Like two big gun slingers, Kilkenny and Tipp roll into town in this year’s All-Ireland Final for what is sure to be the ultimate shoot-out. Leaving aside any inter-county bias, this is the final that everyone wanted. They have undoubtedly been the two greatest teams of their generation – the John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors of the hurling world. They bring the absolute best out in one another, and their battles, especially 2009 and 2014, already hold legendary status. In any other era, this Tipperary team would have amassed at least 3 more All-Irelands, instead of their solitary win in 2010, when they halted the elusive 5 in a row ambitions of their illustrious feline neighbours. Kilkenny ,however, have proven to be their arch nemesis on every occasion since. Will this Sunday be any different? Nobody can say for sure – even the bookies don’t know what way to turn, offering odds of 10/11 on both teams, surely a first for an All-Ireland final. Do they think that the Cats are at the end of the road, or that Tipp may not have that little bit extra to finally triumph? So before you part with your hard earned cash, here’s a neutral’s guide to the how next Sunday’s decider may be won or lost.
- The Form Guide – Tipp have been a model of consistency since their opening Munster Championship demolition of Cork. That day, they set their stall out, playing an uncomplicated and direct style. Although they were held goalless, they demonstrated an ability to adapt to the restrictions of the infamous sweeper system, and scored points at will from all angles. They maintained that clinical streak against a lacklustre Limerick, but the most pleasing aspect was their ability to do so with 14 men for almost a full hour. That demonstrated a seed change in their psyche, as they had been perceived by many as being a skilful hurling team with a soft underbelly when things went against them. Their Munster Final demolition of Waterford was as ruthless a display of hurling as we’ve seen in the last 20 years. But for me, the defeat of a really strong Galway team in the All Ireland semi-final represents the most accurate gauge of where they are at. They were under the cosh for large portions of that game, their forwards could not get any real momentum going and they were hit with 2 sucker punches of goals either side of half time, yet they still passed the test. That game will have hardened their resolve and will dampen the expectation that had started to take hold within the Premier County.
Kilkenny for their part breezed through their opening game against Dublin, and did what they had to do against Galway (in no small part thanks to the half time introduction of Richie Hogan). But even the most partisan of Kilkenny supporters will admit that they were out of sorts, and eventually got out of jail, against a revitalised Waterford team in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final, thanks to an opportunist Walter Walsh goal on the stroke of full time. But once again, a combination of Brian Cody magic and a display of steely determination, saw them triumph over their south eastern neighbour in the Game of the Year, a memorable replay in Thurles 6 days later. The question is what will those games have taken out of Kilkenny. They had to dig deeper than they have had to in the last 10 years, and Tipp will provide an even stiffer examination on Sunday. Advantage – Tipp
- Richie Hogan – In preparing for this game, Michael Ryan and his backroom team will no doubt have spent countless hours discussing how they cope with this man. He is unquestionably the heir apparent to this year’s Hurler of the Year award, and the catalyst for everything that is good about this Kilkenny team. He is their ultimate leader – their go to man in times of panic. He single handedly dug them out of holes against Galway in the Leinster Final and Waterford in both semi-finals. Not only has the ability to score 4 or 5 points per game from play, but he is also their main play maker. Brian Cody will most likely deploy him in a centre forward role, but give him carte blanche to go on a roaming mission as he sees fit. The dilemma for the Tipp management is do they elect to man mark Hogan (in which case Cathal Barrett should be the designated enforcer) or do they choke the space that he tends to drift into by playing a crowded zonal defence. Neither option is without its risks, but what’s certain is that his threat to Tipp, and importance to Kilkenny, cannot be underestimated. If Tipp succeed in negating his influence, they will go a long way towards winning. Advantage – Kilkenny
- Midfield Third – The modern game invariably hinges on one certainty – win the middle third and you win the match. Kilkenny have been market leaders in this regard. Their middle eight consists of strong athletic work horses who are proven ball winners, on the ground or in the air, and own the patent on turning over opposition players. In this regard the absence of Michael Fennelly is unquantifiable – his second half surges against Galway in last year’s All Ireland Final and overall display against Waterford in the replay were proof if we needed it of his savage appetite for work and ability to swing games. In his absence, it’s likely that Conor Fogarty will rejoin TJ Reid and draw battle lines with the country’s most consistent midfield duo of Michael Breen and Brendan Maher. That in itself will be worth the admission money. Of the respective half forward lines, Kilkenny will feel that they possess the greater scoring threat in Eoin Larkin, Hogan and the unheralded Walter Walsh who is having a massive year. But what Tipp may lack in fire power in this department, they make up for in savage intensity. Dan McCormack and Bonner Maher are the ultimate domestiques, constantly forcing turnovers and creating opportunities for the sharp shooters all around them. However, they are coming up against the best half back trio in the modern game. Despite the blip against Waterford, we can expect to see Padraig Walsh, Kieran Joyce and Cillian Buckley seek to assert themselves on the game from early doors. I feel it is in this area that they hold a slight edge. Advantage – Kilkenny
- Tipp’s full forward line – The trio of Bubbles O’ Dwyer ( assuming his penance has been served), Seamie Callanan and John McGrath are a potent combination. All three are capable of winning their own ball and can engineer scores with the absolute minimum of time and space. Michael Ryan will be well aware that if Tipp can at least break even in the afore mentioned middle third, that he has the inside forwards to beat Kilkenny if it comes down to a shoot-out. They will look to expose the perceived lack of pace in the Kilkenny full back line and hit a series of diagonal deliveries into space, as has been their tactic all year. Having said that, Paul Murphy has been in excellent form all year, and Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast are rarely beaten at close quarters. Advantage – Tipp
- The Bench – Sunday’s game will likely be a 20 man effort on both sides. Make no mistake about it, it will be high octane and attritional for the full 75 or so minutes, with no quarter being asked or given. Some will have an off day, while others will simply run out of gas. So the impact of the reserves will have a huge bearing on the outcome. Tipp will feel that they have the stronger panel – experienced players like Kieran Bergin, Jason Forde, Niall O’ Meara will all count themselves unlucky not to make the starting 15, and will look to make a big impression when introduced. Kilkenny may have less well known subs, with the exception of John Power (assuming Johnjo Farrell gets the nod to start), but that’s not to say that Brian Cody can’t pull another rabbit from his hat. Advantage – Tipp
So, like the bookies, this game is too close to call. Kilkenny have been my pick all year, but I feel Tipp are going in to this game as a far more battle hardened outfit than in the past. They have a better balance to their team this year in terms of personnel and have developed an ability to adapt their game to suit its requirements. Furthermore, they will know that this game is their ultimate test, and one they cannot afford to fail. For that reason, I’m siding for a 2 point Tipp win.