Never mind what we all thought as it was starting five short weeks ago but as late as last weekend who could have foreseen that the Munster championship was heading for such a tense conclusion, with the critical third place still in play for three teams?
From a point where we saw the three qualifiers as Limerick, Waterford and Cork, a new story has emerged. It’s still about the dominance of Limerick, but maybe not as emphatically, and the rise of Clare, who just a week ago battled the champions to a draw in Ennis.
Waterford and Cork had been league finalists and were seen as two and three in the province, in Waterford’s case an increasingly close second. They’re still involved but now even Tipperary have a shot at qualifying after a campaign that, although still pointless, has improved and created some hope for the future.
It may be an ideal finale for spectators but it is hugely disappointing for Liam Cahill and Waterford, who must go to Ennis knowing that no matter how well they play and how convincingly they win, it won’t matter if Cork beat Tipperary.
Circumstances favour them in one respect. Clare are already in the final and I’ll be astonished if Brian Lohan plays a full hand in this fixture.
Maybe Shane O’Donnell and Peter Duggan could do with the game-time but why would you risk Tony Kelly and some of the more dynamic performers like Ryan Taylor, who could all do with recharging the batteries, when there’s no reason to do so?
I was surprised Limerick didn’t rest more players last week. They were already into the All-Ireland series and almost certainly into the Munster final given scoring difference.
It’s been a constant theme of the round-robin format that no team can go high tempo for four matches without risking some sort of damage whether that’s injury or simply depleting reserves of energy. If you don’t have to, what’s the point?
It’s hard to believe that Waterford find themselves in this position. It was clear from the Tipp match that their form had dropped, and although they came out of the Gaelic Grounds with some credit there were also very worrying signs like the form of key players.
The cramped confines of Walsh Park were no help either, and by last weekend even Dessie Hutchinson, who had been maintaining some form, couldn’t impact against Cork. Stephen Bennett continued to struggle and Austin Gleeson abandoned his one-man resistance for the crucial last 10 minutes with a second yellow card.
It has been a significant drop-off in league form. Waterford can still qualify, but do even they believe it?
Cork are favourites in Thurles and rightly so because although I expect Tipperary to play well, are they likely to win? Probably not. It’s a new challenge for Cork because last week they came in with nothing to lose but the pressure is now on to seal their progression.
Kieran Kingston’s game plan has abandoned the tactical rigidity of the league and against Limerick and Clare. It’s as if he decided, “that’s it, we’re going to play a simpler game”. They challenged harder for primary possession, as evidenced by the high fielding of Darragh Fitzgibbon and Ciarán Joyce at vital stages.
They were also more direct because Alan Connolly and Tim O’Mahony, brought on in the full forwards, gave them that option. For me they look a lot more potent playing a less complicated game and not always moving the ball regimentally between the lines.
If there’s a reservation about them it’s that whereas in Thurles against Clare and Páirc Uí Chaoimh against Limerick their work rate was questionable, the tighter spaces of Walsh Park were more forgiving. They’ll need to be at a higher intensity because Tipperary on the basis of what we’ve seen are incredibly hard working even if results haven’t gone their way.
Leinster has proceeded along more predictable lines. The key match was between Wexford and Dublin, and Mattie Kenny’s men won that and that advantage will almost certainly give them third place regardless of what happens in Galway.
Wexford are another league casualty after winning all their group games in that competition. I have some sympathy with them over last week’s shock concession of a draw to Westmeath. I think in a lot of intercounty fixtures that equalising goal would have been disallowed for a square ball.
Their campaign hasn’t been helped by Lee Chin’s injury as well as Liam Ryan apparently carrying a knock, and they have to go to Nowlan Park on Saturday evening and take on a Kilkenny team that impressed me a week ago regardless of how poor Dublin were.
They are hurling with that intensity that marks out Brian Cody’s teams at their best, which means playing at a sustained tempo that makes the opposition almost irrelevant. Cian Kenny looks another useful acquisition, and I’ll be interested in how the team plays and what that suggests for their prospects.
I simply can’t see Wexford throwing a curve ball.
Galway typically find Dublin hard going in the championship and have lost the last two Leinster meetings. It’s a test of where Henry Shefflin has Galway. To me they’ve had their moments and Tom Monaghan looks promising. They are physically improved, and if they want to be real contenders they need to put this to bed with as little fuss as possible.
Finally, Westmeath get the chance to back up the great result against Wexford by securing a place in next year’s championship. Their form and Laois’s injury woes give them every chance.