By Peter O’ Dwyer
A sense of deja vú must have pervaded the air in Tipperary this week as the county’s hurlers stared down the barrel of a second Round One Qualifier dismissal in succession.
Just as it was last year, the Premier County saw but 70 minutes of Munster Championship hurling before being sent packing by Limerick. Unsympathetically, the gods then directed them straight into the path of one of hurling’s finest in the qualifiers as punishment.
On this occasion, O’ Shea’s charges have at least avoided entering the lions’ den as with Nowlan Park 12 months ago and have the relative comfort of home advantage to work with.
Should Tipp fail at the same stage this evening in Thurles, it will leave O’ Shea with the ignominious record of having lost all four Championship matches he has been at the helm for – a thought most fans could not even countenance in that part of the world.
Ironically, his opposite number Anthony Cunningham is under equal strain coming into this game.
For Cunningham and his Galway side, it’s not been so much a Tipp-like flatline of failure that has marked recent years, rather peaks and valleys of inconsistency that has Galway fans and the hurling public at odds to know just how good or otherwise the Tribesmen really are.
Needless to add, the first meeting between the sides in four years and just their fifth in the last 14 could hardly carry more significance then.
O’ Shea might at least be glad to see the maroon of Galway rather than black and amber of their old foes or green and white of the Munster champions lining up alongside his charges for the parade.
There’ll be a few different men in that parade too as Kieran Bergin and Shane McGrath have paid the price for being overrun by Limerick’s midfield duo last month, with Ronan Maher and James Woodlock preferred.
While those changes might constitute the most significant alteration to the Tipp side, it’s undoubtedly overshadowed by the return of Lar Corbett to the forward line.
Finding himself in the trenches, O’ Shea has returned to his best marksman to pick off the scores needed to escape.
Whether Corbett can produce the form that saw him emerge as perhaps the finest forward in the country just a few years ago remains to be seen when he makes his first start of the season in place of Niall O’ Meara. For O’ Shea, it’s clearly a gamble he considers worth taking though.
Galway meanwhile have changed personnel right across the pitch with Johnny Coen, Padraig Brehony and Cathal Mannion all being handed starts having had to content themselves with a place on the sidelines for last week’s 3-19 to 1-17 defeat to Kilkenny.
Like Tipp, Galway will be glad to be rid of Brian Cody’s charges – although contesting the game in Croker tomorrow would obviously have been preferable to the circuitous route they now have to negotiate if they’re to claim that elusive Liam McCarthy trophy in September.
Cunningham, who might well be taking charge of his final game should he end up on the losing side, feels those battles with the Cats have however sharpened the wits and bodies of his men if nothing else.
“These games will stand to us. We're sharp now, you can't beat sharpness and pace, and the competitive nature of these matches; we have two great battles under our belt with Kilkenny,” the Galway boss said.
“Look, it's a huge challenge but we're well up for it, we'll be there fighting like lions the next day.
“When you're beaten in championship the best way to get that out of your system is to be playing the following weekend, not to leave it two or three weeks, so that's a plus for us.”
One man – indeed often the man – that victory will hinge upon is Joe Canning. If a day out in the cathedral of Thurles, the threat of an early championship exit and the draw of an All-Ireland medal isn’t enough to motivate the Portumna star, former manager Ger Loughnane provided it in spades with an astonishing attack in the aftermath of last week’s defeat.
“He has none of the work-rate, heart or mental toughness of any of Kilkenny’s greats. But the media are fascinated by him, constantly proclaiming his genius,” wrote Loughnane.
“There is a big difference between performing the odd circus trick and true greatness, for which consistently high performance is one of the traits required… Plenty of talent but not a real player,” he concluded.
Joe; Lar; Anthony; Eamon, the stage is set.