Wexford's solidity could leave Tipp dreams in ruins
All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Wexford v Tipperary (tomorrow, 3.30pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 &Sky Sports Arena)
A MONTH ago, you wouldn’t have needed asked twice to pick a winner here. Yet in the few short weeks that surrounded their respective provincial finals, Wexford have climbed the ladder and Tipperary have slid down the snake.
They will rendezvous somewhere in the middle when they take to Croke Park tomorrow afternoon in front a crowd that Wexford hope will contain 40,000 of their own supporters.
Since appearing in five out of six Leinster U21 finals between 2010 and 2015, winning the last three, there has been a glint in their eye. But it’s taken Davy Fitzgerald to bring the best out of them.
His methods always leave him open to question among the puritans, but his managerial record now stands on its own two feet against any man.
He is aiming to reach a third All-Ireland final with three different teams since dipping his toe with Waterford 11 years ago. Then, they beat a Tipperary side in the semi-final that hadn’t lost a game all year.
When he took Clare to ultimate glory five years later, it was the Munster champions of the piece, Limerick, whom they disposed of in the last four.
Wexford, moreso than the other two, has been a project. He’d have seen their potential when they knocked the crown from the head of that Clare team in 2014 after a gutsy pair of displays. With the under-21s coming through, it was a fashionable move.
The trick since then has been gradual improvement, which was something his previous managerial examinations didn’t stand up to. Waterford and Clare both failed to back up success early in his regime, whereas this has been something built at a steadier pace.
There are still some who can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to analysing them. They may not refer much to the old gladiatorial handbook, but they take the bits from it they need, and modernise the rest.
Conor McDonald is used to long evening stretches on his own in the full-forward line. Yet in the Leinster final win over Kilkenny, it was his willingness to go left and right that pulled Padraig Walsh out of the hole in front of him, creating spaces for others.
They limited Walsh’s influence on the game by not hitting the ball to him. Standard enough, you’d think, but there are those who would still criticise such temerity.
Paul Morris will occasionally join McDonald inside, but what they’ll perhaps have taken most from beating Kilkenny is the fact their system has had such refinement that it now operates effectively in Croke Park.
That was the pre-match sense before the provincial decider - that the Cats were back home in north Dublin. This wasn’t a test of wills on the tight enclaves of Wexford Park, where they’d drawn a week earlier on a day that Wexford could so easily have slipped out of the championship altogether, but rather a test of skills on the big green.
Wexford passed the test to bring home the silverware, their first in a generation. Yet for all the good they did, the asterisk that hangs over it is one they can’t remove themselves. Are Kilkenny really a side capable of winning an All-Ireland at present? Saturday evening’s events will bring Wexford’s Leinster title into sharper focus.
Be sure that Tipperary will hang on that too. If its currency is weakened in any way by what Limerick do, Liam Sheedy will use it psychologically.
Because right now, he’s the manager carrying pressure. Their blistering start to the championship, the group stage win over Limerick, it all sent the hype train free-wheeling. The crash did not seem inevitable, but when it arrived, it was gruesome.
It’s one thing to have a bad day. It’s another to have a day where, individually, the Limerick backs completely shut down a forward line that had hitherto looked back to their unplayable best.
The swagger of Johns McGrath and O’Dwyer was flattened. Seamus Callanan, despite his early goal, was kept well in check by Mike Casey. They missed ‘Bonner’ Maher hugely. Physically, they were second best by a long way, right down to the footrace for possession.
Quite how they rectify that in a matter of weeks is a big question mark, yet Sheedy need only call on 2010, where they were thumped by Cork in Munster but recovered to stop Kilkenny in their tracks come the big day.
Tipperary’s entire being relies on not just the relentless movement of their attack, but the supply of ball going in.
What was witnessed in the Munster final was a return to what they’d been so heavily criticised for in the latter part of Eamon O’Shea’s reign. How much ball in did they not land on top of Declan Hannon, standing 30 yards in front of his own black spot?
The arteries were clogged and so the beating heart of the team couldn’t get doing its job. Wexford will have seen the effectiveness of Limerick’s pressure in the middle third.
