Who’s it going to be then, eh?
If forward lines win All-Ireland finals, Tipperary. If formlines win All-Ireland finals, Kilkenny. Their resumé is solid if unspectacular and last time out they saw off the team that had suffocated Tipp. Every other one of the latter’s outings down south was a non-contact event.
The forward lines? Different story. According to our new friend Barry Cleary’s statistics, although both teams have shown the same basic accuracy, Kilkenny have created better chances but possess a conversion rate slightly lower than expected whereas Tipp have created lesser quality chances and scored waaaaay above what they ought to have.
Thus it goes every year. Tipp are the best and most accurate finishers in the sport. On some level, we knew as much. The stats prove it. No voodoo here.
Tomorrow they’ll field their usual raft of triggermen. John O’Dwyer; Jason Forde; John McGrath, who prefers goals to points; Seamus Callanan, an equal-opportunities assassin who does not discriminate between the colour of flags; and even a pointscorer in their midfield Herbert von Karajan, Noel McGrath. That’s a lot of prospective points.
Kilkenny have TJ Reid, who will not be allowed find the range from play, and Adrian Mullen, who’s 20. Walter Walsh and Colin Fennelly have numerous virtues but they’re not 0-4 per game guys. Richie Hogan has been a Tippslayer since his minor days but he hasn’t been Richie Hogan for quite a while. That’s not a lot of prospective points.
Still, Tipperary are missing somebody and here’s an echo from history that may discomfit. Donie Nealon laments to this day the absence of John Flanagan, suspended along with Ollie Walsh following the ultraviolence of the National League decider, from the 1968 All-Ireland final.
When Wexford ran at them in the second half, Tipp needed and lacked Flanagan’s youthful energy. It is not an exact comparison given the age disparity between Flanagan then and Bonner Maher now, but tomorrow the Tipperary attack will be minus their aircraft carrier. In hurling the past is never dead and rarely past.
On foot of the government’s recent decision to allocate €50m to the 2026 Ryder Cup at Adare Manor, the usual argument broke out about the funding of culture vis a vis sport. It is a pointless and silly debate, not least because it is insoluble. It also overlooks the fact that this isn’t, or at any rate shouldn’t be, a zero-sum game. Above all, it fails to realise that hurling at its best culture.
What has the best of a decade of Kilkenny versus Tipperary been but Hibernian high baroque? Working not in steel or stone but with lacquer and diamond inlays, what have Seamus Callanan, John O’Dwyer, Noel McGrath,
Richie Power, Eoin Larkin and TJ Reid been but the poets and novelists, the goldsmiths and jewellers, of their calling? If there are doubters, strap them to a chair with their eyes clamped open, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and force them to watch The Game on permanent loop until enlightenment dawns.
And so once more the dreary steeples of Tubberadora and Tullaroan hove into view as the endless war – the counties have been meeting in All-Ireland finals since 1895 - continues. Where Limerick last year gave us the shock of the new, these guys are giving us the shock of the old. Once more every day is like All-Ireland Sunday.
It has been an enormously satisfying championship. Were it a horse race it would constitute a genius feat of handicapping, an event — with six or seven horses finishing within a length and a half of one another — that’s as close to being a multiple dead heat as makes no difference.
Mighty men though they are, sometimes we fail to give Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy the credit they deserve. It was no gimme that Kilkenny would be here after losing the Leinster final, where they failed to score a goal. It was even less of a gimme that Tipperary would be here after being atomised in the Munster final.
Both teams needed to be picked up off the floor, or in Tipperary’s case dug out of a shallow grave on the Ennis Road. Both managers did the needful. Both can expect a bounce after the perfect semi-final scenario: a narrow victory in a gutwrenching contest.
Will Kilkenny win if Reid produces a stormer? By no means. Will Tipp win if Callanan does likewise? Surely. If ever a Kilkenny man deserved to lift the MacCarthy Cup it’s Reid. But all three members of Tipp’s half-back are good, or better than good, in the air.
Should Kilkenny do it there will — can — be only one Hurler of the Year. Should Tipp succeed the award will at long last go to Callanan. Yet Brendan Maher deserves an individual award of some kind for long, distinguished and undemonstrative service. The Borrisoleigh man does his job over and over again and is never prone to unnecessary flashiness in the way Padraic Maher occasionally is.
