The nerves are tightening as the clock counts down to another day of destiny for Tipperary hurling. The latest episode in this age old saga carries as much fascination as any of its predecessors. Will Kilkenny’s dominance continue – as the betting odds suggest – or can Tipp finally slay the dragon?
A fourth final between the counties in six seasons underlines the latter day prominence of this rivalry. It’s a rivalry that has delivered some painful days for Tipperary though a win on Sunday would see us level up the count on two final wins apiece. That prospect of redemption must be a major spur for the Tipp players, one that hopefully will carry them over the line.
The unpredictability of sport never ceases to mesmerise as individual games take on a character of their own. Who could have foreseen the demise of unbackable Dublin in the football last week? Or indeed the collapse of Cork in that hurling semi-final – and therein rests a conundrum for Tipperary in anticipating this decider.
Since failing to Limerick at the start of the campaign, Tipperary has cut a swath through the qualifiers without having to sweat-out a tense finish. Galway beaten by nine, Offaly by seventeen, Dublin by thirteen and Cork by ten offer impressive maths. Yet it also leaves us wondering about the ‘what ifs’ of a nervy finish and whether we have the steely resolve to win a tight game.
Trying to read a form line through Tipperary this year isn’t easy. It’s been a rollercoaster season swinging from highs to lows though the qualifier route has enabled the team to steady up and develop real momentum. Whether that will be sufficient to propel us to victory on Sunday remains at issue. It’s extraordinary how perceptions change so rapidly in sport. Prior to the Cork game there were background rumblings that we had goalkeeping problems. Now Darren Gleeson is the 8/13 favourite to be the All-star goalie. What a difference a game makes in the fickle world of sport. Perhaps it’s a worry that Gleeson will be one of four players at our defensive end playing in their first senior All Ireland final. Cathal Barrett’s rise to prominence has been meteoric since making his senior debut last January. He’s now second in the betting to Shane Dowling for the prize of young hurler of the year.
James Barry’s elevation has been even more spectacular. He only made his league debut as a substitute against Dublin in the final round of the competition and his championship promotion came on that ill-fated day against Limerick. Now he’s likely to be a key minder of the house in just his fifth championship appearance for the county.
Twenty-eight year old Kieran Bergin was a latecomer to senior inter-county hurling making his debut in the 2013 league final at Nowlan Park and subsequently spending spells at midfield and half forward before returning this season to his more favoured wing back. There is then an element of inexperience about our defence and one that most expect Cody to try and exploit. The Kilkenny manager has a track record in this regard and many anticipate that James Barry will be in his sights ahead of Sunday. There is speculation that Ritchie Power might be the one chosen for that task though Cody has several options in that regard and I won’t be surprised if a series of markers are deployed on the Upperchurch man to see if advantage can be gained by any of them.
Curbing Paudie Maher I’m sure is part of the Kilkenny blueprint too and here the speculation surrounds Walter Walsh who enjoyed a profitable day on the Sarsfields’ man back in the league at a time when Tipperary’s positioning was all over the shop. Whatever transpires the match-ups will be fascinating in that clash between the Tipp defence and Cody’s attackers. I worried about our defensive shape ahead of the Cork game and was proven wrong; hopefully my concerns this time will likewise prove unfounded.
Midfield is an intriguing zone to anticipate too. The Woodlock/McGrath partnership enjoyed probably its finest day ever in the semi-final against Cork and repeating that impact is obviously a lot to expect. Richie Hogan is Kilkenny’s go-to man this season and if we manage to break even in that area it will be a major boost.
While we might worry about our defensive shield I suspect Kilkenny have their concerns too as they plot to curb ‘Bonner’, Callanan, ‘Bubbles’ and company. They seem a bit uncertain about their goalie choice after Herity’s blunders in the semi-final and others suggest that the old warriors like J.J. Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell and Brian Hogan are susceptible to pacey attackers. Perhaps, though it’s yet to be proven. From a Tipperary perspective we’ll certainly need more impact than we saw in the semi-final where only half of our sestet met requirements. Corbett needs a big one and we’ll want more from Noel McGrath and Gearoid Ryan too.
In all of this I’m assuming that the team will line out as against Cork in the semi-final. That would mean no starting slot for Mickey Cahill, which is extraordinary given his recognised standing as one of the finest defenders in the country. On the positive side it means that we have a very able replacement if difficulties arise.
Elsewhere the Kilkenny bench is likely to look far more potent than Tipperary’s. I’m assuming Shefflin will be kept in reserve as an impact sub to be launched at a critical point in the second half though Cody is on record as stating that he’s still capable of seventy minutes. Mark Kelly might struggle to find a starting place after the semi-final though he could be the type of player to bother some of our lighter defenders. It’s difficult to see Walter Walsh remaining on the bench if he’s not in the starting fifteen and I suspect Ritchie Power will be on board for the throw-in this time. In any case they have considerable back up if the tried and trusted such as Reid, Larkin and the Fennellys are in any way found wanting. From a Tipperary perspective Denis Maher again seems the most likely first sub for an attacking role with Jason Forde and Niall O’Meara also in the frame, though our fall-back resources here definitely seem inferior to Kilkenny’s.
It’s a fascinating clash to anticipate. On past record Kilkenny deserve favouritism because they have been our masters in all major finals under Cody, bar 2010. And yet there is a tangible sense that Tipperary is capable of matching them now. We did everything in the league final bar win and let’s not forget that we were within inches of winning last year also in Nowlan Park when a break or two would have carried the day. But critically Kilkenny have been getting the edge in these crucial games and that psychological barrier remains the big obstacle for Sunday.
Barry Kelly’s appointment, it seems, hasn’t pleased Kilkenny though we have equally bad memories of the same official. I can only wish the Westmeath man well and hope that he won’t be the centre of discussion afterwards because referees can have a critical bearing on the outcome of games as we saw last Saturday in Limerick.
Can Tipperary win? Of course they can but it’s going to require a top-notch display from all quarters. Anything else will hardly be enough because Kilkenny more than any other team know how to win All Ireland’s. A purely scientific analysis would probably give a slight edge to Kilkenny’s known capability but we’ll hope that the human factor will outweigh all else on this day of days in the hurling calendar. The players and management carry our dreams; may the gods be on their side.