Around Kilkenny, the atmosphere has been one of measured gloom, which is a bit like seeing a kipper in an aquarium of tropical fish. Almost nobody reckons the three in a row will be done. I am not joking.
Mark the contrast with 2011. Then, optimism about Kilkenny’s chances with Tipperary was in scant supply in light of an underwhelming semi-final performance against Waterford. Now, the same story in the wake of a tremendous semi-final performance against Waterford.
Go figure… Or maybe not. Back in 2011, Noreside’s worry was that Tipp would take over the 2010s. No hearing aids were required. This prospect was bugled far and wide from North and South Ridings.
The Monday evening after Tipperary won the 2010 All-Ireland final, one of their players could be heard on RTÉ’s Six One news yodelling about winning five in a row.
The same individual was trotted out this week for a dirge about Tipperary and referees. Time and its whirligigs… Whatever about a man with a whistle, you could not be up to Father Time and his scythe.
Any such Tipp outcome for this decade emphatically did not come to pass. As of now, they are in the same spot as Clare: One backdoor All-Ireland (and 10 behind Kilkenny on the senior roster, 36 to 26). This reality is their greatest driver.
Whether admitted or not, Kilkenny hurling’s major fret has always been its status by comparison with Tipp. Perhaps the most amazing facet of a truly remarkable era for the county is that it can now approach a senior final against this opponent with a certain weary fatalism. It is as if, over the last five seasons, Joan Crawford morphed into Marlene Dietrich.
Around Tipperary, the atmosphere is quiet, which is a bit like prevailing upon Brendan Grace not to crack a joke. The county’s natural exuberance has lidded itself. Matters are that serious.
Or maybe not entirely quiet. This week, the father of two Tipperary players mentioned a broader scenario, broaching how victory in 2017 could launch a push for the decade’s remaining three titles.
I like this trait, speaking out your mind, the way it contrasts with a mealy-mouthed tendency in Kilkenny natives. But the comment, in this instance, shows how far the pendulum has swung. Now Tipp are more Crawford than Dietrich.
Whatever their neighbour does, they must do better. If Kilkenny took 17 in a row, Tipperary would feel talking about 18 incumbent. If they succeed on Sunday, there will be a substantial cohort within the county for whom the last 14 seasons never happened.
For the moment, the difference in position could not be starker. Down to it, this game is one Tipp cannot afford to lose. Item: Seamus Callanan is 28 in a fortnight, same age as Joe Canning but, more to the point, same age as Richie Hogan.
Item eile: Michael Ryan told Tipperary Supporters Club last spring that he would not, having already served six seasons as a selector, be overstaying his welcome on the sideline. This remark came across as if only ultimate victory would see Ryan in situ as manager for 2017. Where would Tipperary turn next? There is no candidate mad obvious.
Such rich context should not leave contest specifics an afterthought. The biggest threat Kilkenny face? That Tipperary are much slicker in taking goal chances than Galway or Waterford.
Item: Their third goal in the Munster final. Seamus Callanan immediately saw what was on, once John McGrath dug out difficult possession. Callanan ran away from the ball, confident it would come his way through John McGrath’s gumption and Noel McGrath’s vision. The ball did and Callanan went into surgeon mode.
There is another crucial attacker. Nickname paradox or not, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer offers sizzle. Yet he might not even be started. This gamble came off against Galway. And yet… yes, it is easy to give Tipp the nod. So long as they perform, the ammunition is there.
Particular worry, from their perspective? That they turn up on Sunday a bit overcooked, having heard so much about the need for workrate to skyrocket. Their manager hailed these opponents as “masters of intensity”.
Still, I give Kilkenny a better chance than most observers. An improved performance by TJ Reid in open play could be the difference. Nor has Paul Murphy been going that well. The truth is that this team has plenty room to improve.
Out on the pitch in Thurles, after Kilkenny held out for a two-point win over Waterford, there was an intimacy in the air. The current players are considerably more emotionally invested in winning this title than was the case before drawing with Waterford.
My hunch is that 2016 got a bit abstract following the intimate statement 2015’s campaign became, after so many big names went into retirement. The remaining crew wanted to prove themselves in their own right. This end was achieved, with aplomb, in the only way possible for stripy men: Convincing All-Ireland victory.
2016 might have been a touch abstract until they ran into Waterford on a day they should have lost. All is changed. However counterintuitive the claim sounds, Kilkenny would not have beaten Tipperary if Paul Murphy’s late shot at the posts in the draw against Waterford had drifted over. They needed the intimacy of Thurles as an injection.
This contest should be decided in the two half-forward lines. The palm will go to whichever one can most disrupt the opposition backline’s desire to go short into the middle third. The target will be forcing 50- or 60-yard clearances rather than allowing 20- or 30-yard clearances. Ascendancy in this arena gave Kilkenny the replayed 2014 senior final.
Familiarity will not relent. For Tipp, there is but one question: If not now, when?