A chance the Premier must take

A chance the Premier must take

Saturday, May 04, 2013

ALLIANZ HL DIVISION 1 FINAL
Kilkenny v Tipperary

Muiris Walsh came up with an interesting factoid during the week. Tomorrow, it turns out, will be the 10th anniversary datewise of the 2003 league final — a match, he added glumly, that “set Tipperary back five years”.

 

Brendan Maher of Tipperary and JJ Delaney of Kilkenny. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

 

By Enda McEvoy

Muiris Walsh? Proud Clonmel man domiciled in Ballymacarbry. Used to present a Monday evening sports show on Tipp FM. He hasn’t been in the best of health lately but Manchester United’s latest title lifted his spirits and he’s hoping a victory for the visitors at Nowlan Park tomorrow will do likewise.

The 2003 league final? You’ll remember it because you can’t not. Held in Croke Park on the Monday of the bank holiday Tipperary led by eight points at the three-quarter stage. Kilkenny caught them on the line and beat them by 5-14 to 5-13 after extra time, with Henry Shefflin, a more than decent minor footballer in his day, kicking the winning point.

It was the first time Kilkenny had beaten Tipperary against the head in a big match for nearly 40 years and it marked the moment the worm turned for the decade. Everything afterwards would be viewed through a wasp-striped prism. When the sides met again three months later in the All-Ireland semi-final Tipp had a second-half meltdown — sound familiar? — and Kilkenny coasted home by 12 points.

And that, as Muiris Walsh says, was that for Slievenamon until Liam Sheedy happened along in 2008. Eoin Kelly’s chronic back problem? It comes from carrying the county all by himself during the mid-’00s.

Tomorrow’s showpiece will scarcely prove as momentous either way. Some league finals end up amounting to less than nothing in the greater scheme of things, Cork versus Galway three years ago being the most recent example. And yes, you’re entitled to mutter darkly that this would be an infinitely more refreshing proposition were, say, Clare or Limerick or Waterford involved instead of black and amber being pitted against blue and gold again. The quarrel is now in its third century; Churchill’s “dreary steeples” and all that.

But we are where we are. What’s more, we are, unless Galway do something notable in the meantime, where we’re likely to be on September 8 as well. The 2013 league was a competition where all of the leading Teams Who Might needed to forage and find some fresh ingredient for their menus. Instead it was Kilkenny and Tipperary who did. Both have enjoyed immensely satisfactory campaigns, irrespective of the outcome this weekend. The two counties who required it least.

Kilkenny have temporarily mislaid their manager but won’t suffer serious short-term damage. Tipp have got their old coach back and suddenly spring has sprung like it’s 2010 all over again.

Kilkenny have discovered a goalkeeper. Tipperary have, with the return of Eamon O’Shea, rediscovered their mojo.

Kilkenny have unearthed another midfield lighthouse in Lester Ryan and will enter the championship with a bench better stocked than it’s been since 2009, although they’ll struggle desperately for forward subs tomorrow. Tipp are better equipped in the latter department and boast one potentially high-class youngster on the bench in Jason Forde, so effective as the tip of the spear for Nenagh CBS in their tactically astonishing All-Ireland colleges triumph last year.

Think of this latest collision of the counties as a snapshot, the equivalent of a political opinion poll. Even if, to mix metaphors, the only poll that matters is the one taken on the second Sunday of September, it’ll be no harm to discover how Tipperary are fixed on the first Sunday in May. We don’t need to discover how Kilkenny are fixed on the first Sunday in May, of course. They’re where they always are. Permanently on a war footing.

One subtext is the prospective slideshow of glimpses of the Tipperary anticipated in high summer, the Tipperary of the “more precise striking game” so beloved of their manager. Naturally the full gamut of moves from the O’Shea playbook won’t be unfurled on Noreside. But at some stage, or more than one stage, Lar Corbett will drift goalwards while his fellow forwards shuttle the other way in order to afford him a one-on-one with JJ Delaney. Thus was the source of Corbett’s goal when the sides met at Semple Stadium two months ago. Bizarrely for the most aerially formidable team since Nicky Rackard’s Wexford, Kilkenny have, as was said here a couple of weeks ago, been pathologically vulnerable for the past three years to the high ball dropping on the edge of the square.

Chatter about the relevance of the venue is a fallacy. Kilkenny will be busting a gut to win because the game is on in Nowlan Park? Tsk. They’d be busting a gut to win if it was on Mars. But Mick Dempsey and Martin Fogarty, who remain in loco parentis, are not to be envied. Even a narrow defeat and Tuesday’s papers will be hypothesising to their heart’s content about the loss of the Cody factor and its doom-laden implications for the county’s championship challenge.

Still, it’s tempting to imagine a shadowy figure stroking a white cat in his high-tech lair built into the side of a mountain a couple of miles away on the road to Bennettsbridge as he looks in on a giant TV screen. And who cares if it’s an urban myth, but didn’t Richard Nixon — presumably taking a break from his busy schedule bugging people — once phone in a play to the head coach of his beloved Washington Redskins during a timeout?

Another factoid — and Muiris Walsh didn’t come up with this one — with which to end. Tipperary have never beaten tomorrow’s opponents twice in the same league campaign. Kilkenny have done so three times, most recently in 2009.

No Shefflin, no Reid, no Power: Tipp will rarely have a better chance of creating a small piece of history.

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