Fired-up Galway to achieve title goal: McManus
Long-serving Antrim ace Neil McManus believes that tomorrow's All-Ireland hurling final between Galway and Waterford will underline the vast chasm that currently exists between teams in the very top flight and the rest of the field.
While pleased that the Saffrons will compete in Division 1B of the league next year, McManus is adamant that they face a real challenge in terms of gaining further credibility and insists that the All-Ireland series to date has underlined how hurling has morphed into an even more complex sport.
"I think tactically the game has evolved more and we have to be ready to face up to this challenge," says McManus (below).
"I think all those with the best interests of Ulster hurling at heart should study tomorrow's final closely and they will see what I mean. The levels of fitness and the stamina are now almost unbelievable, the tactics are more convoluted and the application is mind-blowing. But these are things we have to take on board if we want to progress."
Tomorrow's pairing underlines the changing face of hurling and the response of the top teams to the higher demands which have been made upon them.
No Kilkenny, no Tipperary, no Cork - instead an ambitious Galway side seeking their first title since 1988 and a re-invented Waterford side bringing an aching hunger to the table in search of their first All-Ireland crown since 1959.
There could hardly be a more attractive clash, a meeting of two sides who have been there or thereabouts in recent years without quite getting over the line.
Now at last they get their chance to strike out for the ultimate glory, both buoyed by recent impressive performances and fired by the all-consuming hurling fervour which has gripped their respective counties.
And just as that early goal from the mesmeric Con O'Callaghan all but sealed Tyrone's fate in last Sunday's spectacular football semi-final, McManus is convinced that Galway will net success in every sense tomorrow.
"I honestly believe that Galway have the capacity to get a couple of goals and if they do they will be hard to beat," states McManus.
"When you look at their forward power you see players who can finish clinically. While I am aware that Waterford may retain their sweeper system, I still believe that Galway have the pace and penetration to combat this."
Waterford manager Derek McGrath, who took a year out from his teaching post to concentrate on his sporting pursuit, is also conscious of Galway's fire-power but insists that his defence will be primed for battle.
Yet the feeling is that Conor Cooney, Conor Whelan and the very much in-form Joe Canning will pose big problems for the Munster team's rearguard.
Opposing skippers David Burke and Kevin Moran will go head-to-head at midfield where Waterford leader Moran is normally an influential figure, while Burke is a pugnacious battler who leads by example.
In Austin Gleeson, Pauric Mahoney and Shane Bennett, Waterford possess quality finishers, the kind of players who can convert half-chances - an invaluable quality in the white heat of an All-Ireland final.
Yet McManus still believes that Galway will have the upper hand and Canning is the player he believes will inflict most damage on Waterford. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary he hit 11 points including a sumptuous winner from far out on the touchline.
He invariably performs to his own exacting standards at Croke Park and will obviously relish the atmosphere tomorrow.
His experience, flair and self-belief can prove vital assets to a Galway side that has already won the Allianz League and the Leinster championship this year and have lost just one game - to Wexford - to date.
Manager Michael Donoghue has painstakingly assembled a side that embodies passion and flair, skill and subtlety.
The Connacht county may have had to exercise patience before they were finally accepted into the Leinster fold but since then they have gone from strength to strength.
And with Mayo having provided a generous ration of inspiration for their western colleagues by the manner in which they have reached yet another All-Ireland football final, the gauntlet has undoubtedly been thrown down to Galway to put their best foot forward.
But Waterford, whose heartbreak story on the All-Ireland stage resembles that of Mayo's in a football context, believe that they can now finally come good on the biggest day of all.
They have prepared diligently, acquired a positive mind-set and taken encouragement from their performances to date.
Yet for all that, McManus perhaps provides the perfect summation of the intense build-up to what promises to be a truly memorable final, when he declares with some conviction: "All hearts will go with Waterford because of their trials and tribulations down through the decades but the heads will, I feel, go with Galway."