Tomorrow marks the 10th national final in 10 years between Kilkenny and Tipperary, writes Enda McEvoy
A little game for you, one with screechingly obvious implications for tomorrow’s outcome.
How many of the Tipperary forwards would make the Kilkenny team and how many of the Kilkenny forwards would make the Tipperary team?
By ‘Tipperary forwards’ we mean the attackers available to Michael Ryan to choose from, plus Seamus Callanan, as opposed to the sextet that will take the field at Nowlan Park. So: Callanan, John O’Dwyer, and John McGrath would all be automatic choices for Brian Cody. No debate there.
The elder McGrath wouldn’t have made it in the black and amber a couple of years ago but his particular party piece — two or three unerring shafts every day from distance, regardless of how well or how badly Tipp are going — would render him welcome in stripes right now.
Jason Forde wouldn’t have made it a couple of years ago either. The new, improved Jason Forde would.
Kilkenny forwards in the other direction? TJ Reid, obviously. Richie Hogan ditto were he around, although just imagine the extra drop of subtle, slow-acting poison Hogan could bring to Tipperary, not up front but poking and prodding from midfield.
And, er, that’s about it...
Actually that’s not quite it. There’s one other Kilkenny forward Tipperary could do with.
Walter Walsh. Yes, he has his flaws and yes, his striking is erratic. That wind-up of his makes it look like he’s loading a machine gun in slow motion.
But Tipp had more than enough shooters on the field against Galway last August when what they really needed was one stylist fewer and one Walter more.
Someone to get on the ball, rampage forward with it, turn defenders and open bricked-up channels. A displacer of water, the kind of forward Galway possess in droves.
(By the by, for the edification of interested Leeside readers, Seamus Harnedy, Conor Lehane, and Alan Cadogan would all make Brian Cody’s line-up. Patrick Horgan might be a shade too dilettantey for the great man’s tastes.)
Anyway. You get the drift. Assuming Ryan fields a reasonable quota of his scoring forwards, with another one or two on the bench in case of emergency, Tipperary should win.
So much the better if they remember the 2013 league final at the same venue and try to pull a Michael Fennelly in reverse by rattling in two goals in the first half. With five goals in their seven outings to date Kilkenny are unlikely to short-circuit a putative deficit of that sort.
On the other hand they’ve been averaging 22 white flags a game, an encouraging strike rate with the championship in mind albeit not yet in Galwayesque territory.
On his last visit to Nowlan Park six weeks ago Ryan held his hand.
His starting attack? Sean Curran, Billy McCarthy, Patrick Maher, Ger Browne, Michael Breen, and Niall O’Meara. On the bench if he needed to break the glass? Noel McGrath and Padraic Maher. He could have put them on. Instead he introduced Mark Russell, who gave the Kilkenny full-back line no end of trouble under the dropping ball, and Cian Darcy.
And Tipp still hit 2-21 and only lost by a point.
You’d prefer to be reading a preview of a Limerick/Wexford final, of course.
You’d prefer it almost as much as your correspondent would prefer to be writing one.
Between us we have measured out the past decade in Kilkenny/Tipperary collisions. Tomorrow marks the 10th national final in 10 years between the pair.
Churchill’s line about the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone — in this case, of Urlingford and Templetuohy — and the integrity of their unending quarrel has never sounded more apposite.
That Kilkenny have come this far while undergoing renovations at least adds a twist of novelty to a too-familiar colour scheme. That both sides have got this far almost despite themselves should serve as a corrective to the notion that this summer and this restructured championship will prove to be some sort of wild and wonderful fiesta of hurling democracy.
Saying that seven or eight teams can aspire to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals does not equate to saying that seven or eight teams are potential All-Ireland finalists.
Limerick did as well as they were entitled to last weekend but didn’t quite possess the wherewithal — yet — to do more than push an understrength Tipperary to the wire. Wexford did not do well, producing their first flat performance under Davy. A case of an overdue off-day? A case of partly believing their own press? Probably a bit of both, but either way it ought to prove an instructive lesson.
Learning to block out the noise when it reaches a certain decibel level is a rite of passage for every progressive team.
This has been a long winter for Brian Cody and his selectors, and not solely for weather-related reasons. In order to build a new team they were first required to take an existential leap and design a new gameplan for this new team.
Thus Eoin Murphy goes short to one of the corner-backs, the latter finds Cillian Buckley and so on up the field through the lines of trenches. The handpass not as a tactic but as a strategy. There is no Henry to go long to and they’re not making the mistake of trying to go long to Henry’s ghost.
The man who turns the key in the front door of the reconstructed building is not Reid, superb though he’s been as squadron leader, but Buckley.
Everything starts with him and from him. Heaven help Kilkenny this summer if their centre-forward picks up an injury? Heaven help them if their centre-back picks up an injury. The Bonner is custom-made for the job required of Tipperary’s centre-forward tomorrow: To wire into Buckley and cut off the water supply at source.
One hardly needs to add that while much has changed in Cody Land, an appetite for the grunt work remains non-negotiable.
The younger hands appear firmly with the programme. Six days ago Martin Keoghan unfurled his best performance since hitting 0-5 at Walsh Park in mid-February and had a storming second half. John Donnelly and Ger Aylward kept getting on the ball, even if their final product might have been better. Bill Sheehan, a surprising selection, justified the management’s faith and on drier ground, with a better supply of ball, will offer a desirably different kind of threat.
Everyone did his bit, which is all that Cody ever asks for.
But to muster a second big performance on consecutive Sundays will be quite the ask. Only one of these teams, moreover, can be expected to win the game off the bench.
Irrespective of the outcome Tipperary will enter the 2018 championship in better shape than they did the 2017 edition, and not solely because they don’t have thoughts of two in a row to get themselves into a lúbán over. Yet they’ve been coming to Noreside’s Temple of Doom for 10 seasons now and going home disappointed — disappointed because of the magnitude of the margin (2009), or because of the glamour of the occasion (the 2013 qualifier), or because a five-goal salvo somehow proved insufficient (2014).
Ryan may need reminding Tipperary haven’t beaten Kilkenny in a league final since the 1968 Home showdown. Yes, that league final: Belts and blows and bans and boycotts. He won’t need reminding that last year’s league final, if it didn’t outright ruin the county’s season, was an unforeseen mishap from which they never quite recovered.
Friday, 9.30 p.m. That Tipperary forward line . Is it too late to change to Kilkenny?
Tomorrow: Nowlan Park, 3.30pm
Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway)
Betting: Kilkenny 7/4, Tipperary 4/7, Draw 9/1
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved