Another Munster final and it’s easy to imagine the ancients gazing down from on high on Tom Semple’s field where they once sported and played. The Gods in their seats in the Gods. Ring. Mackey. The Doyles. John Keane. Tull Considine. All the other members of the heavenly host.
We know what they expect. Blood and thunder, whirling ash, broken hurleys, the dust rising in several squares. And we know what they’ll get tomorrow. Spare men and sweepers, runners steaming in off the shoulder, five-metre handpasses, ten-metre stick passes and not a ground ball to be seen for love or money.
Will they hate it? Well, Ring will undoubtedly deplore the amount of catching, John Doyle will lament the lack of blood and they’ll probably all shout themselves hoarse imploring the players to “pull on the shaggin’ thing”. Mackey will at least enjoy the solo running, although he’d have done it better himself.
Will they recognise it as the same sport they graced, even? It is a moot point. One penny will surely drop quickly, however: the realisation that these are two inordinately well coached teams who know precisely the kind of game their managers wish them to promulgate.
They might even go further and conclude that these are nothing less than two of the most interesting and original managers in the history of the game – and they wouldn’t be wrong. If that last part sounds a bit high-flown or sycophantic for your taste, tough.
It’s as a result of the presence of Eamon O’Shea and Derek McGrath that tomorrow will be partly a game, partly a series of intellectual puzzles. Here are two of the most obvious. How do Tipperary set about combating opponents who don’t have a strike forward and who sometimes barely have a forward line at all?
And what do they do about limiting the influence of Tadhg De Búrca, Waterford’s fireman and most important player? For a side built on safety-first, diametrically opposite principles to the county’s beloved team of the noughties, they who rarely worried too long about how much they conceded on the grounds that they were capable of scoring that and more, the totals Waterford have been racking up are little short of astonishing: 1-24 in the league decider, 3-19 in the Munster semi-final.
The raiméis being propagated a few months ago comparing them to Jim McGuinness’s Donegal with sticks – a travesty purveyed by people who either hadn’t seen them or hadn’t bothered to take note of their scoring tallies – has thankfully disappeared.
Waterford get bodies forward alright, but always on their terms and at their time of choosing. And McGrath has performed like a superior conjuror, a master of misdirection. Waterford are building down one wing; they play the switch ball and suddenly someone is charging in from the opposite flank to take the pass.
It’s no surprise that they’re growing in confidence. In the semi-final they unfurled a couple of dance routines – Kevin Moran’s pat-a-cake point from under the New Stand, Jake Dillon’s run for his goal – not previously exhibited. Goodness knows what else McGrath has in his playbook.
The problem for them tomorrow is the identity of their opponents. The purest attacking team in the championship.
Kilkenny are formidable because they’re so good at what they do, yet what they do is no secret. While stopping them is an entirely different bag of cats, one can at least legislate for Richie Hogan and TJ Reid. Tipperary take stopping because when they flow there is no legislating for where any of them will pop up. The structure and strictures contain – demand, indeed — room for improvisation. At their most fluent there’s something of a hydra-headed monster about them. Try decapitating John O’Dwyer. Dammit, he already has the ball whisked on to Seamus Callanan.
Some teams don’t evolve over the course of a championship. O’Shea’s Tipperary, because practice makes for precision, are not one of them. They won the 2010 All-Ireland in their third year under his coaching regime. This is the third year of his second coming.
Their rejig to accommodate Brendan Maher up front offers them additional ballast. It’s not a gamebreaker but it’s a subtle change of the type that can win championships. Maher, who can play anywhere from 4 to 12, has long been a victim of his own versatility and aversion to typecasting. Were he an actor he’d have several Oscar nominations for wildly different roles but would still be waiting for the statuette.
But now we must say goodbye to our little friend from Borrisoleigh and turn to a man from Lorrha.
Regular readers will not need to be reminded of this column’s admiration for Padraic Maher. The vigour, the perpetual motion, the extent to which he punches way above his skill set, as illustrated by his scoring record: 3-10 in 24 championship appearances.
How do you solve a problem like De Búrca? (Sorry.) Maher looks the answer. He’s the obvious candidate to help undermine Waterford’s defensive poise by targeting the number five. It wouldn’t entail him sacrificing his own game, which is sacrificial in nature anyway; we’re not exactly asking Vermeer to whitewash a gable end here. But Tipp will want to sack the quarter-back and there’s no better man for that than Maher.
The trick will be to insert enough players into forward positions without clogging the opposition half of the field. If ever there was an afternoon for snappy 30-metre arrows off the hurley to help open and colonise space between the lines this is it. Tipp will also get their half-backs and midfielders to try potting points from deep, a gambit that nearly undid Waterford in the league semi-final.
Their slow starts to the second half, dating back to the drawn All-Ireland final, are becoming a pattern. It’s as though O’Shea is so concerned — as O’Shea would be — with getting them to chill out and locate their centre of internal enlightenment that he forgets to relight the fire afterwards. Limerick had the deficit cut to a point when two injudicious puckouts handed Tipp their second wind. Waterford will be neither as sloppy nor as accommodating.
We’ve been saying here for ages, and their manager has admitted as much, that the fitness advantage Waterford had over opponents earlier in the season would be eroded as the summer wore on. That this hasn’t yet come to pass doesn’t mean that it won’t. Some day soon the opposition defender will not be beaten for pace by the Déise forward in a lateral sprint. Some day soon the opposition midfielder will have the gas to track the runner from deep.
That being the case, Waterford may not have enough going on up front. Nobody with the electricity of a Mullane. Nobody other than Michael Walsh with the stickability of a Seamus Prendergast. They don’t possess a goalscorer like Callanan, in part because they don’t employ a card-carrying full-forward, and they don’t possess a pointscorer like John O’Dwyer, whose wrists and radar mean he doesn’t have to run into position and take the sliotar at speed.
Having waxed lyrical about Derek McGrath all year your correspondent has spinelessly avoided converting such enthusiasm into actually tipping Waterford in any of their big games.
He’s maintaining his cowardly stance here. Tipperary to win with a late Padraic Maher point from a mile out.