As I left Thurles on Sunday evening in the crisp darkness it felt like the weekend was summed up by a phrase that was in use elsewhere in the sporting world. It was Masters weekend in America and in golf they talk about the third round as Moving Day. That's exactly what last weekend felt like. The big guns of the championship started to show their hands and get into position for the big push to the finish line.
There is no doubt in my mind that the standard of the games last weekend was at its best so far in the championship. Skill levels, body hits, individual displays, physicality and intensity levels all went up at least one notch in the two qualifiers and a couple of notches in the Leinster and Munster finals.
That’s what Moving Day is all about. It means different things to different competitors, depending on how you’ve started. If you’ve been shaky out of the blocks, now is the time to get yourself in among the contenders. If you’ve been impressive from the start, now’s the time to create a bit of distance between yourself and the field.
One way or the other, forward progress is non-negotiable. Now is no time to be treading water, or finding yourself, or holding steady. Liam MacCarthy is going to be handed to somebody three weeks from Sunday. If it’s going to be you, now is the time to find that higher gear and get comfortable with it.
Some players realise this and meet the moment. You saw who they were last weekend. Players you can't take your eyes off, players who leave you breathless. Cian Lynch, Tony Kelly, TJ Reid, Joe Canning – all four of them gave us little moments of genius here and there to drool over. And of course, Richie Hogan – I'd nearly be reluctant to comment on his goal because anything I say here won't do it justice.
But if you want a real indicator of the fact that we’re coming to the sharp end of things, just look at the score totals. Weekend by weekend, the scoring averages are falling. In the provincial quarter-finals, there was an average of 61 points per game. For provincial semi-finals, that number dropped to 54. For the two provincial finals, it dropped to 48. It has fallen in the qualifiers too – in round one it was 52, in round two it was 43.
If we had been told that would happen before the start of the championship, we would have assumed that it was because the winter turned worse the longer it went on. But you can’t blame those totals on the weather – conditions have probably even improved a little as time has passed. No, those falling totals are mostly down to the fact that intensity is rising, everything is getting tighter, teams are getting to the pitch of what’s required.
It was a very good weekend of hurling. As Anthony Daly and I shuffled out of Semple Stadium we were in pensive mood, muffling under our facemasks and wondering what the draw might throw up the following morning. I came away from it all full sure that I wouldn't want to be pulled out against either of the defeated provincial losers. Somebody was going to get Galway and somebody was going to get Waterford and one way or another, it was going to be tough draw.
Lo and behold Tipperary got Galway. That certainly woke me up from my Monday morning slump. What a game to look forward to. That's Rocky IV stuff, I thought to myself. Rocky v Drago, no backward step allowed.
These two teams have served up the best series of games of any two counties in the past five years. They have their own storylines, their own images that jump immediately into your head. Canning's wonder score to win it in 2017. Noel McGrath's emotional return and point in 2015. Paudie Maher levelling Joe in 2016 and then Gearoid McInerney delivering a monster revenge shoulder the following year, a dish best served cold with a side of Croke Park turf for good measure.
I think of this rivalry like the vicious killer clown in the horror movie IT. The clown is called Pennywise and he awakens from the underground world every 27 years to feed his need. We have our needs every week, but Pennywise can obviously fast a lot better than us hurling folk.
The Tipperary-Galway rivalry was asleep since the late 80s when Gearoid’s dad Gerry donned his flashy white boots and tanned legs. It’s now back in all its glory and hopefully it stays around for a while longer. There are too many good players for it to vanish underground. Local neighbours who are very used to seeing each other up close and personal. Too little between them for it not to be served up to us on a regular basis.
To give you a flavour and an idea of how close this rivalry has been since 2015, they have meet three times and are separated by an aggregate of one point. The score stands at Galway 2-66 (72) Tipperary 6-53 (71). So over 210 minutes of hurling and 127 scores, there was only one puck of a ball between them. That is astonishing.
After their recent games, there are questions hanging over both teams. What happened Galway in the last 10 minutes against Kilkenny? Should Conor Whelan be positioned closer to goal? Will Aidan Harte start?
And what about the Tipperary side of the fence? The form of the two McGraths – has that gone underground, like Pennywise? Séamie Callanan hit a goal in every game in 2019 – has he so much as threatened the goal this year? Why not? Paudie Maher does not seem to be firing, even though it’s a time of year where his hurling and physicality should be flourishing. Tipp would have gone into the championship thinking Paudie would be one of the players nobody needed to worry about. Two games in and they’re not sure of that anymore.
I think, though, that we have respect the body of work that these Tipperary guys bring to the table. They are on the go for over a decade now, they have won everything there is to win. They have come back from defeats and done it the hard way when they had to. They know what it takes.
Like all classy players, the return to form of the McGraths is, to me, as reliable as your milkman turning up on time in the morning. They’re too good and possess too much talent to not bounce back. And although Callanan’s goalscoring has dried up this year, he was central to them finding a way to come through that second half against Cork last week. He showed the leadership that we know he has in him. He and Paudie Maher have three Celtic Crosses each and these guys know how to get it done on big days in big games. It does not come any bigger than tomorrow.
Both of Tipp's matches have come in the worst of the weather so you can see that Liam Sheedy has been getting them to adapt accordingly. Their best passages have come when they have formed a pack of wolves to go sniff out and hunt the opposition down.
The players who have come to the fore in this regard are Dan McCormack and Bonner Maher and if they are going to last past the weekend, these two are crucial. The message to these guys will be hunt, scavenge, hit, repeat. Michael Breen will be a welcome aid in this field because he brings scoring power that the other two lack.
Galway were having the perfect year up to the latter stages of the Leinster final. If anything, it might have been a bit too perfect because I think it lulled them into a bit of complacency. That allowed Kilkenny the opportunities to snatch the game from them – and you do not have to ask Kilkenny lads twice. Two goals in a minute and before Galway realised it, the Bob O'Keeffe Cup was in Rackard Cody's van passing Avoca on the N7.
This doesn’t have to be a disaster for Galway. The opposite, in fact. Any complacency has been knocked out of them and I would be very surprised if it raised its head again. I expect them to arrest the issue and move on.
The question is what are they moving on with. They have moved some serious talent into the front ranks this year in Seán Loftus, Brian Concannon, Shane Cooney and Fintan Burke. In the process, they have refreshed some of the more experienced guys and created a strong bench.
So they do look menacing at times. They have physicality and pace, they have ball winners everywhere, and in Pádraic Mannion they have a very good extra man should it be required, but they have a lovely blend of youth and experience. And in Conor Whelan, they have a guy who I feel is actually unmarkable if given the right ball.
I do not say that lightly. Why? He can win the ball any way he has to. In the air, fast and low, even one of those skiddy once along the ground. He can grab any of them and once the ball in his hand he is a finisher. If they double-team him in the full-forward line or place an extra man in front of him, he can roam out to the wing to find space or to even the half-forward line to get possession. He is a force of nature.
That alone could be the difference here. So I’ll give a hesitant nod to Galway.