And so, yet again, we return to Ger Loughnane and the 1997 Munster final, borne back ceaselessly into the past like those boats of Fitzgerald’s.
F Scott, not Davy.
Every team Loughnane averred reaches a point in their evolution where they take the field for a match they simply have to win. Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh 20 years ago was Clare’s. Tipperary in Croke Park tomorrow may not be Galway’s but it’s as near as makes no difference. Let us count the ways why.
MacCarthy Cup favourites and All-Ireland champions in waiting, they are extremely – Lady Bracknell might say almost ostentatiously – eligible.
They won the league in a hack and the Leinster title in a canter.
They are formidable in terms of size, the few non-man mountains like Aidan Harte and Johnny Coen being mobile and wiry, and they’re in precisely the right place on the spectrum in terms of age. Joe Canning at one end of the stick, a couple of youngsters on the fringes at the other and the most of the rest of them in their mid-20s, experienced and worldly, hardened by the battles they’ve fought but not yet disillusioned by the defeats they’ve endured. The XV that started the Leinster final included eight members of the side that started the 2015 equivalent – an ideal rate of turnover.
They’ve been scoring points to beat several bands. The fact that they riddled Offaly for 0-33 and Wexford for 0-29, with ne’er a green flag to be seen, implies not a lack of incisiveness in the last 30 metres of the field but rather a confidence in their own ability to win matches on points without having to reach for the blunderbuss. In any case, with Shaun Murphy operating behind his full-back line in the Leinster final rather than in front of it, a stopper of enemy attacks as opposed to a starter of Wexford attacks, common sense demanded that Galway starve him rather than feeding him with long ball. They did, justifying the theory that Micheál Donoghue is a pragmatist rather than an idealist or ideologue.
“If Galway don’t win the All Ireland this year they’ll never win it”? A catchy soundbite but a trite one. They’ll be around next year and the year after that and the year after that. A more accurate way of framing it would be to hold that Galway will never have a better chance of winning the All Ireland than they do in 2017, a season where the path to the MacCarthy Cup is less daunting that it’s been at any stage since 2013.
Win tomorrow and they’ll start favourites for the final and will be entitled to. What’s more, win tomorrow and they won’t be facing the familiar Fell Beast, that odious brindled feline, next month. This isn’t Galway’s All Ireland final – that would be a preposterous contention - but it’s more than merely an All Ireland semi-final.
In attempting to divine a winner we must first try and gauge what kind of game will unfold. A long-range shootout, in view of Tipperary’s 0-28 against Clare and Galway’s 0-29 against Wexford?
Or the polar opposite, a wildly entertaining goalfest, on the understandable basis that both sides sense there’s hay to be made the closer they get the sliotar to the enemy 20-metre line?
It would be idle to spend time speculating about which scenario will be realised. Here’s a prediction nonetheless: tomorrow will ultimately come down to the subject of balls. Gonads. Cojones. Possession of same. Size of same.
Recognise a critical juncture, a potential inflection moment, in the first half, possibly approaching the interval, and go bald-headed for a green flag. Repeat the dose at an opportune moment – ten minutes from the end, say - in the second half. Keep a clean sheet oneself et voila!
Admittedly Tipp scored three goals to Galway’s none in the 2015 semi-final and still didn’t win, but all things being equal the team that raises more green flags tomorrow should advance. One way the men in maroon may achieve this is by getting Canning 30 metres further up the field. In the Leinster final he operated in deep midfield, giving a dig-out to his defenders as frequently as prompting his forwards, a dual role partly necessitated by the injury he carried. He’s been minding himself in the championship to date, a conductor of the orchestra rather than the first violin. Is this the day he’s been saving himself for, the day he goes to war?
Here’s a little tip for the contestants at no extra charge. Be in front at the interval.
Championship 2017 has not been a Formula One race. It’s been a contest of mid-priced family saloon cars, nearly all of them lacking a fourth – never mind a fifth – gear.
By way of illustration ponder this. Of the 18 matches played since the start of the Leinster championship proper only one - Offaly v Westmeath - has seen the team trailing at half-time recover to win. Cork were level at the break against both Tipp and Waterford before kicking on for victory.
Kilkenny were five points down at the midway stage against Waterford before recovering to take proceedings to extra time. On 11 other occasions, a team trailed by five points or less at half-time and were unable to turn matters around.
Tomorrow may see the sequence halted. Neither Galway nor Tipp are driving one of those safe family saloons. They’ve got vehicles with extra gears alright, as evidenced by Galway’s closing quarter versus Wexford and Tipp’s late fusillade of points when Clare got within hailing distance near the end. Being in front at half-time may not be so important after all.
And a little tip for Galway at even less charge. They made a virtue of keeping puck-outs away from the Maher brothers in the league final and they saw the damage Cork did by running at, and around, the Tipperary half-back line in the Munster quarter-final. Their aerial success against Wexford five weeks ago constituted a victory for a particular horse on a particular course. That quadruped should not be saddled up again tomorrow.
Some other observations. When the pair met in the last two semi-finals Tipperary were the ones taking the field after a five-week break and Galway doing so after a three-week break.
The latter were the team with the momentum, the former potentially the sitting ducks. The worm has turned; Galway are now the ones coming off a five-week hiatus whereas their opponents were in action only a fortnight ago. It may amount to nothing. It may not.
Tipperary’s desire for revenge for the league final, an afternoon on which Galway not only made them look silly but also confirmed every silent misgiving about their powers of resolve and appetite for the hard road, should not be underestimated.
Patrick Maher’s decision-making against Clare was uncharacteristically poor. Tomorrow he needs to run as fast as ever but think a little slower.
The ease with which Jack Guiney breezed past Daithi Burke to set up Diarmuid O’Keeffe’s goal in the Leinster final was disquieting. That said, they’re constructed to be difficult to break down. Build up a lead tomorrow and they’ll fill two third of the field with banks of three, leaving Conor Cooney as the tip of their attack and the men around him in withdrawn positions.
May Tipp employ a sweeper in front of their full-back line, even for ten minutes at some stage? Unlikely, but Michael Ryan will surely have discussed the possibility.
The likeliest course of action is for Brendan Maher to sit back on top of Ronan Maher and the latter to drop 15 metres closer to his own posts. Yet suppose for the sake of argument that James Barry recovers his form and Tipp don’t concede more than one goal. That unquestionably put them in the ball game.
Conor Whelan was less effective than usual at Croke Park not because he endured on off-day but because Galway’s gameplan didn’t involve getting him on the ball the way it had in the league final and against Offaly. Isolating him on Tipperary’s left-corner back has to be a ploy here.
On the basis that the last thing a puncher loses is his punch, Tipp have a puncher’s chance of winning this.
That, in turn, equates to a really good chance, given the whump in that full-forward line. Three ghosts with hammers in their hands.
A point separated the teams 12 months ago, a point separated them 12 months before that. Those aforementioned judiciously timed goals tomorrow, however, and it may well prove a five-point game.
To call it: Galway, on the basis of their body of work this year and because such qualms as surround them – the full-back line, their strength on the bench – are not repellent. Still, if there’s a gap in your diary for next Saturday evening, keep it free for the moment.
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