He was right, and I think that was the general feeling of most pundits going into this game – if anyone was going to give Kilkenny a game this year, it was Tipperary, but only if they reached the heights of last year. Waterford are Munster champions but in none of their games against Clare, against Cork twice, did they come anywhere near the level required to mount a real challenge to Kilkenny. They are off the pace, and this game proved that – the most comprehensive seven-point beating I’ve ever seen.
Tipp won this game on the field and off the field; they were smarter in every way, smarter in everything they did on the field, smarter also in the way they set up their team to begin with. I wasn’t the only one who felt that Noel McGrath would be better further out from the posts, and that John O’Brien was better inside, preferably on the edge of the square. McGrath lined out at centre-forward, O’Brien started inside, and both of them were outstanding. I also said that Shane McGrath would be the outstanding midfielder, given his experience – again, I was proved right. The first marker laid down in this game was laid down by Shane, a storming run through the middle in the first minute; a score didn’t result, but the ease with which the Waterford defence was split open set the tone.
I had doubts about Conor O’Mahony at centre-back for Tipp – boy did he put an end to that, held the centre really well, was outstanding all through. Padraig Maher was another who had been shaky a few times this year – not yesterday, and with Declan Fanning on the other wing, these three formed a really outstanding line for Tipperary. I want to compliment also the full-back line, Paul Curran again demolishing any doubts I had about the full-back position, showing tremendous leadership, Michael Cahill doing well in the corner, and Paddy Stapleton having a really good game on John Mullane. Let me explain myself there; I know John Mullane got three points, and Stapleton fouled him for a few more, but even when he was on a yellow card Stapleton continued to play his game, and did as good a man-marking job on as good a corner-forward as there is in the country – on this form, John Mullane would get a lot more than three points on most corner-forwards.
Unfortunately for John and for Waterford he was ploughing a lone furrow up there, five forwards taken off, though I’d excuse one of those, a man who shouldn’t have been there in the first place – Brian O’Halloran. To finish with the Tipp defence, however, they played today like real Tipperary men – no standing on ceremony, ball whipped away, bodies put on the line, great courage. Good to see.
It was at the other end of the field though that the damage was really done. First here, mention of the outstanding Lar Corbett; I thought he had a brilliant game, one of his best ever for Tipperary. I said on Saturday that it’s when Lar comes out roaming he does most damage – that was the case yesterday, and in fact he ended up back in his own full-back line for a finish, clearing the lines. Ended with 1-2 from play, set up a goal and a few more points – some return from one man.
Another man, and a man much maligned by Tipperary supporters over the years, John O’Brien; in his rightful position yesterday, and six points from play – John is capable of that all the time, and his confidence will really be soaring after this. Then there was Eoin Kelly – let’s just say that apart from his 2-3, two goals from play, Eoin was okay, wasn’t he? Not bad for a fella carrying a serious back injury.
BEST of them all, however, and my man-of-the-match, young Noel McGrath. Seven points, five of those from play off no less a man than Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh (why didn’t Waterford make a switch here? Why weren’t the McGraths and big Dan introduced sooner?). Yesterday was a real coming-of-age for Noel, and when Eoin Kelly was struggling with the long-range frees, he stepped in and took over.
Finally, back to Waterford: they have failed yet again in an All-Ireland semi-final, and I think one of the main reasons for this is that the hype was again too much, and again it seemed to get to the players. Tipperary played really well yesterday but many of the Waterford players were shadows of themselves. Dampen down those expectations, get real, and maybe then Waterford will come in to a game like this in the proper frame of mind. They had a different gameplan to what we’ve usually seen from them in Croke Park in those semi-finals, trying to close down the game, negative tactics – it was exposed by Cork in the Munster final, a lot of goal chances created but not converted; as I said on Saturday, Waterford met a very different attack yesterday, and those tactics were exposed.
Are we going to get an All-Ireland final? We are now, and we can look forward to the next few weeks with real relish.
Finally, a word on the referee, John Sexton, and his team of officials – really good job by all.