The only certainty about this final is we’re set for a classic Sports psychology has always intrigued me. Whenever I get the chance to read up on the subject, I devour whatever material I can get my hands on, trying to understand how the war between the ears invariably decides the war on the ground.
As a player, you’re constantly waging that war. As a manager, you’re always trying to understand it, and how best to get guys to the frontline fully armed and prepared and primed to win that war.
At club level now, we’re working hard on getting players to stay in the moment, to prioritise performance ahead of outcomes. I saw a perfect example recently where one of our players was playing really well, and was decisive in his option-taking.
He had bagged a couple of goals and a handful of points in one particular match, but after getting a mean belt off the ball, he was pulled for overcarrying with his next possession. The player was still caught up in that moment, unable to leave it behind and just move on.
Most modern coaches and managers do their best now to create the environment for their players to prosper in. A lot of us are quasi sports psychologists or performance coaches. Those roles have a much more elevated status in the GAA world now than when I was a player, because they were often frowned upon back then.
I was never exposed to a sports psychologist as a player but, similar to the Kilkenny lads who played under Brian Cody for two decades, we were lucky to have one of the greatest psychologists at our disposal in Ger Loughnane.
Long before the phrases became common, Loughnane was preaching the importance of on-field leadership, of staying in the moment. In the first half of the 1997 All-Ireland, we had a lot of bad moments. Tipperary were playing at a level above us, but Loughnane had us conditioned to think our way through the mess.
There was no mad roaring or shouting. Guys were quiet and reflective but they were asking themselves: ‘What is required of me now? It’s never about what’s required of us — it has to start with me for us to get motoring.
I doubt if Liam Doyle was thinking with that terminology at half time, but I’m sure he was saying to himself: ‘I’ve got to make a stand here, both for the team, and for myself.’ And he did. Doyler caught the first Tipp puckout of the half and dispatched it straight back over Brendan Cummins’ crossbar.
By doing it for himself, Doyler silently inspired the rest of us to play probably the best half of hurling we ever played under Loughnane. I often think back to that play as the ultimate form of living in the moment.
The best teams can always take themselves into that mental zone. Kilkenny have lived there so often that they are comfortable in that space, but Tipp emphatically entered that zone three weeks ago. And prospering there in the circumstances must have felt utopian.
The Tipp bench made a huge impact, but the charge was still led by their experienced warriors. From the start of the year, Liam Sheedy placed massive trust in those players and the last 20 minutes against Wexford was the ultimate payback for him.
And now, they’re within touching distance of glory again. So are Kilkenny. If someone had said to me on the evening of the provincial finals that Tipp and Kilkenny would make it through to the All-Ireland final, I’d have offered them whatever odds they wanted.
Tipp were bullied by Limerick that afternoon. Kilkenny were so untypical Kilkenny in the dying moments of the Leinster final. There had to have been serious doubts in the minds of both sets of players afterwards, but they came up with all the answers.
Limerick couldn’t. Neither could Wexford. On their day, Limerick were better than any other team, but those days have to extend deep into August now. And that’s never easy to pull off when Kilkenny are dancing with you in the other corner.
Wexford were heroic, but they couldn’t stay in the moment when the finishing line was in sight with 20 minutes left against Tipp. The flipside to that argument though, is that Tipp showed something in that last quarter that many people doubted was in them.
Up until Lee Chin buried that goal, we had seen very little from Tipp since the third round in Munster against Clare to corroborate their status as serious All-Ireland contenders. They did beat a weakened Limerick side in their last game to extend their winning sequence to four games, but Tipp were still only average that afternoon.
They were wiped out in the second half of the Munster final. Laois deserve huge credit for the manner of their performance in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but that conviction and ruthless killer instinct which had been a hallmark of Tipp’s play against Cork, Waterford, and Clare was absent — again.
Paradoxically, those question marks probably helped the players get their heads right for the Wexford match. There was still no fluency or rhythm to their play for three-quarters of the match, but they processed very well when they had to.
To have that clarity of thought when the need was greatest provided the most salient example of Tipp’s on-field leadership. The Mahers, Seamie Callanan, and Noel McGrath came up with the big plays.
They weren’t all signature plays either, because Tipp changed their style to suit the demands placed upon them after going down to 14 men. They played through the lines, played intelligent pop passes into space, and deconstructed Wexford’s defence system by negotiating their way around it.
