Tipperary strong favourites to reach final but must be wary of uninhibited Dublin

Tipperary have never met Dublin at semi-final, or final stage, in the long history of the national hurling league.

Tipperary have never met Dublin at semi-final, or final stage, in the long history of the national hurling league.

There will be novelty then about Sunday’s clash which opens proceedings at the Stadium. Tipp will be fancied though the ‘Dubs’ will have no inhibitions against a team they’ve matched well in recent times in both league and championship.

In the second bout reigning champions Kilkenny will carry favouritism but again, like Dublin, Galway will fell well entitled to respect in that particular duel.

Elsewhere the clubs have been busy countywide as the divisions keep up to speed with their local campaigns.

The most eye-catching outcome at the weekend was Loughmore’s one-pointer over Sarsfields in a thriller at The Ragg.

It’s been, at times, a choppy enough league campaign for Tipperary, running into a real storm at Pairc Ui Rinn in the opener before sailing into smoother waters in subsequent rounds. (How ironic that Cork now find themselves relegated).

The upshot of it all is a semi-final clash with the ‘B’ division winners, one we’ll be expected to win but beware of presumption in these events. Dublin come south encouraged after their win over Limerick and will see this as bonus territory where they’ll be uninhibited by pressure.

Team announcement during the week will be anticipated with interest. The policy thus far has been to shuffle the pack quite a lot from game to game in a bid to seek out our optimum formation.

By now, however, you would expect to see some stability emerging, especially after the comprehensive nature of our final round win over Clare.

Speculation starts with the number one spot where something of a rotation has been in place between Cummins and Gleeson. Brendan actually has drawn the short straw so far being on the receiving end of those defeats by Cork and Waterford while Darren has enjoyed the more pleasurable days against Kilkenny, Galway and Clare.

It would be something of a statement by the management if the Portroe man was again on duty on Sunday, which is why I suspect it’s Ballybacon’s day this time. Either way there’s no certainty about the summer tenancy of that department.

It’s difficult to see much – any? – change in the defence from the formation which repelled Clare so handily in the last game. Likewise the midfield partnership of Maher and McGrath looks stable.

Attack may be an area for some realignment where ‘Bonner’ Maher made such an impression the last day when introduced. John O’Dwyer, Eoin Kelly and Seamus Callanan were withdrawn against Clare. It tends to be an area where you need replenishment during the course of a game and substitutions can play a critical role.

John O’Brien, Brian O’Meara, Jason Forde and Pa Bourke are all viable attacking options. Hopefully no injuries were picked up in club action at the weekend to hinder selection choices.

After showing a dip in form last year Anthony Daly’s ‘Dubs’ are on a revival mission this time and will view the win over Limerick as a significant stepping stone on that journey. They fell to Limerick earlier in the regulation round so it was sweet revenge indeed to reverse the outcome on the more important day.

The deployment of Liam Rushe at centre back was significant in that outcome as he played a starring role in denying Limerick at the end. I assume he’ll retain that function for Sunday. Paul Ryan got the bulk of their scores from frees the last day while goalie, Alan Nolan, earned his stripes with a few fine stops.

‘Our’ Ryan O’Dwyer, back from injury, come on against Limerick and I’ve no doubt he’ll be well motivated to annoy us on Sunday should he see action.

Over the years we’ve had fewer clashes with Dublin than with other counties principally because the metropolitans have often been out of the top tier. The counties have met twenty-nine times in the league with Tipperary holding a seventeen-eight lead; there have been four draws.

Of more immediate importance is our recent record which has been less healthy. We drew with them last year in Croke Park and the previous campaign saw us lose by a point again at headquarters.

Of course our championship clash with them in 2011 wobbled precariously for some time before we squeezed home in the end. Overall then recent experience would teach us to respect Dublin – remember they won the league in 2011.

The bookies see Tipperary as heavy favourites giving odds of 2/7 while Dublin are available at 3/1. I hope they’re right.

Visitors to the Stadium are sure to remain in situ for the second bout where reigning champions, Kilkenny, face Galway once more. This was the rivalry story of 2012 with the westerners reclaiming much prestige by taking Leinster and then pushing the ‘cats’ to a replay in the All Ireland.

