Too many 'ifs' over Tipperary
All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final
Galway v Tipperary
Tomorrow, 4pm, Croke Park
Live on RTÉ2 & Sky Sports Arena
ONE hundred and three days after Galway made the world sit up and take notice, they meet the acid test of their status as favourites to win Liam MacCarthy.
Back on April 23, they ignored the recent tradition of tight games between themselves and Tipperary by blazing to a 16-point win in the National League final. The bookies instantly installed them as frontrunners for September success.
This game was always going to fall into their path somewhere along the line. Even at their worst, Tipperary are among the top four in the country and for too much of this summer, they have been closer to that than their best.
The radical overhaul of their last line has been a major contributory factor. Goalkeeper Darren Gleeson is no longer first choice after a troubling time off the field. Cathal Barrett was axed from the panel while fellow Allstar James Barry has moved from his seemingly natural home at full-back into the corner.
That has made way for youngster Tomás Hamill on the edge of the square as Michael Cahill struggles to win his place back after a dip in form and injury trouble.
It’s suspect they have looked in there but as manager Michael Ryan admitted, so much of the problem is from the lack of pressure on the ball out the field.
“We have not been performing at the top level - I think that's the accepted reality. We have work to do,” he said after their win over Clare.
“It is certainly not how we learned to defend or how we try to defend and, if anything, it is quite the opposite. I just think the full-back line in particular is such a horrible place to be.
“If the ball breaks badly for you or if you are on a really good forward and if he reads that ball just millimetres better than you do you're dead. It's a green flag and that's simply it.
“And, as long as fellows are playing hurling that is the reality - if the forward gets the turn first and he is on the top of his game you are in trouble.”
The manic intensity they brought to their play through the whole of last year, most importantly to Croke Park in August and September, has been absent since midway through the National League.
All of it, the entire project, is hanging on their forwards. Because as badly as their defence might be performing, Tipperary have a forward unit that, even through this testing period, has shown the wreckage it is capable of leaving behind.
They hit 6-26 against Dublin and in landing 0-28 against Clare, they never missed a beat for the first hour. John McGrath scored six from play, Seamus Callanan and ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer four, Noel McGrath three.
There’s something so effortlessly natural about them. The movement seems almost unchoreographed and they are the one side left in the All-Ireland race with that split-second ability to change the course of a game from nowhere.
Galway could get to 26 or 27 points tomorrow afternoon and still lose. That’s the threat Tipperary carry, and that unpredictability has been one of the central themes of their semi-final battles of the last two years.
And yet even looking back to last year, you can’t help but find further evidence for a Galway win tomorrow.
In the space of 20 seconds at the very end of the first half, Adrian Tuohy and Joe Canning suffered hamstring injuries that ended their games with Galway going in a point up.
Daithi Burke had a handle on Seamus Callanan that no other defender managed to get near replicating, keeping him scoreless from play and winning the physical battle on the edge of the square.
That Callanan ended the Clare game nursing his left arm after taking a slap leaves a doubt over just how influential he can be against an opponent who had the better of Jack Guiney the last day, and is a heavy favourite for the Allstar at full-back.
Against Wexford, they operated with Tuohy as their sweeper in reaction to Sean Murphy going back at the other end but this will be old-style, man-for-man warfare.
Tipp will take solace from their half-back line’s display last year. Pádraic Maher blew the in-form Cathal Mannion – who is fit again after missing the Leinster final - out of the water. It seems likely Maher will be on Joseph Cooney this time though.
Seamus Kennedy has been unsung in his solidity, while Ronan Maher looked to have returned to form against Clare but there might be concern over him against the roving Joe Canning.
Galway looked to have improved in their own half-back division too. Pádraic Mannion has had an excellent year and Gearóid McInerney offers the same kind of physical stability as Daithí Burke behind him.
And while there is a fluidity and an unpredictability about Tipperary’s attack, Galway’s forward line has sparkled just as brightly this year.
Conor Cooney has been unplayable on the edge of the square and his deployment there, with Joe Canning deeper, has altered the entire way in which they operate.
They have given Cooney and Conor Whelan ball down in front and the pair of them have been winning everything, albeit with less scoring return from Whelan.
With Mannion returning in place of Jason Flynn, and Niall Burke likely to stay at wing-forward where he was vastly improved in the second half against Wexford, there is a balance of physicality and scoring power about them.
The one worry from that Leinster final was the lack of a single goal chance in a game where they strode comfortably to victory, though the presence of the sweeper is something they’re unlikely to face this weekend.
Canning revealed after the win over Wexford that he had been playing through a twisted knee and it showed in a subdued display but if he can wield his influence tomorrow, the cracks will surely show in Tipperary’s under-pressure defence.
If Seamus Callanan is even fit to take the frees accurately then Tipperary will put up a score no matter what Galway do.
And if they can rediscover the manic workrate that brought them to glory last year then there’s every chance Tipperary could be back in Croke Park on the first Sunday in September.
But there are just too many ‘ifs’ to believe that it will all come together for the reigning champions. A single point is all that has separated them in both of the last two semi-finals but while this could be tight until the final quarter, Galway could pull clear to win by five or six.