League matters? Maybe, but this final is all about the future

You don’t have to look back far to find out what you can expect from today’s National Hurling League final.

League matters? Maybe, but this final is all about the future

In the 2004 U-21 final at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny destroyed Tipperary. Tactically they were far superior and their manager Martin Fogarty had everything spot on.

Fogarty is in charge today and I expect them to bring their A game, employing a tactical system that is extremely difficult to break down.

Of course a win will make no appreciable difference to the expectation of fans and media. Kilkenny will be favourites for the All-Ireland on Monday, win or lose. This year’s league for Tipp was all about atonement for their display against the same opposition last August and rebuilding confidence and discipline within the camp. This was accomplished by getting to the league final and beating Kilkenny, albeit short some marquee names, in round two.

The Tipp defensive selection smacks of ongoing experimentation as manager Eamonn O’Shea turns his thoughts to the more serious championship competition and their tricky assignment away to Limerick early next month.

They don’t need to go there as League champions. Tipp lost the ’09 league final to Kilkenny after extra time but they did enough on that day to show that they were live contenders for outright victory in the All-Ireland. Tomorrow neither team needs a win.

Playing at home Kilkenny will want to win this game for their fans and their absent manager. All Tipp need at this point of the season is a good performance. This will finally erase the mental demons hanging around since last August. O’Shea knows that one major victory against Kilkenny is all you’ll get — and that can wait ’til summer.

One player whose inconsistency frustrates is Seamus Callanan. He was tremendous against Dublin in the semi-final but he was afforded generous time on the ball, something that will be in short supply around the Kilkenny half-back line. However, he has served up good performances previously against Kilkenny where his direct running has caused problems for their defence. An effective display will give him confidence as he seeks to re establish himself as a first choice attacker. Callanan has pace, strength and good vision. His forte is dropping deep to receive passes and then to run at the heart of a defence. He doesn’t do it enough for many fans but there is no doubt he has the capacity if he has the inclination. Callanan gets on a lot of ball. He makes some good runs but he doesn’t always finish. An extra step or two would be a help in this regard as he shoots too early on occasions. He provides some significant passes but he can be over-ambitious at times, leading to breakdowns in combination play and handing easy turnovers to the opposition.

His battle with Kilkenny’s left half-back Kieran Joyce will be closely watched. Joyce is a tough, strong competitor. He has looked very comfortable across half back since he nailed down a starting spot last season. He is very solid and he completes a well balanced half-backline. If Joyce can prevail in his head to head battle, it will be a major setback for Tipp. If Callanan does well it will have future psychological advantages — and this game is all about the future.

Killenaule’s Kieran Bergin makes his league debut at right half back in what is a problem position for Tipp. A midfielder with his club (which gives Tipp the option of switching him with Brendan Maher) he was impressive in the Fitzgibbon with Dublin IT.

But here he will be faced by Kilkenny’s ultra-reliable star Eoin Larkin and others.

The Cats are masters at probing for and exploiting any weaknesses and they will be intent on making life as difficult as possible for Bergin, undermining any developing confidence. Larkin is difficult to subdue as he has many strings to his bow, being physically strong and deceptively fast. He displays great patience when things are not going his way. He never looks in a hurry — always a sign of class. He makes himself available as an outlet for his defence, drops deep to cover opposition puckouts and he tackles back effectively.

Yet he is always on hand at the vital time up front to provide the killer pass or goal to break the opposition. Bergin needs to show that he is comfortable in this company. This will be a pressurised environment as it’s his first big game and it takes time to adjust physically — but more importantly mentally — to the level required. A good start and a solid disciplined performance should be his main aim; doing the simple defensive duties well rather than anything spectacular. If he achieves this and the experiments in the full back line also work, O’Shea will go home happy — win or lose.

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