All-Ireland Hurling Final Preview
Kilkenny V Tipperary, 3:30pm Croke Park
Hold on tight! We’re going round one last time and this time it could be faster, tougher and more absorbing than ever before! There is a saying about movies that the sequel never matches the original but in the context of All-Ireland hurling this theory was well and truly put to bed by last year’s absorbing sequel to 2009’s epic final. The more I think about this year’s final, the more I think that this one could and should outrank anything we have seen in the last two years.
This year’s hurling championship started at the end of May but every game played since then seems to have been building up to the inevitable endgame between Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Including the 2009 league final, this will be the fourth major final they have played in the last three years, with each game leaving many mouth-watering memories.
How will the Kilkenny defence deal with the roaming Tipperary attack. How will the much improved Tipperary half-forward line cope with the power of the Kilkenny half-back line? Who will win the crucial midfield battle? Will Brendan Maher start for Tipperary? Will Colin Fennelly be fit for Kilkenny? If not, will Brian Cody risk Aidan Fogarty? Even at this late stage, there are many questions to be answered, each of which could have a decisive impact on where Liam MacCarthy heads next Monday evening.
Both sides did not come through their respective semi-finals with the ease that they were expected to, but having said that neither side actually looked like losing. Waterford and Dublin had been written off so much that they were bound to have a kick in them and that is exactly what materialised. Tipperary had been cruising along so nonchalantly that they got exactly what was required at the time as Dublin pushed them to the limit. Waterford too, gave Brian Cody plenty to ponder ahead of the final but in reality, Kilkenny were comfortable from a long way out.
So, where will this game be won and lost? There are several key areas and one of the most important and most talked about features of this year’s championship has been Tipperary’s ability to get goals. In the Munster Championship, they rattled in 14 of them in three games, including seven against Waterford in the final. Waterford were naïve in the extreme in that game, Dublin learned the lessons and maybe, just maybe, pointed Kilkenny in the direction of how to beat this Tipperary team. There is no doubt that in Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrrell and Paul Murphy, Kilkenny have a full-back line that knows how to keep out goals.
Up at the other end, the demise of Eddie Brennan has robbed the Cats of a significant goal threat but as a consequence, Kilkenny have modified their style and increased the number of times they take points from out the field. If they do sense the chance to go for a goal, they will go for the jugular as epitomised by Richie Hogan’s two goals in the semi-final.
In many games in recent years, midfield has tended to be bypassed and as a result, modern midfielders have changed their style of play. Midfielders no longer field puck outs and deliver the ball forwards. These days, they tend to get around the field a bit more, and have more of a scoring threat. Michael Fennelly of Kilkenny and Shane McGrath of Tipperary epitomise the modern midfielder and one feels a good performance on a winning team from Fennelly could tie up the hurler of the year award for the Ballyhale man.
Two other Ballyhale men will have been causing headaches for Brian Cody as time ticks down towards this final. As much as Henry Shefflin’s knees might worry Cody the form or lack thereof of form from TJ Reid and ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick has been a worry for Kilkenny fans. Reid is the one that has gotten the nod to partner Fennelly up to now but the choice could easily be Fitzpatrick as the story coming from the legendary Nowlan Park training sessions is that he is back in top form.
There has also been a suggestion that Kilkenny have too many miles on the clock but I do not believe this to be the case. Of the 15 that started the semi-final, only Shefflin and Hickey were 30 or over. People may argue that they are on the road a long time, but I believe they did not expunge too much energy in winning the All-Ireland’s of 2007 and 2008.
Enough about Kilkenny for a minute, what about Tipp? They will come into this game as favourites against Kilkenny and no team has been in that position since the 2006 All-Ireland final when Cork were chasing three in a row. Will they be able to handle the favourites tag? There have been suggestions that it hasn’t been sitting well. It is rumoured that the B team came out victorious in a recent A v B challenge game and there has been talk of some ferocious tackling in training.
That may well be the perfect preparation for what promises to be an intense battle. Both sides are physically strong and well prepared for the big hits that are bound to be given and taken. I do not expect it to be the high scoring feast that the 2009 league final was but neither will it be a low-scoring drab encounter. This will be exciting and close. Goals will be crucial but in that regard, I feel Kilkenny will not concede as easily as other teams have against Tipperary. For all Tipperary’s swashbuckling hurling, they still do rely on Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett to get the bulk of their scores. Others, such as John O’Brien and Seamus Callanan may put up big scores from time to time but it is almost always Corbett and Kelly at the top of the scoring charts.
Many games in modern hurling boil down to which side’s half-back line wins most possession and while Pauric Maher has been the outstanding half-back of this year’s championship, the Kilkenny trio of Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and JJ Delaney are unmatchable in this regard.
The one thing Kilkenny have always been is cute and Cody will have found a way of shutting down the space in front of his own goal. Lar Corbett will not score three goals in Sunday and therefore, Tipp will need someone else to step up to the mark. I think in order to win this All-Ireland, Tipperary will need to have learned how to win ugly and for all their talents I think that this is one thing that Kilkenny are a bit better at….for now!