Kilkenny v Tipperary
Nowlan Park, Sunday, 3.30pm
FOUR years ago when Kilkenny beat Tipperary at Semple Stadium in a League Final, it signalled the beginning of an awesome run of games between the country’s two best sides.
A strong performance by the Premier County on Sunday can reinstate this rivalry as the status quo in hurling.
Because, as discussed last week, Galway look to be either regressing, are struggling to produce the same intensity, or have been figured out by The Cats. Either way, they are off the pace.
Tipp’s deterioration in 2011 and 2012 coincided with the appointment of Declan Ryan as manager and ended not long into Eamon O’Shea’s tenure, with the heavy League loss to Cork serving as the dying kick of a run of dead performances. That has all changed now.
The importance of a manager should not be underestimated here. Tipperary have won so few All-Irelands in the last 40 years because, more often than not, men euphemistically referred to as “old school” have been in charge — essentially managers who think roaring and bawling is tactical. Not that players don’t need to be geed up, but there’s more to it than smacking the bás of a hurley off the dressing-room wall.
Brian Cody took over one of the big three and, of Kilkenny’s 34 titles, he is responsible for 26 per cent of them. It’s the sort of amazing fact that probably makes Cork wish they had Donal O’Grady for a few more years during his tenure in the last decade, and has Tipp fans again bemoaning the departure of Liam Sheedy and the subsequent loss of the All-Ireland title.
Luckily for the Premier, O’Shea’s methods are anything but old school; and rather than sucking away players’ confidence, he is instilling it into them. Hence, Kilkenny v Tipperary looks to be the big rivalry again.
Plead a case for Galway if you must but their reputation is built on a fantastic Leinster final win over the Cats, an All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Cork, and a draw in the first final. In between have been two underwhelming League campaigns and some heavy defeats, so we need consistency.
Since 2001, nine times has a league finalist gone on to contest the All-Ireland decider later that year. Kilkenny account for seven of those, winning five September showdowns; Tipperary are the only other team to be involved in both finals, winning one in 2001 and losing the other in 2009. There has been nothing in the league to suggest that this trend won’t continue.
Many of the standout players so far have been from Kilkenny and Tipperary. It seems to be accepted knowledge that Richie Hogan is the form player in this year’s league but that is simplistic and cursory investigation.
It’s been up and down for the Danesfort man, the depths being a day against Clare when just one of seven shots found their mark, and the summit reached on a day when Kevin Hynes was sucking for air as Hogan eased over five points from play. The reality of his campaign is somewhere in between, but his form is steadily plotting an upward chart. As is Kilkenny’s and so many of their players’.
Back in 2009, Hogan was still some distance away from becoming a regular starter for Kilkenny but he was the star of that extra-time league final win with 1-10 to his name. He set up one goal and scored the other in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Tipp too, so it’s not as if he doesn’t enjoy the challenge presented by the neighbours.
In that, there is an interesting comparison between these Irish counties and the soccer clubs of Manchester. United winning all and sundry, while City threatened to and then did win a championship before ending their reign meekly. To win just once, the saying goes, but that’s not enough when you have the means to repeat the feat.
Players such as Hogan keep coming back to the well and drawing what’s theirs, or making it theirs. Tipperary haven’t been made of that stuff since Sheedy decided against revisiting the well but now, with his right-hand man from 2008-10, they look ready.
O’Shea seems to have done all we expected and more in the short few months that he has been in charge. His job spec looked a tall order: instil confidence, return the flowing hurling, sort out the problem wing-back spot, find some new forwards, and reinvigorate those already there.
Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly — who missed Dublin’s trip to the abattoir — have shown elegance and fire in equal respective measures this year, no longer anchored by the tactics that saw two possible All-Ireland tilts come and go in 2011 and 2012.
John O’Brien will return from a finger injury and likely provide the usual aerial threat, while Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher is still feeling his way back in after time with the army. Seamus Callanan, who scarcely featured in last year’s championship, looks to be getting up to speed as the ground hardens; this, lest we forget, is a man who was the form player in all of Ireland during the provincial championships in 2011, so he can be a big player.
Shane and Pa Bourke will continue to plead their cases for a start but butting into the queue now are John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Jason Forde, the emerging stars.
Bubbles has also been a form player in the league and Forde was man of the match against Dublin — so these two are pushing the established stars. All of which means that O’Shea has given himself a fantastic headache.
What he has also done is given his team the sort of versatility and options that they haven’t had. The league has shown that Conor O’Mahony can play full-back if Paul Curran is out of favour or out of the picture.
That Brendan Maher is as effective at midfield, where Shane and Noel McGrath played against Dublin, or the problem wing-back spot. As mentioned above, the forward options are vast and interchangeable too. Too much for most teams to deal with, bar the one team that always is: Kilkenny.
When the sides met at Croke Park in August, there was an outcry over the argy bargy going on. What seems lost in the discussion is that Tipperary were usually the men walking backwards. Psychologically, Kilkenny had won a victory that they rarely lose.
Then that’s where the big games are won and lost in sport. You have to believe you have done everything possible to know you can win, and then execute the plan. Tipp haven’t had a discernable strategy in the last two seasons — in a manner that Kilkenny have had since Cody took over a million sunsets ago — but they do now.
The late collapse against Waterford during the league showed them what can happen when intensity levels drop while easy wins over Galway, Clare and the Dubs proved how good they can be — all while looking at their ease. How very Kilkenny of Tipperary.
The Cats are gathering pace all the time and they know that Henry Shefflin, Michael Fennelly and TJ Reid will all come back into a team that destroyed Galway. Because Tipp should have closer to their championship XV on show at Nowlan Park, their need is greater. So too should their quality, if the intensity is there. Here’s hoping for a classic as in 2009.
Chat to Shane Stapleton on Twitter: @shanesaint