Tipperary are approaching the end of a chapter. It was colourful, it was dramatic and it would have been considerably more productive but for the existence of Cody’s Kilkenny. (We won’t exhume the Arkle/Mill House parallel for the millionth time.) But their two All-Irelands to date render this decade the county’s best since the 1960s. Victory here will render it their best since the 1950s.
In which case, given all the hurling they’ve done and not forgetting all those National League defeats to the men in stripes, a third MacCarthy Cup triumph will have been long earned by Callanan and the older two Mahers. In old money, or in a world that had never heard of Brian Cody, that would equate to five or six All Ireland medals.
Alone among the myriad collisions of the pair these past ten years, the 2016 final was easy to call beforehand. This one is not.
Kilkenny’s strange passiveness that afternoon has never been properly explained. Simple fatigue, mentally more so than physically, having so often geared themselves for war in the past? Almost certainly.
It was the first time since the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final they failed to get boots on the ground. They won’t fail on that count tomorrow.
Still on 2016. Although Paul Murphy had a bad day and Joey Holden a worse one, the root of the losers’ problems was located in the half-forward line. If the Tipp half-back line win the battle again, that will be that. Holden has shown immense character to bounce back. His first touch here has to be spot on.
Still on 2016. Kilkenny could have done with a sweeper, even for 15 minutes in the second half to help staunch the bleeding. If they haven’t rehearsed with one for tomorrow they’ll be in dereliction of duty.
Still on 2016. Walter Walsh had a disappointing outing after a rewarding summer. He’s had a satisfying 2019 that’s passed largely unnoticed because of the defensive work he’s been detailed to do. Without 8 out of 10 performances from him and Colin Fennelly, who’s in the form of his life, it’s difficult to envisage Noreside glory. Some other observations.
More so than any time in recent years Kilkenny need to think a really good game. That will — or won’t — have been done over the past three weeks. Having upped their intellectual input after the Leinster final, another leap is required. Leave 40 metres of green sward in front of their full-back line and this moggy will be skinned alive in jig time.
Both goalkeepers are potential match-winners. Brian Hogan has had a fine season. Eoin Muphy combines the brilliance of Ollie Walsh with the dependability of Noel Skehan.
The McGrath brothers are terrific hurlers and nice boys. Mary and Pat McGrath can be proud of them on the former count and even prouder on the latter. If midfield turns messier than a Czech interior decorator’s apartment, however, Noel might be put on the back foot by Conor Browne. Cody clearly sees something in Browne, who possesses a bloodline so blue as to be straight outta Coolmore.
Tipperary folk spent the summer grumbling about their subs. The subs scored 1-4 against Wexford. As ever, the truth is probably located in some equator between the two poles. It scarcely requires commenting that a high-scoring affair should suit Tipp more. But both full-back lines can be got at.
Likeliest first goalscorer? Callanan, McGrath the younger or Fennelly. As an outsider maybe Michael Breen, who has never become the force of summer he threatens to in springtime but who insinuates himself into handy positions.
The Agatha Christie/Fergie Tuohy/Aidan Fogarty award for improbable man of the match? Not this time around. There are no unusual suspects when Kilkenny meet Tipperary. Nobody lurks behind the arras tomorrow.
All-Ireland finals being their own little looking-glass wars, let’s try peering through both ends of the telescope.
So on the one hand: Kilkenny got here a year too soon, they’ve forgotten at all levels how to score goals and though they produce admirable meat and veg defending — two banks of three, no space in between, with a third bank of four across midfield on the opposition puckout — Tipp’s class sees them convert the usual outlandish percentage of their shots and win.
And on the other hand: Reid drifts into space and stitches a couple of goals; Hogan turns back the clock; Pádraig Walsh does the job of two men; Richie Leahy comes on and hits two points on the run, and the
Noresiders do enough to shade a low-scoring affair. For all their imperfections they remain Cody’s Kilkenny.
Against any other opposition that would suffice. Against this Tipp forward line, and because everything about tomorrow is a perhaps, perhaps not.