just lost the 2005 US Open tennis final to the fast emerging Roger Federer, an ageing and weary 35-year-old Andre Agassi walked to the net, certain he had lost to the better man, someone he described as "the Everest of the next generation".
Asked for an assessment of his opponent afterwards by reporters, his response was short and to the point. "Fellas, it's real simple. Most people have weaknesses. Federer has none."
For a generation of hurlers, Kilkenny have become not just Everest, but K2 and the entire Himalayas. And akin to Federer in his prime there are no apparent weaknesses. Those of us who thought that 2008 represented this team at its peak might be forced to reappraise that perspective. They were simply awesome last weekend.
This time two years ago, it was foot to the pedal most of the way to hammer Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. Last weekend, it took just 25 minutes of sustained ferocity and class to get the job done. Once Aidan Fogarty got the second goal, it was game over.
When you factor in that the outstanding midfielder of last season, Michael Rice, was unfit to start, John Tennyson was out injured, and that they lost centre-back Brian Hogan and centre-forward Henry Shefflin, the greatest player of his generation, to injury and could still win pulling up, it speaks volumes about how far ahead of the pack they now appear to have stretched. If anything, with even greater strength in depth than ever, they look a stronger side than two years ago and based on last Sunday, well nigh unbeatable.
At half-time, I received a text from a colleague with whom I have often discussed this Kilkenny side. He is a knowledgeable hurling man, someone whose opinion I respect. It simply stated: 'That team cannot be beaten!'
With Tipp having already tasted defeat to Cork, and Waterford put to the pin of their collar to beat the Rebels after extra-time in a replay, the form line hardly suggests it will happen in three weeks' time.
Yet, Everest has been conquered and Federer overcome. At any rate, Tipperary and Waterford, who play for the poisoned chalice today of providing the opposition in next month's final, will be quite happy to have the headache of worrying about Kilkenny, if they get over today.
Most neutrals have expressed the hope that Tipperary advance on the basis they would be better equipped to put it up to the Cats in the final. That may very well be the case, But it doesn't guarantee victory this afternoon. While historically Tipperary have had the Indian sign over their neighbours, the current Waterford side have bucked that trend in the last decade. Of the six meetings since 2002, they have won four of them, including the All-Ireland semi-final two years ago, so there is no question of Waterford harbouring any doubts about being able to win this game. The question is are they good enough?
With many of the old guard who treated us to so many unforgettable performances over the past ten years coming to the twilight of their careers, it's understandable that Davy Fitzgerald has Waterford playing in a more conservative manner this season. There have been too many occasions when they have been floored by soft goals and sub-standard defending for it not to have been something they had to look at. As a result, they are setting up far more defensively. The midfielders and half-forwards are playing deeper and further away from goal and so are leaving far less space for the opposition, conceding less and defending better than they have in the past.
Of course that comes at a cost. Because they no longer have the personnel to play the open, expansive, free-flowing, shoot-from-anywhere game of the Justin McCarthy era, their scoring returns have diminished. There's a heavy reliance on John Mullane to do the bulk of it with Eoin Kelly contributing from placed balls. Between them they accounted for 1-12 of the 2-15 amassed in the drawn Munster final and 0-11 of the 1-16 scored in the replay. In fairness to Kelly, he's worked hard for the team, but the fantastic goal in the drawn Munster final apart, you couldn't say we have seen the best of him.
While the likes of Stephen Molumphy, Kevin Moran, Seamus Prendergast and Shane Walsh up front will work hard for the team and chip in with the odd score, they are primarily ball winners and providers rather than finishers. Certainly, Mullane apart, none possesses the flair, talent or scoring ability of Kelly, so they could do with finding a way to get him on the ball more often, and ideally have him playing closer to goal.
With Molumphy and Co flooding into midfield, where Shane O'Sullivan, excellent all year, has formed a good partnership with Richie Foley, the Waterford half-backs will hope to have the scope to sit a little bit deeper, thus offering protection to the full-back line, the traditional Achilles' heel of this team. While both corner-backs have played well and Noel Connors in particular has been outstanding, neither he nor Eoin Murphy are particularly tall. This won't have been lost on the Tipp management. The tactic of hitting high diagonal balls into Lar Corbett and Noel McGrath, both of whom are good in the air, is something Tipperary regularly do and may well reap a dividend from today.
A bigger concern may be how well Liam Lawlor fares at full-back. The Waterford number three did a good spoiling job on Aisake ó hAilpín, but he's still relatively untested at this level and Tipp's Eoin Kelly, assuming he's fit, represents a much stiffer challenge.
In last year's Munster final, Tipperary opened up the Waterford defence at will and yet at least two of the Tipp goals should have been prevented. Turning the ball over through careless handpasses or failing to clear their lines are the type of faults that have led to needless scores being conceded and something the Waterford backs are prone to at inopportune times. It's worth remembering too that Cork created four good goal chances in the first half of the drawn Munster final and failed to take any of them. If the same chances fall today, the toll extracted is likely to be much heavier.
While much of the focus on Tipperary has centred on the attack and their failure as of yet to hit the heights of 12 months ago, it's arguably at the back where the biggest flaws have been. For various reasons they haven't had the same stability as last season. Conor O'Mahoney hasn't been playing well and again had to be moved from centre-back against Galway. After Pádraic Maher's travails with Aisake, and Declan Fanning's brief sojourn there against Wexford, Paul Curran is the third full-back this year, but the
mistake for the goal apart, he did well against Galway.
With Maher and Fanning back out on the wings, Tipp do have a serious ball-winning half-back line and they dominated the Westerners in the air. Given they won 75 per cent of Galway's puck-outs, and had the lion's share of possession, they should never have found themselves in the position they did and the mistakes that gifted the Tribesmen their two second-half goals will be fatal if repeated today.
So, because Tipp are likely to at least break even at midfield, where Shane McGrath looks to have regained his best form and Brendan Maher has been terrific; and assuming their defence performs to the standard expected, the result is likely to hinge on how well the Tipp forwards play. Both Gearóid Ryan and Patrick Maher have added to the team and bring a much needed energy to the half-forward line given how poor it was against Cork.
With Seamus Callanan still nowhere near the player he was last summer, the problematic centre-forward position is filled today by Maher. Curbing the influence of Brick Walsh, who has been imperious at centre-back for Waterford, is a big ask for a young player in his debut season, but after getting the goal with his first touch when introduced against Galway, Callanan didn't hit another ball for the remainder of the game, and couldn't be started. At least he remains an impact sub with the ability to change the game, but Tipp could really do with him regaining the form he showed throughout the last two campaigns.
Apart from the impact the newcomers have had, the other big positive has been the return to form of the dangerous inside trio. The goals, and goal chances, are starting to come and with it the belief and confidence that appeared absent in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Two years ago, Tipperary were Munster champions, but a more experienced and streetwise Waterford edged them at this same stage in a thriller. At times Tipp were bullied on that occasion and that hasn't been forgotten. Because Tipp are that bit slicker in attack, because I think they are more likely to get goals, and because they badly want to atone for 2008, I think we'll see the Munster champions fall again today.