Eight counties left, a hurling measure soon to be six.
Last Sunday considerably raised the stakes for this Sunday. Victory for Tipperary or Waterford means not just a Munster title but also sidestepping an All-Ireland semi-final with Kilkenny (presuming the All-Ireland quarter-final is negotiated, which is not to be presumed).
Do not underestimate this motivation. The champions’ form last weekend was unexpectedly strong. Who would want to confront this threat unless successfully doing so meant lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup?
There is a consensus about tomorrow’s qualifier ties in Semple Stadium: Clare will beat Limerick and Cork will beat Wexford. Who could quibble over much? Clare possess more out and out talent than Limerick, over and above the latter’s listlessness this season. Cork are scarcely less disappointing but did overcome Dublin last weekend, a team to whom Wexford went down by 13 points last May.
If Wexford win, it will be a bolt from the far out purple. If Limerick win, it will be courtesy of a jolt for lazy hurlers in their front eight.
There is lateral nuance regarding this Munster Final. Victory for Tipperary would likely mean Waterford-Cork and Clare-Galway All-Ireland quarter-finals. Victory for Waterford would likely mean a Clare-Tipperary and Cork-Galway roster.
Could Tipp go all the way by defeating Clare, Kilkenny and whomever else? Possible but getting on for the north of doubtful. Pretty much the same assessment runs for Waterford’s three-step scenario. Sunday afternoon should be a thrilling field because a killing field, whatever the second chance.
The core problem lies in having to play, effectively, an All-Ireland Final against Kilkenny in the semi-final. Hurling history contains few enough instances where a sterling semi-final display retained currency in the decider. Item: even Kilkenny’s mowing of Tipperary in 2003 was followed by an oddly flat display against Cork, a day many felt should have fell Leeside’s way.
The bookmakers like Tipperary’s chances. This verdict is easy to understand. Judged on their last two outings against Cork and Limerick, Tipperary look to have improved on 2015, when they won Munster. Tactical tangles leave a call unusually hard. While Tipp are happy to be a tactics free zone, 15 on 15, Waterford demur. They seek to hurl on their own terms, an emphasis that has served them really well.
There was the odd bump. This spring, Waterford were 23 months unbeaten in the league when Dublin arrived in Walsh Park on March 13. The visitors won 0-19 to 0-14. Central to that success was Dublin pushing up seven on seven in attack. This gambit discommoded Waterford’s system of sweeping via a seventh defender.
No subsequent opponents pursued the same road. Will Tipperary? Adopting this approach would be a fascinating spoke in their opponents’ defensive wheel.
How would they respond? Their backs are schooled to let off certain balls to Darragh Fives or Tadhg de Búrca as the spare defender. If this player was marked, those backs would have to contest deliveries in situations where they normally just act as a shield. Could those seven Waterford backs regroove themselves on the hoof? You would wonder.
Cutting across Waterford’s system is not confined to pushing up seven on seven. Tipperary need not accept the designated sweeper. Michael Ryan and colleagues could decide to mark the relevant man and elect Noel Connors or Barry Coughlan in his stead. Dan McCormack, say, could take up the designated sweeper.
This move would be another fascinating swerve. Is Coughlan’s distribution up to the role? Would Connors, who loves to man-mark, be an adequate distributor? Besides, do Derek McGrath and colleagues want their sweeper operating from left corner-back, Connors’ position?
A relay of implication does not halt there. If Connors steps infield and travels around in a pod of three with McCormack and de Búrca/Fives, he leaves behind him the sort of space in the right corner into which Séamus Callanan loves to drop. All the while, Waterford are being levered out of their habitual patterns.
There is similarly a nub about deploying four or five men around the middle. Partly a swarm on possession in this area, the tactic is equally a means of processing possession through accepting balls sent short by the spare defender. But what happens if said defender is no longer spare? If the Waterford backs are forced to clear long, for want of being able to use their sweeper to go short, what happens to the extra bodies around the middle? Do they not get bypassed in large and deleterious part?
Both management teams will have been imitating that famous Rodin sculpture, The Thinker. Tactical countergambits available to Tipperary mean an emphatic prediction is nigh impossible. We have yet to see Waterford response’s in said circumstances.
If their sweeper-centred system overcomes this Tipp challenge, it will deserve hurling’s version of a kitemark. Waterford will have flown.
Which or whether, this Munster Final must surely be a searing occasion. Rattling exchanges at close quarters and the stakes involved should ensure roof-raising temperatures. This contest makes like Fahrenheit hurling.
For their greater goal threat, Tipp deserve favourite’s mantle. The third goal against Limerick three weeks ago, when Séamus Callanan ran instinctively into the requisite pocket of space, was a wonder of clinical chance making and chance taking. You have to admire how rarely a Tipp forward eschews the killer goal-making pass.
Of course, a theatre so crowded makes the role of the two goalkeepers ever more important. Puckout selection has never been at more of a premium.
Meanwhile the basics between the posts remain the basics. Quite often, tight matches are tilted by goalkeeping frailty. Three weeks ago, Limerick shot a late goal in the Munster semi final, when Darren Gleeson, not for the first time, looked cumbersome. Stephen O’Keeffe, his counterpart, has been consistently excellent. On that basis, Gleeson is the less sure custodian.
Make of that factor what ye will. Sunday will unscroll the truth of it all.
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