Tipperary squeezed past Galway in a tough encounter which tested their mettle after a runaway Munster final win. Kilkenny now have the benefit of a rigorous work-out two weeks in a row from Waterford to bring them on after another casually acquired Leinster title.
Tipp barely beat semi-final opponents shorn of their best discovery and most accurate forward for half of the game. Kilkenny went to the well against younger, fresher opponents and were all but beaten, losing their most powerful midfielder.
If you were in both Semple Stadium and Croke Park three weeks ago you saw the two teams who’ll contest Sunday’s All-Ireland final, but it’s tricky saying who brings more form into the game. The general consensus was the Kilkenny-Waterford replay was a step up in intensity on the Tipperary-Galway game the following afternoon: Does that mean the survivors are the better prospect on Sunday?
Not without Michael Fennelly in midfield, maybe. It’s hardly an accident that Waterford’s late surge in the replay in Thurles coincided with Fennelly’s season- ending Achilles injury, for instance. Kilkenny found a way over the line without him, but can they find a way over the line without 70 minutes from Fennelly?
In the other semi-final the losing side finished strongly as well, David Collins’ loss of concentration letting a ball slip over the sideline that might have been worked to an equalising chance for Galway. As a neat counterpoint to Kilkenny’s situation, however, Tipp finished with an alignment they’ll surely begin with this weekend.
John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer spent most of the semi-final on the bench before being sprung. He struck the leading contender for goal of the championship when he came on, a slapped-down finish past Colm Callanan executed with the skill of a dispassionate matador.
Can Michael Ryan afford to start without O’Dwyer? Inconceivable. That alone should tilt the momentum in Tipp’s favour.
Having one of the game’s most skilful forwards on the field for the entirety of the game is a major plus, just as the loss of the most dominant midfielder of his generation is a blow to Kilkenny. Is that fatal to the Cats? Of course not. Anyone with an interest in hurling has long passed the point where they felt cosy listing Kilkenny’s disadvantages, so rapidly do those become positives.
If Brian Cody can create a midfielder out of Conor Fogarty, long seen as a defender, or — as happened in Semple Stadium — use TJ Reid and Richie Hogan as a midfield pairing, then it would be foolish to declare the centre of the field a guaranteed ‘win’ for Tipp. For all of that, Fennelly’s absence puts a puff of wind in the Premier sails. Perhaps more than anything else, it may suggest to the blue and gold the odds are tilting their way. Momentum with Tipp, then, but it’s up to them to turn that to good account.