The hurling world is watching, waiting with bated breath for the third successive instalment of Tipperary against Kilkenny on All-Ireland Final day.
Kilkenny kept their side of the bargain by beating Waterford in last weekend’s first semi-final to reach their sixth final in-a-row, and their 12th in 14 years.
With the score standing at one victory each in the last two years, and considering the closeness and outstanding quality of those matches, the public’ s appetite for another clash between hurling’s best teams won’t be sated unless they meet on September 4th.
With Kilkenny safely installed in one of the final berths, now it’s over to the title holders. And it’s against that backdrop of great expectation that manager Declan Ryan and his backroom staff are trying to keep Tipperary’s feet on the ground ahead of Sunday’s second semi-final against Dublin at Croke Park (3.30).
Tipp might have crushed Waterford in their last public appearance, the Munster Final of five weeks ago, but they still have an awkward assignment in the shape of Dublin to tackle before they can contemplate either a re-match with Kilkenny, or the prospect of the county winning the McCarthy Cup in successive seasons for the first time since 1965.
They’re red-hot favourites (16/1-on) to qualify for the final, although sensibly the mantra from management and players alike in the build-up to Sunday has been laden with caution.
Tipp did just enough to beat Cork and Clare in earlier rounds en route to the provincial final. The performance against Clare was particularly sluggish in the early stages before they recovered sufficiently to run out handsome winners.
However any lingering questions about either the side’s ability or hunger were answered in the most emphatic fashion possible when they destroyed Waterford by 7 goals in that one-sided Munster Final, running out winners on a quite incredible scoreline of 7-19 to 0-19.
On that July day when it rained goals in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, captain Eoin Kelly scored 2-6 (2-3 from play) , but still finished second in the scoring stakes behind Lar Corbett, who helped himself to 4-4. Seamus Callanan also helped himself to a goal while John O’Brien, Noel McGrath, Pa Bourke, Gearoid Ryan and Shane Bourke also got on the scoresheet on a day when their side ran riot.
Goals have been the common currency in this team’s displays for the last year and a bit – since that walloping by Cork in the championship first round last year they’ve scored 27 goals in 8 championship matches, an impressive statistic by any standards. In three championship matches this season they’ve found the net 14 times.
The tactic that has yielded such a bountiful harvest has been relatively simple and straightforward, and owes much to the template established by the highly successful Kilkenny teams of recent vintage – play quick ball into the forwards, especially the inside line, and encourage the attack to create the space in which lethal snipers such as Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and company thrive.
In the first half of the Munster Final they played 14 long balls directly to their full-forward line. By half time they were ahead by 5-10 to 0-8.
It has been suggested that the team’s majestic performance that day might have witnessed them hitting a peak this season, and that it will be difficult if not impossible to replicate such form. However with the outcome virtually done and dusted at half-time, when they led by 17 points, they didn’t need to operate at anywhere approaching full throttle in the second half, which offers their supporters ample hope that there’s still much more to come from the team.
Apart from the goals scored the pace, mobility and awareness of the side, especially from positions 8 to 15, was especially striking. If anything the attack looks even more fluid than last season’s deadly combination that swept the county to its first All-Ireland success in ten years.
Eamon O’Shea’s role on the sideline for last year’s success has been widely and rightly lauded, but he looks to have an equally effective successor as coach in Tommy Dunne. The manner in which these forwards transfer the ball around the pitch is highly reminiscent of last season’s all-conquering U-21 side, of which Dunne was also the coach.
The Toomevara man works away quietly and diligently in the background, keeping a low profile and letting his work on the training pitch do the talking. On the days when the management and players are wheeled out before the media in advance of a championship match Dunne is nowhere to be seen, instead letting his manager Declan Ryan and selector Michael Gleeson face the microphones, dictaphones and pens.
As well as the glut of goals the team has been stacking up high points totals as well – 22 against Cork and 19 against both Clare and Waterford.
A stiff test awaits on Sunday, and possibly an even more searching examination on the first Sunday of September if they get that far. Whatever happens in these concluding stages of the championship, they’re preparing for this trip to GAA headquarters in pretty robust health.
Even after all his individual and team honours collected last year, Lar Corbett appears a player who’s still hovering somewhere near the peak of his powers, perhaps surprising for a player who celebrated his 30th birthday last March.
He’s a much more rounded player now than the young gun who won his first Celtic Cross 11 years ago, although his electric pace and silky touch remain his main assets.
Eoin Kelly still has much to contribute and is the born leader of the side, displaying great dignity since he assumed the captaincy. Seamus Callanan has been a player reborn this year, forcing his way back into the first fifteen. Noel McGrath is a player who oozes class while Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher’s high-energy game is the perfect foil for the artistry of others.
Shane McGrath and Gearoid Ryan have established a solid partnership in the middle of the field. The defence faced some sticky moments against Cork and Clare but will point to the concession of just goal (against Clare) to date in the championship.
Conor O’Mahony has regained his place in the starting fifteen since appearing as a substitute against Cork. Padraic Maher is a player of supreme confidence and ability while the surefootedness of Paul Curran, Paddy Stapleton and Michael Cahill has helped smooth newcomer John O’Keeffe’s transition into the fold.
The record-breaking Brendan Cummins, who’s poised to break Christy Ring’s all-time record of championship appearances when he dons the number one jersey for the 66th time on Sunday, must now be entitled to be rated one of the game’s greatest ever goalkeepers, and has again been a model of consistency this year.
Such is the embarrassment of riches at their disposal that last year’s Young Hurler of the Year, Brendan Maher, is struggling to regain his place in the team, having lost his place when he broke his ankle.
Pa Bourke, one of the best players in the National League campaign and who has retained his scoring knack when he’s had the opportunity; Shane Bourke, the scorer of 3-4 in a landslide win over Galway in Salthill at the beginning of April; and the experienced Benny Dunne have all been restricted to cameo roles, although they have the ability to make significant contributions as impact substitutes.
For all their fluency against Waterford, Tipp know they’re unlikely to be afforded similar room by a rugged, physical Dublin outfit, who are available at 9/1 to upset the odds. Mindful of the hammering dished out to Waterford last month, they’ll probably look to close down space in their defence in an attempt to stifle their opponents’ free-flowing attack.
The Dubs would fancy their chances more if they were at full-strength and they’re weakened by the absence of the injured Conal Keaney, Tomas Brady and Stephen Hiney. However their 3-13 to 0-18 defeat of Limerick in the quarter-final underlined the character in Anthony Daly’s team, who have made great strides this season by winning the Walsh Cup and National League and reaching their first All-Ireland semi-final since 1948 - all achieved a year after losing to Antrim in the championship.
They were indebted to Cashel’s Ryan O’Dwyer for his hat-trick of goals in 18 first half minutes – as well as 2 points - against Limerick, and more than other player he’ll have a point to prove against his home county, as will selector Richie Stakelum.
They also had great performances in the quarter-final from full-back Peter Kelly, goalkeeper Gary Maguire, centre-back Joseph Boland, midfielder Liam Rushe and corner-forward Paul Ryan, who scored 8 points. They’ll approach Sunday in the frame of mind that they’ve nothing to lose.
The rarefied atmosphere of an All-Ireland semi-final against the champions, however, is a different level from anything the Dubs have experienced this year. And while they’ll take encouragement from a successful season that saw them beat Sunday’s opponents at the same venue in February, anything other than a Tipperary victory would be the shock of the season.