For a finish, Tipp should have won by more than they did. Jake Morris’ goal should have stood. They had another couple of goals disallowed, but they admirably overcame every setback placed in front of them. So what will that do for Tipp’s confidence now?
Conversely, Kilkenny will enter this game in the ideal frame of mind, too. Beating Cork and Limerick will do that for you, but while Kilkenny never need a victory to stoke their morale or restore their confidence, the way they won those games was highly restorative after those crippling final minutes against Wexford.
Most of their big players are in good form now. TJ Reid is Kilkenny’s main leader, but Colin Fennelly has almost become as important to the side because he has given Kilkenny the perfect out-ball option.
Fennelly is so comfortable and adept at winning his own ball that Kilkenny can afford to clear everyone out from within 30 metres of the opposition goal and let the Ballyhale man charge like a battering ram at whatever defenders are still within that space.
Colin might have landed himself in a bit of hot water a while back with his comments about the Defence Forces, but maybe the break from the army has given him a new freshness. Perhaps the lifestyle now just suits him better because he’s certainly playing as well as he ever has during his career.
Getting the match-up right on Fennelly will be a big call for Sheedy and his management. Tipp have any amount of options — Ronan Maher, Brendan Maher, Seamus Kennedy, Barry Heffernan. It may be Ronan because you need someone with that perfect blend of pace, power, aggression, and defensive smarts. Fennelly’s goals against Cork and Limerick showed just how much of a clinical finisher he has become. He hadn’t room to swing his stick on either occasion, but he still manoeuvred his body, which allowed him to bat the ball past the keeper on both occasions.
This game could well hinge on shutting down Fennelly, because the Tipp half-backs will fancy their chances of having a cut off TJ, Richie Hogan, Walter Walsh and Adrian Mullen. There is serious firepower in that line — whoever plays there — but if Tipp can limit the damage in that sector, they’ll be confident that they can rack up more scores at the other end.
When these sides last met in championship, Tipp did to Kilkenny what they hadn’t been able to do against them since the 2010 All-Ireland final — cut their defensive shape to shreds and carve them open within that space.
I’m sure Brendan Maher will be earmarked for TJ, because he simply has to be man-marked. Limerick made a hames of that match-up by leaving it too fluid. TJ might not have scored, but he was the fulcrum for everything good about Kilkenny’s play, especially in the second half.
Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher is a huge loss in this game — but we said that before the Wexford match, and Tipp still found a way. We all said too before that game that Tipp didn’t have a bench, but four of their subs got on the scoreboard that afternoon. After scoring the winning goal against Cork in the Munster U20 final, and raising a green flag that should have been allowed three weeks ago, Jake Morris will bring a level of belief into this final that few players of his age would have carried in the past against Kilkenny.
The Kilkenny bench did their damage in the second half against Cork, so they have that capacity too. When the game opens up, Bill Sheehan could be that player to prise open the Tipperary defensive locks. That impact may not even be felt on the scoreboard, it could just be something as basic as winning a couple of key balls when possession desperately needs to be secured.
Before the last two finals, we all wondered if Waterford and Limerick would handle the occasion. We didn’t really have to ask that question of Galway in 2017 because they had been there in 2012 and 2015, and we don’t need to ask it again now. It may be three years since most of these players have played on this stage, but they know what this day demands off them. More importantly, they all know too what’s required of them.
Kilkenny may have enjoyed the greater dominance in the modern era, but both sets of players are confident in their ability to beat each other.
This decade has been a remarkable era for hurling. We’ve seen Clare, Galway, and Limerick win All-Irelands. Waterford got to a final. Wexford came close. Dublin — as I only know too well — also nearly made the big dance.
Watching Kilkenny and Tipp skirt around the floor again for a sixth time in 11 seasons could seem like a jaded waltz, but these sides bring out the best in each other.
Tipperary and Kilkenny have given us so many brilliant finals since 2009 that we’re entitled to expect another epic. It’s nearly impossible to call this game. The sides had to meet twice in 2014 to decide the outcome. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes another replay to separate these two again.
Still, I have a slight fancy for Tipp. I wouldn’t be putting the house on them winning, but I would be fairly confident of another classic.