Tipperary v Clare, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Sunday, 10th June, 2pm
I think Tony Soprano said it best. He was trying to get hold of one of his most trusted henchmen Pussy Bompansero, who he had been told had become a police informant. But Pussy had disappeared from view. And though Tony suspected that his old friend may have betrayed him, he was loathe to dispense of him willy nilly. To throw another spanner into the works, Tony had reason to believe that it was in fact another of his colleagues, Jimmy Altieri, that was actually the rat. But perhaps Pussy was still one too? So Tony was confused. His mind was frazzled. And sitting at a table in the basement of his nightclub, with his other loyal confidantes Silvio Dante and Paulie Gaultieri, he just sighed and muttered disconsolately “Nobody knows anything”.
I take these words as a metaphor for this year’s championship. Nobody knows anything. So after a game and a half we were full sure that this Tipperary team with their “4 defenders over the age of 30 (sic)” were finished. After 140 minutes they were serious All-Ireland contenders. After 190 minutes they were completely gone, deader than dead. The deadest. Yet after 210, they’re still in it. So we still don’t know. We don’t know anything. And even if Tipperary win this Sunday, we might not know either.
But even if this championship has thrown us, in ways we can’t quite grasp, there are certain things that we can hold to be reasonably true. We know that Galway are an excellent side and justifiable favourites to win it out (no shit says you) .We know that, to quote Bobby Robson, home advantage gives you an advantage.We know that playing three weeks in a row, on the other hand, is a marked disadvantage. But if you’re playing not just three, but four weeks in a row, yet are at home, as in Tipperary’s case, are you advantaged or disadvantaged?
Maybe Clare have been one of the sides most true to themselves so far in this competition. For the last five years we have known they were one of the most supremely talented sides in the country, yet they were also a bit mentally brittle. And the first couple of games have proved that. So in a home game against Waterford, they saw a side that was on its knees and gladly stamped on them. But away to a Cork side, who had the backing of the crowd behind them, they wilted in the last 5 minutes. And, in recent years, that’s always been Clare’s problem. When the pressure comes on, they invariably crack. Well, they can’t afford to crack on Sunday.
It may have escaped people’s attention somewhat, but while Sunday is a non negotiable, must win game for Tipperary, it’s an equally imperative victory for the Banner men. Because even if they do win their last game at home to Limerick, if Limerick beat Waterford this weekend, a defeat by Tipp will be enough to push them over the edge of elimination. So after a week off, where they had time to lick their wounds, they’ve just got to win this. The excuses that they may have had in the past, just don’t cut it anymore.
As for Tipperary, we’re still not sure if this is a side in the last throes of life, or just one waiting to burst into life at the next moment. But even though we’ve had to re-evaluate our opinion of them multiple times over the last few weeks, there are some things that seem almost non negotiable now. Can anyone argue that Cathal Barrett and Bonner Maher aren’t deserving of selection when they’re fully fit? That Padraic Maher looks in badly need of a rest from his centre back position? That Bubbles O’Dwyer isn’t reliable enough at the moment to be selected? And that that full back line, isn’t ripe for picking by John Conlon, Shane O’Donnell or whoever else? So comebacks aside, this looks a Tipperary side with more questions and answers. And if Clare want to make a statement victory, and boy are they overdue one, then Sunday is the day to do it.
But then again who knows? If Clare haven’t pulled off a surprise championship win in 5 years, then why would they start now? If Tipperary have put two great halves together in the last pair of games, then why couldn’t they put another couple together, in the same game, on Sunday? And if home advantage really does count for something (70% of the winners in the National League is the oft quoted stat) then does that not point to a Tipperary victory? But something tells me that, though there’s still a bit of a sting in this Tipperary wasp, eventually they’re going to leave themselves with too much to do. But who the hell knows anything? I know I don’t. But we can have fun trying anyway.
PREDICTION: Clare by 2
Limerick v Waterford, Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, Sunday, 10th June, 2pm
There may be an apology needed in here somewhere. I think we need to say sorry. Not just for myself but for everyone else on behalf of the GAA community. The pundits, the fans. We’re sorry Waterford. We doubted you. We said there was no way you’d beat Tipperary. You wouldn’t compete. You’d get hammered. But you weren’t. You stood up. You were men. And you very nearly succeeded.
Then again it wasn’t just the pundits, those curmudgeonly simpletons who compose columns, just to keep their websites getting clicks, who lacked belief. It was the people of Waterford too. There were only 10,000 people in the Gaelic Grounds last Sunday. And I know it’s a long trip up from the city to Shannon side but perhaps the team was deserving of more. Their performance certainly suggested so. And not just those fans, but Tipperary’s too. On the pitch, in the second half, for sure, it was championship. But in the stands, in numerical terms at least, it certainly wasn’t.
It’s an intense experience, this new hurling championship, and any number of factors can affect a team. Injuries are one. Home advantage is another. Adequate rest is a very pertinent one. And another one is the format of the fixtures. Like if Waterford were playing a side who were a little cold, or even low on confidence, like Wexford, then they may have a chance on Sunday. But they’re playing a Limerick side, on an emotion filled high that almost, should have won against Cork. And that’s not a good position to be in.
That was an outstanding performance by the Treaty men last Saturday night. They used to be promising hurlers but they’re real contenders now. Cian Lynch is now so much more than a player of mere tricks and flicks. Seamus Flanagan displayed an accuracy that matched his endeavour. Graeme Mulcahy’s workrate was a sight to behold. And the never say die attitude of guys like Tom Finn and Richie English to get up from knocks and keep on coming suggests this is the most resilient Limerick team we’ve seen since…well, who knows? With the level of effort they were putting in, you’d almost forget at times, that it was Cork who had the extra man. It certainly didn’t feel like it.
Waterford, for 50 minutes at least, were a joy to witness in the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday. We may have been dismissive of their ability to cope with the knocks, but last Sunday proved a theory I’ve been pondering for years: they’ve as many hurlers as any other county in the land. Tom Devine for one, seems like a forward that could have made a massive difference to the team last year. Maurice Foran was equally as impressive at top of the right. And having just 6 backs, does not necessarily eliminate your chances of victory.
There’s plenty of hearts and guts and passion in Waterford hurling. But look at it another way. Even leave out the goal that never was last Sunday. And the point from Ronan Maher that might not have been. And the point from Austin Gleeson that could have been. Leave all those factors aside and just look at it in bare figures. Waterford were 11 points up with 20 minutes to go with a man extra and couldn’t win the game. And, all gripes aside, that is a bit of a damning indictment.
It’s not the first time it’s happened though. In the qualifier against Kilkenny last year Waterford were 8 points up with around 15 minutes to go and still ended up being forced into extra-time. So there is a weakness there in the psyche. When they’re good they’re very, very good. But when they’re bad…We know how the gods conspired against them on Sunday and have done so, for the whole year even. But they still should have won the game.
So mentally at least, you’d say Limerick are in a better place. Better a draw that felt like a win, than one that felt like a defeat. Now there’s still enough hurling in Waterford to give them a serious rattle. But 3 weeks in a row? With those injuries? With that nagging sense of injustice sniping away at you? It’s difficult to see it. This is a serious Limerick team. And that’s been proven twice already. But, by god, if Waterford were to prove us wrong yet again, I’d gladly apologize once more.
PREDICTION: Limerick by 3