Westside Column 16 August 2019

WESTSIDE

When the hurling history of the first two decades of this century is penned there’s no doubt the Tipperary/Kilkenny rivalry will be the highlight item. The narrative will also feature Kilkenny’s briefer rivalry with Cork in the first decade of the century and the breakthroughs by teams like Clare in 2013, Galway in 2017 and Limerick in 2018.

However, towering above all else will be this phenomenal contention between Kilkenny and Tipperary. It has produced some of the most spectacular games of the era (of any era?) and enthralled hurling fans worldwide. Too often we’ve been on the wrong end of the rivalry but here’s a comforting thought: without Tipperary, and especially 2010 and 2016, just imagine how complete Kilkenny’s domination would have been.

That’s the background to the latest installment of this rivalry as the counties rev up for yet another heavyweight collision on hurling’s biggest stage.

After two years of novelty on All Ireland day it’s back to a more traditional fixture for 2019. This will be the twentieth final clash of the counties, including the replay of 2014, with Tipperary holding an 11-7 winning lead. Under Cody the record is less favourable, the ‘Cats’ winning three out of five finals.

It’s a rivalry that goes back over one hundred years to the very first final between the counties in 1895. On that occasion Mikey Maher and his Tubberadora colleagues proved vastly superior to Tullaroan. The margin was the largest ever in a final between the counties, 6-8 to 1-0.

Three years later there was a reprise of that final when the counties met once more and again Tubberadora held sway, this time by 7-13 to 3-10.

Kilkenny’s first final win over Tipperary came in 1909 in an All Ireland played at the Cork Athletic Grounds where Tom Semple and his ‘Blues’ were second best. Four years later the same fate befell ‘Wedger’ Meagher and company.

And thus it fluctuated for some time. Boherlahan were winners in 1916 but when Kilkenny had the best of the rivalry in 1922 it would prove their last win against Tipperary in a decider for 45 years. Meanwhile Tipperary had wins in ’37, ’45, ’50 and ’64 before the ‘Cats’ finally broke the sequence in ’67. That was the sixties era of really intense – some would say savage – rivalry between the counties.

Tipperary’s win in 1971 was in many ways a throwback to the county’s golden era. Kilkenny and Tipperary wouldn’t clash again in a final for twenty years, mainly due to the Tipperary famine. The 1991 success is remembered for Michael Cleary’s fortuitous goal and then came the modern era with Kilkenny wins in ’09, ’11 and ’14 and Tipperary breaking the pattern in ’10 and ’16.

It’s a much-rehearsed history by now and one that enters its latest chapter on Sunday. The Cody era has brought phenomenal success to his county and in truth we’ve struggled to keep pace. Under Cody the counties have met on 10 occasions in championship games with Kilkenny holding a 7-2 lead; there was that draw in 2014.

The league record underlines Kilkenny’s superiority in even starker figures. Under Cody the counties have played 25 league matches with Kilkenny holding a 17-6 lead; there were 2 draws. Those are sobering statistics from a Tipperary perspective.

One unique aspect of Sunday’s final is that it’s the first between two teams who lost their provincial deciders. Wexford pulled off a famous win over Kilkenny in the Leinster showdown while Limerick swatted aside Tipperary in Munster.

Kilkenny’s route to the final has arguably been the more arduous. Cork had their fanciers in the quarter-final but Kilkenny outstayed them in characteristic fashion. And then there was that semi-final toppling of Limerick where the ‘cats’ rattled the Munster champions early on and by the end clung to a one-point verdict.

By contrast Tipperary’s passage was less demanding, though Laois did prove more stubborn than expected in the quarter-final. Then you had all the drama of the semi-final win over Wexford where Tipperary showed qualities some doubted they possessed.

The upshot of it all is that Tipperary go into the final on Sunday as slight favourites being listed at 10/11 against Kilkenny’s 6/5. In essence it’s a 50/50 game with everything hinging on the fate and form of the day.

Tipperary’s team announcement will be keenly anticipated. Will Sheedy and colleagues go with the semi-final fifteen or will there be some adjustments? In particular all eyes will be on the defensive end to see if the semi-final formation stays intact.

I feel sorry for James Barry, who was the Allstar full back in 2016 when he marked Colin Fennelly in the final. This year has been difficult for him. Modern coverage of games can be merciless in highlighting any slip-up such as that flick by Peter Casey that led to a Limerick goal in the Munster final. He didn’t have a happy day either against Laois resulting in his omission from the semi-final.

