When the championship draws were made last autumn the Munster pairings, for me, seemed to suggest a Cork-Tipperary final.
Cork, I thought, would surely take care of Waterford in their semi-final, and Tipperary, on the form they showed early last September, would make it through as well.
There was also talk at the time of a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland with Kilkenny in pole position again but the gods would surely reward Eamon O’Shea. Clare could be a force to be reckoned with and Galway, well, were Galway. Limerick, Dublin and Cork were worthy of consideration when the semi-final colours were being put on the canvas in August but that was it.
The rest would be in the also-rans category even before a sliotar was pucked in anger, angst or anything else.
Until now, though, Waterford are the new team of the season, regardless of Kilkenny retaining an air of invincibility. Waterford have been a breath of fresh air even though their defensive set up is not to everybody’s liking. But the Déise are certainly getting the performances, and the results.
The Waterford team of the first decade of this millennium entertained and won everything except the main prize. They played a swashbuckling brand of hurling under Justin McCarthy. They had some of the great players of the era yet they failed to bring Liam McCarthy home.
Win or lose on Sunday, Waterford will still be standing.
Outside the loyal supporters of the remaining counties, most hurling followers would love to see the Déise make the ultimate breakthrough.
They are almost in the same category as Mayo’s footballers.
I heard a song on radio a few days ago that Derek McGrath or Dan Shanahan might make compulsory listening for the panel for the remaining big matches.
Davy Carton and Leo Moran of The Sawdoctors penned To Win Just Once the same year as another long-time also-ran crossed the finishing line in first place in 1996 .The final verse reads:
To win just once
That would be enough
So come all ye fulltime smalltown heroes
Cast away your inbred fears of
Standing out from all the rest
The cynics and the pessimists
The self-indulgent almost rich
The blatant hurlers on the ditch
Time is passing so come on
And face the ball, the game is on.
That wish is for an even more important day in hurling’s calendar.
There are, of course, two teams in Sunday's showdown and Tipperary are also deserving of a bit of luck and cothrom na féine – which might be translated as "reward due".
The width of the upright came between them and ultimate glory last September. On the second day, the margin wasn’t as tight and Tipperary lost another final.
On a beautiful mid-September Saturday evening in 2010 it was fiesta time in Thurles. All the fans who couldn’t get tickets for the senior final victory the previous Sunday, and many hundreds of children, were paying homage to their All-Ireland-winning under-21 team after they demolished Galway. The famine certainly looked over.
It’s hard to believe they haven’t won either title since, given the age profile of that senior team and the extremely talented players they had on the under-21 team.
In the Gaelic Grounds a few weeks ago they looked very impressive for much of the game against Limerick and then quite vulnerable when the home side played “properly” for a while after the break.
But surely now a forward line that contains Séamus Callinan, John O’Dwyer,
as the principal players, with a supporting line of
, Niall O’Meara, with John McGrath and
waiting on the wings , has to be worthy of much respect.
But of course games aren’t won on respect.
Tipperary know Waterford will play with seven defenders (or will they this time?). However, I don’t think that tactic will be the winning or losing of the game. Waterford’s work ethic and quick distribution of the ball is their hallmark. This is the quality that has to be matched and surpassed by Tipperary.
The sweeper system, so widely used now in hurling, is presenting us with a different visual spectacle. We now have a situation where the majority of players occupy the area known as the middle third of the field. As a consequence of this, there are vast areas of free space. The sweepers, on both sides, generally base themselves at the edge of the D and cover left and right. As a result, we see many uncontested deliveries from these unmarked players.
It seems obvious, if overly simplistic, to suggest that working the ball in rather than long deliveries should be the main tactic for all teams.
Possession and the precise use of the sliotar is the aim of every contemporary team. Tipperary have arguably the most skilful group of players in the country. They have the skill and ability to control the game.
Waterford, though, are playing with a tenacity and desire that hasn’t been matched this year by any of their opponents. They also are playing a very measured, possession-based game.
In the end it will probably come down to one or other of the many variables that come into play in every contest.
On Sunday the loss of top quality,ultra-reliable free Pauric Mahony might be just one of those.