Kevin Foley will protect the space in front of Seamus Callanan and it’s whether Tipp have the craft and wherewithal to pull him out of that space and create the goals that they tend to rely on.
When they get them, they win. Tipperary have lost just one game this decade in which they’ve raised more green flags than the opposition, namely last year’s loss to Limerick.
John McGrath and John O’Dwyer, along with Noel McGrath, have both suffered short-term dips in form. The Munster final will have stung them and while Matthew O’Hanlon, Liam Óg McGovern and Damien Reck are the prominent trio likely to be sent to deal with them, Tipp have to feel they’ll get a bit more out of them.
If that bit more brings them goals, Wexford’s counter-punching style might not be enough to ever apply the right kind of sustained pressure to Tipp’s public vulnerabilities.
They’ve conceded just two goals this summer, but scored only five. Tipperary have scored 10, and conceded half of their four goals in the Munster final. Despite concerns over their full-back line, they’d kept three clean sheets in the provincial group stage.
Wexford are masters at limiting the number of goal chances. If Tipperary’s use of the ball isn’t drastically improved, then they could get a real shock.
Davy Fitz could well be sending a third team out to march behind the band on All-Ireland day.
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Man of the moment
THE poster boy of Wexford hurling has at times carried the same sagging weight on his back that Austin Gleeson has for Waterford – that there were days when he could be blistering, but too many when he wasn’t. This season, however, Chin has been steady in the best sense of the word. Taking over the frees and being consistent on them has been a massive plus for Wexford. While he still retains the ability to produce a moment of brilliance that could win a game, there’s something that little bit more trustworthy about his performances now
Wexford (probable): M Fanning; D Reck, L Ryan, S Donohue; M O'Hanlon, K Foley, P Foley, S Murphy; D O'Keeffe, L Og McGovern; J O'Connor, L Chin, R O'Connor; C McDonald, P Morris
THEIR only real injury concern is over corner-back Damien Reck, but he’s expected to be fit to resume in what will otherwise be an unchanged team. Aidan Nolan is available after his two-match ban was cut in half, meaning he’s already served the suspension in the Leinster final.
Tipperary (probable): B Hogan; C Barrett, J Barry, S O’Brien; B Maher, Padraic Maher, R Maher; M Breen, N McGrath; N O’Meara, J O’Dwyer, D McCormack; J McGrath, S Callanan, J Forde
THE big question marks over Tipperary’s team are defensively. Is Michael Cahill fit again, and if so, does James Barry give way? Does Liam Sheedy keep faith in the under-fire full-back and give him a chance to prove himself against Conor McDonald? Or does he keep him in the team but push him into a different role? Jake Morris, on under-20 duty during the week, is likely to start from the bench with Niall O’Meara in from the outset.
Liam Óg McGovern v Noel McGrath
WITH Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher out for the summer, the onus in terms of Tipperary’s delivery to their inside forwards will fall on Noel McGrath. He had a relatively quiet day in the Munster final and is likely to find himself tailed by Liam Óg McGovern in Croke Park. Wexford’s hope will be that McGovern’s fresher legs can make McGrath go the other way and suck the energy out of him. But if McGovern’s defensive duties aren’t diligent enough, Tipp will have found a real avenue of joy.
SHOWERS are set to sweep in across Dublin on Sunday afternoon. Nothing too heavy, but the teams won’t be too disappointed as their high-octane styles will be better suited by a cooler day.
Who’s the ref?
THE Kilkenny man has edged his way into the upper echelons. Took charge of the opening game in this year’s championship but was furnished with heavy criticism from Cork after it, with Diarmuid O’Sullivan reckoning he’d refereed the two halves differently. His only other outing this summer was the group stage clash of Tipperary and Limerick, which passed off without incident.
Tipperary (-3) 11/10
Draw (-3) 11/1
Wexford (+3) 5/6
Seamus Callanan 9/2
Conor McDonald 15/2
John McGrath 8/1
Worth a punt
RTÉ man of the match: Padraic Maher 14/1