Michael Ryan's honeymoon period is over as Cork arrive to take on the holders

Michael Ryan's honeymoon period is over as Cork arrive to take on the holders
By Eamonn Wynne ewynne@nationalist.ie @TheNationalist

Neither county was involved in the last four of the National League and neither has played a competitive match in seven weeks, with Waterford and Clare taking centre stage in the hurling world in the last month as they settled their differences in the league final and replay.

Yet their rivalry and tradition is so deeply embedded and ingrained in the nation's consciousness as to ensure that the provincial hurling championship could hardly have asked for a better opening game than Sunday's clash of Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium.

The venue only adds to the sense of occasion and once referee Barry Kelly throws the ball in at 4 o'clock on Sunday it will be confirmation that summer has finally arrived.

The winners of this Munster quarter-final will advance to a semi-final meeting with Limerick on June 19, while the losers head straight to the qualifiers.

Manager Michael Ryan has been involved in Tipperary's backroom team for six of the last eight years as selector and assistant manager to Liam Sheedy and Eamon O'Shea, a good grounding as he prepares to take the reins of control for the first time in the championship.

If he was allowed some breathing space during the league, Michael Ryan is only too well aware that the championship will be a less forgiving place.

The expectation levels among the county's supporters are pitched at a notoriously high level and the pressure is on Ryan and his team to hit the ground running this weekend.

If it ever existed in the first place, the new manager's honeymoon period is now officially over.

This is a match that Tipp, the holders of the provincial crown, are expected to win.

They are rated as a 2/5 chance to beat Cork, with Cork 9/4 and the draw a 10/1 chance.

Tipp are 4/1 second favourites for the All-Ireland title behind Kilkenny (7/4), while the odds on league champions Clare (11/2) and dark horses Waterford (13/2) appear unusually generous. Cork, meanwhile, are a 12/1 shot to lift the Liam McCarthy cup, with Galway at 15/2 and Limerick 10/1.

Against such a backdrop defeat on Sunday would represent a significant but not fatal setback for Tipp.

They enter the championship on the back of a league campaign that was patchy. They inflicted a heavy defeat on Dublin in the opening game in Thurles in February and had a comfortable win over Cork at the same venue in their last group game. In between those victories they shipped defeats by Waterford and Kilkenny and drew with Galway, before losing to Clare in the quarter-final.

Worryingly, that old familiar flaw of failing to close out games that are well within their grasp resurfaced during the spring.

In the league quarter-final in Ennis at the beginning of April, their last competitive match, they were the better team in the opening 20 minutes of the second half of a close tussle but the scoreboard didn't reflect that superiority. They were eventually undone by Aaron Shanagher's late goal and, not for the first time, their lack of a killer streak proved costly.

Since the league final three years ago, which they lost to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, each of their exits from the league, provincial and All-Ireland championships have come by three points or less.

That amounts to eight narrow defeats, which is ample evidence that the team hasn't been ruthless enough when it matters.

To add weight to that argument Waterford got the better of them by a point in the league game in Thurles in early March, courtesy of Austin Gleeson's last-gasp free from his own half.

On the plus side Michael Ryan has put his own stamp on the side. The introduction and deployment of players in key positions and his reluctance to keep chopping and changing too much, while at the same time giving some fringe players their opportunity, has had a settling effect on the outfit.

The retirements of Shane McGrath and James Woodlock created an opening for a new centrefield partnership and Brendan Maher and Michael Breen have impressively stepped into the breach.

Team captain Maher admits that he's happier lining out in the middle of the field than in the centre forward role he filled last year.

Breen, a tall, strong player came into the senior set-up with a good reputation but has yet to lay claim to a permanent position in the side. The time has now arrived for him to do just that.

Ronan Maher has settled well at centre back, allowing his brother Paudie to relocate to the wing, while Barry Heffernan has done little wrong on the opposite wing, although concussion looks likely to rule him out this weekend.

John McGrath has been the success story of the attack this year. An ever-present during the league, he scored 1-29 in six matches, a haul that included 10 points from frees. He had an equally successful league campaign last year and will now be anxious to deliver in the championship.

Jason Forde missed most of the league through injury after a great display in the opening game against Dublin in February. He re-appeared as a substitute against Clare and is pushing hard for a starting place in Sunday's team.

Seamus Callanan, who was sidelined through injury in the early months of the year, is still searching for the spark he showed in the previous couple of years.

He was unusually out of sorts in that league quarter-final, missing a few frees that he would normally score with his eyes closed, and was replaced by Jason Forde 18 minutes from the end.

However the experience and scores provided by Callanan and Bubbles O'Dwyer, another big game player, will again be crucial to this team's prospects of success this year.

Eire Og Annacarty goalkeeper Darragh Mooney is in line for his senior championship debut if Darren Gleeson isn't selected, while Cathal Barrett and James Barry will be the lynchpins of the full back line.

Cork, meanwhile, are never more dangerous than when they're written off and they'd like nothing better than to ambush Tipp in their own backyard.

Apart from an encouraging display against Kilkenny under lights at Pairc Ui Rinn, when they were unlucky not to earn a draw at the very least, their league form was abysmal and they only preserved their Division One status thanks to a relegation final win over Galway.That has been their only competitive win so far this year, although their sole focus seems to have been Sunday's game.

Captain Stephen McDonnell will miss out following surgery on an elbow injury that he sustained in a challenge against Clare but Mark Ellis, who had been out of action because of an arm injury, returned in that same game.

This may not be the most talented team to have ever represented Cork, yet there's nothing like a clash against their fierce rivals in Thurles to bring out the best in them.

In Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnedy, Luke O'Farrell and Pat Horgan they have proven match-winners.

Tipp went behind closed doors in training last week as they wound down their preparations.

There won't be much between them, unlike the All-Ireland semi-final of two years ago, which Tipp won by 10 points, or even the Munster Championship contest in 2010, when Cork also had 10 points to spare over their opponents at the final whistle.

However their better-balanced team should give Tipp a slight edge.