Galway had a peak-and-valley league, like Tipperary, but their schedule did include a win over Kilkenny which will encourage them for Sunday. Still the ‘cats’ regrouped from those early reversals and probably deserve their slight favouritism in this one; they’re listed at 8/13 with Galway on 6/4.

So the betting world is predicting a Tipp/Kilkenny final showdown; we’ll certainly hope that one part at least of that expectation comes true.

On the home front club action has been quite lively in recent weeks with the divisions making steady progress ahead of the slow-down when the inter-county championship kicks off later.

I’ve no doubt the stand-out result at the weekend happened at The Ragg where county and Munster champs, Sarsfields, fell to the hardy battlers of Loughmore and Castleiney. It went to extra-time and a one-point verdict thanks to a late Noel McGrath ‘65’ at the end of a game which produced a fine hurling spectacle in windy conditions.

In a corresponding pairing last year at Templemore I recall Loughmore leaking a series of game-ending goals to Pa Bourke and company but this time it was all a lot tighter.

Bourke had two goal chances alright but was denied on both occasions by goalie and defence. At the end of the initial hour it took a goal from, would you believe, Michael Cahill to rescue Sars’. They’d gone four-down and looked doomed when Cahill, while tracking Noel McGrath, found himself near Loughmore’s goal and whipped one home through a crowded goalmouth. A Mikey O’Brien equaliser followed and the game went to extra-time.

Again it was miserly tight in the additional time, the sides level once more at the break. In fairness Loughmore, and the McGrath brothers in particular, had missed several chances so it was fitting that the final opportunity fell to Noel who landed that ‘65’.

It was a thrilling climax to a marvellous game. Loughmore’s persistence got them there in the end and on balance I feel they deserved it. They went toe-to-toe with Sarsfields, matching them throughout and creating the greater quota of chances to take it in the end.

The point scoring of Liam McGrath was a delightful feature – I think he hit five from play –and they had a great spread of contributions with that old warrior, David Kennedy, even pitching in with a pair from centre forward.

Defensively they held it together too with John Meagher a rallying force at corner back before retiring injured. Hopefully it’s not serious. Liam Treacy’s introduction at a crucial time gave them a lift too.

It takes two to tango, of course, and Sars’ played their part in this thriller. There was no sign of Lar on a day when Ronan Maher caught the eye with a major input to their effort from midfield and back around half back in the second half of normal time.

The likes of Aidan McCormack and Michael O’Brien hit some fine individual scores. Pa Bourke hit four from play but was stymied on those critical goal chances; he seems to lack that killer punch when a chance arrives and the forward needs to be more clinical – imagine how Eoin Kelly would finish such opportunities.

Sarsfields now meet Bracken’s in the losers section in a game where a quarter-final will be on offer. Loughmore are through to the semis along with Upperchurch who dismissed the Templemore club convincingly on Saturday.

In other games midside Drom were far too strong for Holycross and Moycarkey had little difficulty against Boherlahan. The winners there go into quarter finals while the losers play-off for the remaining ‘quarter’ spot. I’m not sure how the draw goes for those quarter-finals. The Mid alone has this knock-out/losers group system which should mean a shorter championship, though with every game being crucial.

In other club games at the weekend there were wins for Kickhams and Cappawhite in the West while in the South Mullinahone and Swans drew and Ballingarry were too strong for Davins. An eye-catching result up North saw Silvermines topple Toomevara; it was the ‘greyhounds’ second defeat after falling already to Roscrea. How the old order changeth.

Already in our club championship several clubs will be casting a wary eye on the looming shadow of relegation. There’s one being demoted this year and the ones at risk are those who fail to make the divisional semis. They’re first into the county series and if they keep losing there then relegation is the ultimate trap door.

Of course getting into the top tier of sixteen clubs will also see you escape relegation in 2014 when two teams will take the drop. People have already been asking how that club of sixteen will form and I must admit I had to enquire, so our ever-efficient PRO takes the rap if the following is inaccurate. Sorry Ger!

The group of sixteen will be made up of the four county semi-finalists plus the four losing county quarter-finalists as well as the four losers from each of the previous two rounds. Sounds simple? I thought not but I’m assured it will all become very obvious as the season unfolds. Effectively if you lose your divisional semi-final then you need to win at least one round in order to qualify for the top echelon in 2014.