Now the speculation centers on whether or not he’ll be recalled for the final. It’s not the type of attention any player welcomes.

The nature of the opposition may come into play here. Wexford were always going to be mobile and flexible in their positioning whereas Kilkenny will likely play a more traditional, orthodox game. Might that suit Barry? If he does get the nod then either Barry Heffernan or Seamus Kennedy loses out. It’s an issue I’m sure the management will think long and hard about.

Otherwise it’s difficult to see any other changes from the semi-final starting fifteen. There may be some positional maneuvering but the personnel will surely stay the same.

The last meeting between the counties was back in February in a league game at Semple Stadium. It was another depressing outcome for Tipperary, caught by an injury-time free from Eoin Murphy. Full back, Conor Delaney was man of the match that day but he missed a lot of hurling during the summer because of injury. He came on for Conor Fogarty in the semi-final win over Limerick.

In Delaney’s absence Huw Lawlor has established himself as the regular full back, a position that has given Kilkenny some headaches in recent years. Padraig Walsh is now firmly ensconced as the regular centre back. Four of their semi-final defenders played in 2016, Paddy Deegan and Huw Lawlor the newcomers.

It’s an area where Tipperary will hope to gain some advantage. Seamus Callanan is having a memorable season, his instinct for goals a standout aspect. Jason Forde is a more mature player these days, his free-taking no doubt helping his confidence. ‘Bubbles’ sometimes gets criticised when he’s not scoring freely but a more careful look at the semi-final will show the quality of his contribution in other areas. Dan McCormack isn’t quite back to the standard of his pre-injury hurling but wouldn’t Sunday be the ideal platform to set that right. Niall O’Meara has earned his place on the starting formation too in the absence of ‘Bonner’ Maher.

There’s certainly scoring potential in that attack but much depends on what happens elsewhere and the quality of possession coming their way.

Noel McGrath’s move to midfield this year has proved very beneficial. The scope offered by a midfield role just seems to suit his skill set where he can anticipate play and find colleagues with precise passes as well as shooting long-range scores. Even if Dan McCormack lines up at midfield for the throw-in Noel McGrath will surely spend most of the game in that zone.

Michael Breen looks likely to start in the center also against what is a new-look Kilkenny formation of Conor Browne and Richie Leahy, though again that can be subject to variation.

When it comes to the Kilkenny attach there are obvious danger men who’ll need close attention. T.J. Reid is clearly the main man. He may not have scored a lot from play in recent matches but he’s still the key man, the leader of the pack, a go-to play maker who draws fouls and is deadly accurate on the frees. Instruction to the Tipp defence: cut down on the free count.

We’ll watch with interest to see the match-ups in the Tipp defence. The likes of Ronan, Brendan and Cathal particularly will surely have specific instructions about who to mark. Apart from Reid there’s Walter Walsh to keep an eye on and Richie Hogan and newbie, Adrian Mullen. John Donnelly has been putting in a strong shift for Kilkenny too on their way to this final.

The match-ups will always be interesting but against Kilkenny you tend to get a less tactical game. Their primary focus is usually on manic work rate and passionate intensity in their play. They try to win the battle first and then the hurling. And that’s where Tipperary will have to be revved up for this one. Limerick seemed to be caught unaware, almost surprised by the intensity of the Kilkenny game. Tipperary must be ready for the war from throw-in.

Substitutes can play a key role in seventy minute games and encouragingly all the Tipperary replacements in the semi-final made a significant impact. So it’s likely we’ll see Willie Connors, Ger Browne, Mark Kehoe, Jake Morris and others being called to arms again on Sunday.

Everything seems set for a cracking final. Incredibly Brian Cody has reinvented another Kilkenny team. Back in January before the start of the league Kilkenny was listed at odds of 6/1 for the All Ireland behind Galway, Cork, Tipperary and Limerick. Yet here they are back chasing a 37 title.

If Cody wins this one it will likely stand out as the most remarkable achievement of his 21 years in charge. Tipperary stopped their five-in-a-row in 2010 and another three-in-a-row in 2016. It would be sweet indeed to spoil their party once more and bring home a 28th title in 2019. Good luck to all involved.

 

 

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