Waterford v Tipperary
Walsh Park, 2pm
By the time the hurlers of Cork and Limerick take to the Páirc Uí Chaoimh sward on Sunday afternoon, one – or possibly both – of the other challengers for the three knockout spots in Munster will have dropped points.
There can’t have been too many previous situations where the Déise went in as such warm favourites against the Premier County but their Allianz Hurling League victory has franked their status as the side most likely to make Limerick’s crown wobble, if not to actually dethrone them.
Leaving aside the strange non-performance against Clare in last year’s Munster quarter-final, the only other team to beat Waterford in the championship over the past two campaigns has been Limerick, on three occasions – the Munster and All-Ireland finals in 2020 and last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
The issue from a Waterford point of view is that none of those games ever truly looked like ending in anything other than a victory for the Treatymen, but an emphasis on fast, direct attacking play during the league has given Waterford an extra dimension.
They raised 22 green flags across seven games and, while seven of those were in a huge win over Laois, they finished the campaign with five goals in the semi-final against Waterford and then four in the final victory over Cork.
Tally in the fact that that six-point win included a goal at the death for the Rebels which gave a more flattering representation of the scoreline for them, and the fact that Waterford were without Iarlaith Daly, Jamie Barron and Austin Gleeson, and it’s easy to see why Liam Cahill’s team are seen as the best of the rest.
Stephen Bennett is back to something near his best, similarly Tadhg de Búrca with an injury-free run, while Shaun O’Brien has made the goalkeeping spot his own and Carthach Daly has been a huge find during the league. What was very noticeable against Cork was the impact of the hard work of the half-forward line of Neil Montgomery, Jack Prendergast and Patrick Curran, while having Pauric Mahony as an option off the bench makes them even more formidable.
Certainly, there are fewer questions about Waterford than there are about Tipperary. Colm Bonnar’s first year looks being characterised by transition, especially with the totemic Pádraic Maher retired and Séamus Callanan ruled out of Sunday by injury. They still have players of high quality but the side beaten by Waterford in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final is a year older and they have yet to enjoy the fruits of the 2018 All-Ireland U21 title and the 2019 U20 victory.
They can’t be ruled out, of course, but in a packed and expectant Walsh Park, they may find that Waterford have too much for them.