Brace yourself for another twist in modern hurling’s soap opera

Brace yourself for another twist in modern hurling’s soap opera

The decade’s hurling sails off same as the decade’s hurling sailed in, Kilkenny and Tipperary about a broadside.

Those old ships needed to get close before firing a cannonade had deadly effect. Sunday afternoon will be as up close and personal as hurling gets. Kilkenny and Tipperary is the game’s fiercest rivalry, an example of human nature’s inability to develop. These two counties’ preoccupation with each other is part of a gamut that runs from stern Biblical material, Cain and Abel, to soap opera dynamics, JR Ewing and Bobby Ewing in Dallas.

Hurling offers a platform to magnificence and childishness in equal measure.

Those old ships, closing on each other… Everyone will have their own favourite metaphor. Everyone needs some sort of metaphor, because the ubiquity of this pairing demands some sort of shorthand. This Sunday afternoon, Kilkenny and Tipperary meet for the fifth time this decade in a senior final, 2019 closing an arc begun by 2010. Five meetings in 10 seasons (or six meetings in 11 seasons, including 2009).

The wider hurling public is stifling a yawn. Tickets are not proving hard to obtain. Limerick as Munster champions and Wexford as Leinster champions rose comment about a new golden era. For 30 counties, this meeting is a deflationary setback.

For two counties, this meeting is bread of heaven, bread of hell. 2019’s senior final possesses two main facets. First, every decider offers a decision. As of Sunday evening, barring a draw, Kilkenny will have 37 senior titles or Tipperary will have 28 senior titles. There will be the pleasure, for one participant, of being the most recent winner. Tipperary success would mean successive championship victories over Kilkenny for the first time since 1991.

The second facet is a much broader one. Sunday’s result will reset tradition, will reset, in this instance, a lot of recent history. Not every All-Ireland final, such as 2017’s encounter between Galway and Waterford, possesses this element. That paring had no prior resonance.

Kilkenny and Tipperary is the exact opposite. This pairing has tradition like Kate Bush songs have high notes. Whatever you might read on Wikipedia, the championship record between Kilkenny and Tipperary lies in the latter’s favour, 14 victories against 11 victories. One draw, 2014’s immortal encounter, rounds out the counties’ 26 meetings.

The 1911 season’s meeting, which Kilkenny won, does not count as a championship occasion. That game was merely a fundraiser after Limerick conceded 1911’s senior final.

That recent history? Before 2002, the win ratio was 12 to four in Tipperary’s favour. This tradition was a Premier kingdom.

Then the counties met six championship seasons in succession between 2009 and 2014. Kilkenny won five times, having likewise won in 2002 and 2003. The only time Tipperary triumphed was 2010’s senior final, a contest with an extraordinary miscalculation by Kilkenny’s management at its core. While Tipperary well deserved to win on that day, starting Henry Shefflin and John Tennyson still counts as hurling’s most bizarre decision.

By 2016, Tipperary were simply too potent a mix of strength and desperation. If Michael Fennelly’s absence through injury highlighted a leadership deficit, Kilkenny were never going to win on that occasion. Tipperary performed with lethal elegance.

Their showing aside, the major factor was Kilkenny management’s decision to send centre-back Kieran Joyce chasing centre-forward Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher around the middle-third. Whatever his virtues, Maher is not a man for slotting points from 70 and 80 yards. Joyce’s role (and Robert Lennon did the exact same, when introduced at centre-back) opened the defence to deadly effect.

If Tipperary thrive on Sunday, the narrative will be rewritten. Their supporters will say Tipp won the decade’s rubber, three senior final victories to two senior final victories. 2009 will be forgotten (along with 2012 and 2013).

Here is the childish part of a magnificent tradition. For a large section of the Tipperary public, the 13 seasons between 2002 and 2014 were like the events in Dallas that got turned into Bobby Ewing’s dream. A large section of the Tipperary public stepped out of the shower for a comprehensive nine-point victory in 2016’s senior final. They are still wet and expect this coming Sunday to be more of the same.

Tipperary’s suit is goals. Their season was progressing splendidly until Limerick eviscerated them in the Munster final’s second half. Tipp seemed to lose heart in tandem with losing a grip on the scoreboard. Limerick’s 1-7 without reply during the final quarter achieved that rare thing, rocking Premier self-belief.

Brace yourself for another twist in modern hurling’s soap opera

Limerick’s urgency and work-ethic collapsed Tipperary’s point total into the mid-teens. Yet, Tipp still raised two green flags (and only a blinding Nickie Quaid save prevented a third one). Kilkenny will have noted that these opponents’ goalscoring potential survived being outworked in middle-third.

Limerick not only beat Tipperary but also drew up a template for beating Tipperary. Can Kilkenny get at this pressure point? The application displayed against Limerick should resume. A rejig at half-time against Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final now looks a hinge. Kilkenny’s half-backs started to hold their position, relying on workrate by midfielders and half-forwards as a means of circumventing Cork’s extra bodies out there.

A hinge, for definite. Take the 54th minute of Kilkenny’s All-Ireland semi-final with Limerick. The game has found its crucible, with Kilkenny ahead by a point at 1-16 to 1-15. Kyle Hayes, centre-forward turned auxiliary half-back, robs TJ Reid of possession. Pressure dictates that Hayes sprays an angled ball towards the right corner.

There, Aaron Gillane is surrounded by four Kilkenny defenders. Possession is regained and the ball is worked forward to Adrian Mullen, who establishes a two-point lead. That numerical superiority in defence, with Gillane isolated, is plinthed on exemplary levels of graft.

Even so, Kilkenny only won by a point and Limerick should have received a 65 at the end. There are no guarantees. Tipperary are knackier in tight circumstances than Limerick, more economical with possession. But how many genuine leaders do Tipperary possess when the going gets consistently tough? Not too many, on Munster final evidence.

Goals offer not just three points for the scoreboard but a confidence burst for the head. Kilkenny’s full-back line is supporters’ main concern. Paul Murphy’s form is only so-so. Huw Lawlor is rightly promising but still a tyro. Joey Holden is going well but not one of nature’s corner-backs.

Still, Conor Delaney might be a sub for all six defensive positions. Equally, Walsh and Paddy Deegan could be moved to corner-back. But this sector is where Kilkenny are most uncertain and Tipperary most hopeful.

Kilkenny optimism lies in a regained ability to edge a tight contest. Equally, the county’s tallies were shrunk, until the All-Ireland quarter-final, by needless wides. Kilkenny progress required a wide total in single figures, which transpired against Cork and Limerick.

Last day out, Conor Browne staunched Cian Lynch at midfield. He will likely be tasked with staunching Noel McGrath in similar fashion. If Browne succeeds, Kilkenny move much closer to a win.

Tipperary’s defence is not settled, with full-back a perennial issue. I reckon Walter Walsh to corner-forward, with Adrian Mullen at wing-forward, would be an intriguing gambit.

If Kilkenny are within touching distance with 10 minutes left, the dream comes alight. Although Tipperary remain the more likely victor, this summer’s seven outings has improved their opponents to a point where they can dream. A couple of brilliant Eoin Murphy saves and Kilkenny win. A couple of those trademark killer goals and Tipperary win.

Take your pick and step out of the shower.

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