Can Tipperary win a genuinely tight game?

Want a slightly different take on the Leinster final? Here goes. Galway weren’t as bad as we thought they were. Really. Please don’t all laugh at once.

It was the familiarity of it: That was the problem and the cause of the ensuing narrative. The sheer familiarity of it that prompted both ennui and scorn. Last September revisited, last July 12 months revisited. Fool me thrice, etc.

Some of Galway’s failings were unforgivable, clearly. Letting Conor Fogarty through too easily for Jonjo Farrell’s goal. Taking far too long to come to grips with Richie Hogan — an obvious instance of a new manager lacking the experience to think on his feet.

Yet it’s easy to forget that the losers showed a measure of resilience in the second half. When Kilkenny’s third-quarter push came they weathered it and responded with three successive points to reduce the gap to the minimum. Conor Whelan then missed a chance to level matters in the 54th minute. Thereupon the champions found a third wind, hit the next five points and drifted off into the sunset.

There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter films where Harry tries out a new spell — to kill a Dementor or use his magic wand on Hermione or whatever — and the odious Snape/de Valera unbends sufficiently to concede that “for a first effort, that wasn’t as bad as it might have been”.

Context, in other words, is everything, and the backdrop to Galway’s defeat in the Leinster final was that it was their debut on the big stage under Micheál Donoghue.

For a first effort it wasn’t as bad as it might have been.

For the moment Donoghue remains a dark horse. All we can tell is that he’s measured and has a nice way about him and speaks softly.

Whether he carries a big stick has yet to be ascertained.

For the moment too — and this has to be appreciated — he can only do so much. He has to clear the site of its rubble before he can start installing his foundations of choice. A team in that situation usually gets worse before they get better. It’s part of the process.

The three weeks between the Leinster final and the All-Ireland quarter-final did see him turn a few dials, with Aidan Harte recast to good effect as an attacking defender and Joe Canning recast to even better effect as an improved Joe Canning.

Unlike against Kilkenny, they worked the sliotar into goalscoring zones. Nothing dramatic but it all paid off. Hasten slowly.

The events of 12 months ago require no revisiting. What we got was what we saw. Galway horsed Tipp out of it, perfectly fairly. One can only imagine how the soul of Michael Ryan, perhaps the last in a long and, ahem, glorious line of uncomplicated Tipperary corner-backs, recoiled at such a travesty. The word from the moment Ryan took over was that there would be no repeat.

Sure enough, to date his charges have been everything that was promised.

That Tipp are different, lean and hungry and spiky, has been hurling’s leading article of faith this summer.

Signal moments? It’s been less a roll call of these and more their general air of poise, coherence and physicality. Cork deployed a sweeper; Tipp bypassed him. Limerick had an extra man; Tipp reacted with a combination of prudence and imperturbability. The Munster final was still a going concern at the halfway stage; at the three-quarter way stage it was a very deceased fowl.

Okay, two signal moments. John McGrath’s second-half point against Limerick for its sheer virtuosity and Brendan Maher’s shoulder on Kevin Moran in the Munster final for its sheer snarl. The two faces of Tipperary 2016. It would be easy at this juncture, perhaps even mandatory, to pen a paean to Michael Breen.

Instead here’s one to Dan McCormack. Yes, Dan McCormack.

Can you pick out a single item of note McCormack has been responsible for in the championship? Quite possibly not. But he’s one of those lads who in the old days would have been described as somebody who stood in and pulled, and where post-2010 Tipperary are concerned that’s a start. He stands in, works hard, provides ballast and ensures Patrick Maher doesn’t have to do it all by himself. Clare could do with a Dan McCormack. Clare could do with two Dan McCormacks.

The five-week break since the Munster final isn’t an issue. It was back in 2008 in Tipperary’s first season under Liam Sheedy when staleness set in but they learned from it. Mind the gap? They’re well used to doing so.

The one obvious caveat is their ease of passage here. They’ve defeated nothing. Put Cork, Limerick and the Waterford of the Munster final together and it’s quite possible they wouldn’t bate the two of diamonds. One is obliged to speculate, therefore, what will happen if both horses end up battling it out at the furlong pole tomorrow. Tipperary haven’t won a tight championship encounter since — when, exactly?

We asked this column’s most avid Tipperary reader, a worthy young man from near Clonmel called Pat who’s made the odd walk-on appearance here in the past, to carbon-date the occasion.

His response? “Jesus. A long time, I reckon. Oh. That’s not good.”

Trying to call the outcome of a match between familiar rivals boils down to an exercise in basic rule of thumb maths. A much superior Galway won by a point 12 months ago; Tipperary are leaner and hungrier and spikier and possibly more focused than they were then; Galway, with a new backroom team, are unlikely to be as streamlined as in their fourth season under Anthony Cunningham. They possess the size and forcefulness to prevent Cathal Barrett and Padraic Maher coming out with the sliotar. But the 2-17 that beat Clare will not beat Tipp.

Ergo, Tipperary. Simple, huh?

Thurles tonight is less clear cut. Waterford are likely to be drained, emotionally more so than physically, after their efforts last Sunday? Very possibly, but they’re young and resilient and Semple Stadium has become their pitch in a way that Croke Park has always been Kilkenny’s.

It’s a replay so it should be Kilkenny, on the grounds of Kilkenny being Kilkenny in replays? Very possibly too, but that wasn’t the case against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final three years ago. More to the point, when they won the All-Ireland replays of 2012 and ’14 they did so via the medium of rabbits from hats.

Walter Walsh (1-3 and the man of the match award on his championship debut) four years ago, John Power (a goal and a point) two years later.

Cody still has a hat but it no longer teems with long-eared furry creatures. At least three of his forwards could have been replaced on Sunday. Due to paucity of resources only Jonjo Farrell was.

Whatever the outcome it should make little difference to Waterford in the long run. Last Sunday they came of age as a championship team. That’s what really mattered.

The perception had grown, wrongly but understandably, that McGrath was a boffin, a technocrat, a man in a laboratory white coat. A Déise Davy, in love with formulas of his personal devising, yoked to his own way of thinking. Last Sunday, while not neglecting to keep the stable door bolted, he trusted his players to embrace their inner Setantas and they rewarded his trust.

Nobody did so more resplendently than Austin Gleeson. He is already one of the wonders of the age, the kind of hurler from the 1930s you read about when you were young and wondered if the ancient scribes weren’t gilding it a bit out of what they regarded as their patriotic duty. In Gleeson’s case we’re not. Yet expecting a 21-year-old to give a second command performance in the space of six days might be overdoing it. Kilkenny’s midfield to be better than it was at Croke Park.

Richie Hogan to be the gamebreaker.


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