Mayo to edge out a brave Tipperary
Tradition might be perceived to be against Tipperary this Sunday when they take on Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, but history is not.
Over the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of reading Michael Foley's book The Bloodied Field - an account of the events surrounding the Black and Tans' Bloody Sunday ambush on Croke Park in 1920 - and it was fascinating to learn so much about Tipperary's involvement in the struggle for independence.
Tipperary was at the heart of the GAA's formation. Hayes' Hotel in Thurles played host to the organisation's very first meeting, Carrick-on-Suir man Maurice Davin became its first president, and the people of the county saw playing Gaelic football and hurling as an extension of their identity.
The fact that one of their famous sons, Michael Hogan, was killed while leading out Tipp footballers against Dublin in 1920 is a source of pride. So, 100 years on from the 1916 Rising, the prospect of running out in front of a stand named after their former captain is sure to resonate in the Tipperary dressing-room this week.
That they have got this far, especially when they have lost so many players from last year, is a credit to the resolve of each and every player in Liam Kearns' panel.
Considering they are without their outstanding midfield partnership from last year's U21 team, Colin O'Riordan and Steven O'Brien, (to name but two of over 20 absentees), it is something of a minor miracle that they are on the brink of an All-Ireland final.
The aspect of Tipperary's play which has impressed me most has been their dogged perseverance, especially when things go against them. This is something which you often see in established teams like Dublin and Kerry, who frequently overcome setbacks by digging themselves out of a hole.
Getting so-called underdogs to develop such a trait is a far more difficult task. Mental strength often withers away in the face of repeated failure at senior championship level.
Against Cork, they relinquished a big lead and allowed the Rebels to draw level with two minutes to go, yet they rolled up their sleeves to kick the last two points of the game.
Against Derry, they did much the same - being five points up with 10 minutes left only to concede a sucker-punch goal and even let their opponents edge ahead. But again, they refused to let the heads go down and Conor Sweeney fired over the winning point.
Collectively, they have become stronger mentally and there's no doubt this has been a spin-off from the sheer single-mindedness they have shown in their general play. For me, this was crystallised in the lead-up to their second goal against Galway.
Initially, Galway were on the attack around the Tipp '45' when they found themselves choked for space as Josh Keane, Sweeney and Philip Austin got back to make tackles.
Chaos ensued and the ref opted to throw the ball-in, which Galway won, but the Tipp hits kept coming and possession was turned over. In the next breath Bill Maher and Austin hared down the field to set up Sweeney, who had also sprinted back down and caressed the ball to the corner of the net. Game over.
The main worry I have for them, apart from their lack of experience at this level, is that Mayo will not allow them to take short kick-outs like Galway did. This will force Tipp to kick the ball long and Mayo's physical superiority in midfield will give them a marked advantage.
With Seamus O'Shea, Aidan O'Shea and Tom Parsons to call upon, Mayo should be able to establish a foothold around the middle.
The other main concern I'd have for Tipp is that they tend to be opened up pretty easily - mainly as a result of allowing the opposition to move the ball quickly to their frontmen and naïve defending.
Danny Heavron started at half-forward for Derry, but played a sweeper role and was allowed to roam, kicking four points from play in the process. Against Galway, Damien Comer barrelled through the defence and fired home.
With their power, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle have the ability to launch attacks from the Mayo half-back line, and with the likes of Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran showing a return to form, Stephen Rochford looks guaranteed to come up with a less-defensive game-plan than they had against Tyrone.
I see the bookies have installed Rochford's men as 1/5 favourites, and while those odds flatter them, having been here before should see them able to justify that tag with five or six points to spare.
Mind you if I was a Tipp supporter, I'd get plenty of encouragement from the last time the two counties met in an All-Ireland semi-final back in 1920 - a game actually played in June 1922 - and from reading the match report which appears in The Bloodied Field, two aspects of that game stand out.
Firstly, the wayward Mayo forward is not a recent development as Tipp won by 1-5 to 1-0. Secondly, low-scoring games were a feature of that year's championship.
Clearly much hasn't changed, as blanket defences must have existed back then, so we can't lay the blame for all the game's ills at Jim McGuinness' door!