I was in Ballybrit on Monday evening. The buzz was deadly, as usual. The chat was flowing. Fellas were nearly more interested in trying to find out if you had a winner than they were in talking hurling but most of the conversation still found its way back to hurling.
It always does.
You’re still nearly trying to decipher where fellas are from before you give them an honest opinion. ‘I’m a Tipp man myself,’ one fella said to me. ‘And you’ve just dismissed our chances for Sunday.’
With the optimism around the Galway hurlers this year though, the chat and mood amongst the locals was more positive and buoyant than it often has been on the first week in August.
They were all mad keen to chat about every possibility, every eventuality, even every doubt, which is almost a reflex impulse in the psyche of a Galway hurling supporter; the five-week lay-off, the injuries to Joe Canning and Cathal Mannion, the lack of a real test since the league quarter-final against Waterford, Tipp’s firepower, Galway’s trend of blowing up on the big day, when expectation has never been greater.
I think this Galway team are different. I don’t buy the theory that they haven’t been fully tested. Wexford came and had a right go at them and Galway still repelled what was thrown at them, and fired it back with interest.
Other teams may not have had the firepower or quality of the top sides but Galway have still smashed whatever has come across their path over the last four months.
Micheál Donoghue strikes me anyway as a guy who is not really concerned about what anyone else is doing or saying, he is just focused on what Galway can do, and what they are fully capable of.
And Galway have shown to date that when they are tuned and ready, they are capable of wrecking teams.
Tipperary are too but you couldn’t really say that with the same conviction. To think that a team is coming into an All-Ireland semi-final without being fully able to name their best defensive alignment is surely unheard off. Nobody knows who is going to be corner-back or full-back, or if even any of those guys have any real confidence at the moment. Darragh Mooney, the goalkeeper, has never played a big game in Croke Park before.
There were signs against Clare of Padraic and Ronan Maher coming back to form but No. 5 is still a concern.
Seamus Kennedy started very well but Peter Duggan racked him when he came on.
Midfield didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Brendan Maher was solid. He will always step up to the plate on the big days but Michael Breen has been struggling. A lot will depend on how he starts.
If Breen gets a run on Johnny Coen, he is far more physical, but there has still been no consistency with Breen’s form since the Cork match, which is a recurring theme throughout the team.
Tipp’s forward line, especially their inside line, is an obvious balm to a lot of their worries but I also think that the Galway defence is better than a lot of people have been giving them credit for. I like the Galway half-back line. I don’t see any reason why Padraic Mannion, Gearóid McInerney, and Aidan Harte should fear any of the guys they will face tomorrow.
Tipp’s main firepower is closer to goal but if Galway can get on top of the Tipp half-forward line, then Tipp have a whole different headache to deal with. Some of Clare’s half-backs did well two weeks ago but they didn’t stamp their authority or power like they needed to — something that this Galway half-back line are capable of doing.
Tipp’s philosophy will still be to trust their main shooters. They know Galway will put up a score but Tipp will still believe they can match, or surpass that total. Yet there is no way you can compare the form and steadiness of Dáithí Burke and Adrian Tuohy to anyone in the Tipp full-back line. There may be doubts about John Hanbury since they picked Paul Killeen ahead of him towards the end of the league but Hanbury was excellent against Wexford. He has limitations but he has the instincts of a survivor.
Tipp won’t move away from their philosophy of gun-slinging in a shootout. Mick Ryan won’t entertain the notion of a sweeper but maybe he will look at playing Dan McCormack or Noel McGrath deeper than normal to negate the control Galway will look to exert in the middle third. Tipp need to disrupt Galway in that sector because I don’t see them winning a shootout. I’m sure Mick would like to keep it tighter and less cavalier than the last two years, and then put pressure on Galway in the last 10 minutes, and see how they react.
There is always that nagging doubt at the back of your mind when it comes to Galway. A virus in the system for nearly 30 years would infect a robot but Galway have firewalled that system so much that Tipperary would need to be operating at close to maximum to penetrate it now. And Tipp just aren’t.
I don’t think Tipp are nearly as well equipped now as they were at this stage of the competion for the last two years.
They don’t have the same momentum or form or confidence, whereas Galway have improved from those last two semi-finals.
I’m not sure if the five-week lay-off has effected Galway that much. The word in Ballybrit was that they had managed it well, that they were nearly more focused on being fresh than being super-fit. I also think Tipp could have done with an extra week of preparation. For the last month, Tipp have had two weeks between games but I’d probably have preferred those extra seven days that Waterford have. The extra week would give you the opportunity to load on fitness, especially when Tipp don’t look as far ahead fitness-wise as they were this time last year.
Some of their players have looked tired and off-the-pace at stages of the summer, and I’m not sure if you can suddenly rediscover that form and consistency when you’re coming up against a team who are as fit and strong, possibly even fitter, and stronger.
I just feel this is Galway’s to lose. I felt from after the league final that if the teams met again that Galway might just have that bit more than them. And that was long before Tipp lost to Cork and went into a mini tailspin afterwards.
There is just more of a swagger about Galway now too, which has really been evident as the summer has progressed. The team is still very similar to last year but the body language and confidence is clearly different. Fellas are constantly growing. A guy like Adrian Tuohy was virtually unknown last year but look at him now?
What must Conor Cooney be saying to himself this week? His form was up and down last year. Now, he’s one of the front-runners for Hurler of the Year. The Tipp full-back line last year was very settled. When Cooney looks at the Tipp full-back line now, he is surely thinking: ‘None of those guys can mark me at the moment’.
You cannot buy that confidence. Galway have it in abundance. Tipp seem to have lost some of the magic they sprinkled throughout 2016.
Hurling is a funny game. It can often, and easily, make eejits of us all but I still haven’t seen enough from Tipp to suggest that the magic is back, or is about to come back.
Galway have been more reliable, more consistent. On that basis, I trust them to get the job done.