Galway look to have edge in familiar showdown
New chapter in long-running rivalry as champions meet the title favourites
Joe Canning: Galway attack no longer depends on him to define every match. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Venue: Croke Park.
Throw-in: Sunday, 4pm.
TV: RTÉ and Sky Sports
A record attendance for a weekend programme of matches is expected at Croke Park over the three days of the August Bank Holiday. The main event on Sunday brings together a familiar pairing with the third successive All-Ireland semi-final between the hurlers of Galway and Tipperary.
There are so many angles to this you could cut yourself: Tipp are champions and pursuing – or at this stage, crusading after – first back-to-back titles in 52 years; Galway have hardened to championship favourites after a few months that have yielded the league and a second Leinster title – the former after wolfing down this weekend’s opponents in the final.
More than anything, though, there is the memory of the past two years’ finely balanced semi-finals and the milligram dip that in the end decided both of them.
Galway are in unusual territory. Not since arguably 1990 have they been so widely supported as likely All-Ireland winners and the 27 intervening years have been hard on their hopes and expectations.
They have done nothing wrong this summer but the memory of their almost perennial shortcomings continues to create unease.
Glanced at, the two titles won with a scoring average of 30 points per match spotlight formidable statistics. The anxiety is that this decade Galway have been to three semi-finals and two finals but have yet to enjoy a truly satisfying year.
In other words they haven’t yet broken new ground. The defence has tightened around a spine of Daithi Burke and Gearóid McInerney, the centrefield partnership of David Burke and Johnny Coen has matured into a force and the attack no longer depends on Joe Canning to define every match. Yet until the Liam MacCarthy set off again across the Shannon, no-one is going to be really convinced.
Tipperary are in neither such an anxious nor such a well-regarded position. As All-Ireland champions they know their capabilities but they also know that they haven’t touched the heights of last year.
There have been encouraging signs from the forwards with the McGrath brothers – John especially – Séamus Callanan, who missed the league final, and John O’Dwyer all limbering up menacingly against Clare with their instinct for space and complementary ability to launch scores from a broom cupboard. Centrefield was assisted by Clare’s hapless puck-outs but overall there was more industry and focus.
The problem remains at the back. James Barry’s difficulties in the quarter-final were cast in relief by the unavailability of Cathal Barrett but there won’t be huge surprise at manager Michael Ryan’s cracking of the disciplinary whip.
In this fixture last year he left John O’Dwyer twiddling his thumbs on the bench after an early red card in the Munster semi-final had stressed the team and cost Tipp the player’s presence for the final.
He wasn’t getting back immediately and although his 45th-minute entry was the turning point in the match the manager was in less of a hurry than most of the terrified supporters watching.
Barrett was there in Limerick for the league final and there were no guarantees about his form and Ryan was obviously disinclined to compromise his authority. Donagh Maher has played well for Tipperary at corner back but as a unit they haven’t had that same authority even in the half backs, the foundation of last year’s success.
At full tilt 12 months ago Tip were the beneficiaries of some bad luck for Galway with injuries to Canning and corner back Adrian Tuohy. They still won by just a point. That full-back line has been excellent to date, riding out the unfortunate loss of Paul Killeen thanks to John Hanbury’s unfussy assumption of duties.
The Leinster champions arrive under a shadow of nothing more substantial than suspicion they will revert to their old habit of inconsistent delivery. The chief concern would be that they haven’t been tested but provincial finalists Wexford beat Kilkenny and still couldn’t lay a glove on Galway.
There is the low rate of goalscoring but two years ago they didn’t raise a green flag and conceded three but still won whereas last year they scored two and lost.
Tipperary have never been great at rebuilding a damaged challenge as champions in the qualifier era and if they are depending on Galway to crack at an inopportune time they are likely to be disappointed.
Last meeting: 2016 All-Ireland semi-final, Croke Park, Tipperary 2-19, Galway 2-18. Odds: Galway 10/11, Tipperary 6/5 and 9/1 the draw. Just the ticket: €45 (Stand), €30 (terrace). Juveniles €5 and concessions available in Cusack and Davin Stands.
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)