I’m relishing tomorrow’s clash of Kilkenny and Tipperary, the two standout teams of recent years.
Every time they’ve met that period the hurling has been absolutely brilliant. Even last year, when Tipperary were hammered in the All-Ireland semi-final, Kilkenny were exceptional. I’m looking forward to the same again in Nowlan Park, and I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed.
The fact it’s on in Kilkenny is significant. After the developments of recent years Nowlan Park is now up there with any venue in the country. I expect to see its capacity of over 30,000 fully tested and boy, will it be passionate! One thing this Kilkenny outfit has done with every opponent they’ve met in the Cody era — they’ve broken their spirit.
It might take them a little bit longer in some cases — Cork were stubborn for a while — but Kilkenny always achieve that goal.
Last year Kilkenny walloped Tipperary in that All-Ireland semi-final and the manner of that result remains hugely significant. A major concern of the losing supporters afterwards — the older generation especially — was that their spirit was shattered and that the manliness that was always in Tipperary hurling was finally gone.
Tipperary, you see, have always stood up to Kilkenny. Where they always prided themselves especially was in their defence, that was always their strong-point. Anything you scored against Tipperary you earned it. And no, it wasn’t dirty, not even in the days of the fabled Hell’s Kitchen — it was manly and honest.
Tomorrow, that’s what the Tipperary supporters will be looking for, they want to see if the spirit has been broken. Can they now again stand up to Kilkenny? Can their defence especially do what they failed so badly to do last August and stand strong against the Kilkenny attack? Expect Eamon O’Shea to play a game of cat-and-mouse in terms of his player placement from the team named on Thursday night.
Whatever about the selection games, Tipperary can’t play like mice here. Running into space, flying onto the breaking ball and heading for goal, that’s all very fine and the game may well open up at some stage. The mindset that every Tipperary player needs going to Nowlan Park though is that this is going to be a war, that it’s going to have big hit after big hit, that they must be prepared to give those hits — and take them.
What of Kilkenny? They didn’t have a winning start to the league but it was a good start nevertheless, a start a lot of people missed when they started to talk about Kilkenny being in trouble. They had injuries to big players but in typical fashion they just got on with the job and didn’t use those absences as excuses.
A few new players came through, most notably Lester Ryan, who’s been a revelation, likewise the goalkeeper, Eoin Murphy, and the likes of Conor Fogarty and Ger Aylward also figured prominently. What it means then is that as the injured players come back (and they’re still without Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid for this one), Kilkenny can look to a much stronger panel than they had at the end of last year.
For all that, I think they’re still a small bit off their best. Clare should have beaten them, Waterford troubled them, and even Galway in the semi-final, had they taken their scores in the first 20 minutes they might have had Kilkenny in real trouble. I think Kilkenny are quite surprised to find themselves in this year’s league final; now that they’re there we know they’ll do their damnedest to win it but the eye this year is very firmly fixed on the championship and that game in a few weeks against Offaly.
This one may be just a bridge too far, in the final of a big competition especially, and up against a team who can match you even at your best in a lot of areas. For that reason, and because this game means so much more to Tipperary than just a league title, I’m going for the visitors. If Kilkenny lose, it won’t mean anything to them for later in the year. If Tipp win, it will mean a lot to them.
Above all though, and regardless of who comes out on top, both sides need it to be close. And so do we.
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