THIS ISN’T as Dublin envisaged the great breakthrough. Twelve months ago had Anthony Daly been told that he would lead the county to not just a retained place in Division One but the actual title, followed by a first All-Ireland hurling semi-final in over 60 years he would presumably have been more than happy.
Those achievements remain and will always add up to a great season and significant progress for the county at the same time as it is also contending at the last four stage of the minor and under-21 championships. But the wind gusting behind Dublin three months ago has calmed.
Primarily, injuries have cut a great gash in the team’s sails and tomorrow will be about making the best of a difficult situation.
Subliminally there is also the disappointment that the hurling world has appeared less engaged with Dublin’s historic re-emergence at the top level for the first time in 50 years and more with the prospect of Tipp-Kilkenny Part III. Even the historical context is unforgiving: of the eight meetings to date, Dublin’s only win came in 1917.
This type of challenge both from an established order and unpromising circumstances is one, however, that drove Daly as a player and a manager to some substantial achievements. Dublin will be wound up like clocks to make the best of a long-awaited opportunity and avail of the relative space afforded by reduced expectation.
It’s not a terribly comfortable environment for the All-Ireland champions. No team likes to have the world at large making assumptions about their matches and 16 to 1 on is as big an assumption as has ever been made about a semi-final.
They would be under pressure of expectation anyway because of the Munster final demolition of Waterford, the latest evidence of the team’s development into a goal-scoring juggernaut, on a day when everything went right.
Declan Ryan makes no changes, which on one level is slightly surprising given the likely desire to get Brendan Maher back into the team after his long-term ankle injury, but on another is simply doing the Munster final team the courtesy of getting a vote of confidence. There is a further advantage in that it puts pressure on a couple of sectors to perform.
Most see John O’Keeffe as the likely player to make way at wing back but Gearóid Ryan will know the importance of maintaining his fine form at centrefield, where the returning Maher was the county’s most consistent player last year.
Either way, the reigning Young Hurler of the Year is fairly certain to start the final should Tipp progress.
Ransacking seven goals is less likely tomorrow than it was in Cork last month. Daly showed against Kilkenny in 2009 and with Clare seven years ago that he can implement clever defensive tactics to stop the roof caving in at an early stage. Allowing for that, there certainly won’t be any of the suicidal back-six improvisation that sank Waterford.
Peter Kelly is expected to pick up Lar Corbett and if he can restrain the in-form Hurler of the Year – and he has the height, pace and form to make a stab at it – it will put him in line for an All Star.
All around the field Dublin have the strength and mobility and aerial ability to dispute possession more effectively than Waterford were able to do.
Dublin’s injuries keep popping up in any assessment though and the loss of heavyweights like Tomás Brady, Stephen Hiney and Conal Keaney not alone deprives the team of their presence but puts increased pressure on the remaining players such as Liam Rushe who would probably have had a more aggressively forward role this year had it not been for the need to cover everywhere.
The Leinster final showed how hard Ryan O’Dwyer’s suspension hit the team in attack, as did his three goals against Limerick in the quarter-final, and he will need to repeat such heroics against his old team-mates if Dublin are to get anything like the foothold they’ll require on the scoreboard.
One possible area of improvement for the champions is in the area of discipline and Declan Ryan accepted after the provincial final that the free count needs to drop. Paul Ryan is as good a free-taker as there is in the championship but Waterford’s Pauric Mahony hit 12 out of 12 last month and his team still lost by 21.
Dublin will give this their best shot but unlike Tipperary, this year’s targets have been comfortably met and those in the years to come will be more feasible.
Sean Moran- Irish Times