Are more people finding themselves priced out or, perish the thought, feeling they have not been entertained? If anyone considers going to Croke Park on Sunday the equivalent of putting on a pair of old shoes, think again. Here are 15 reasons why this time it’s different:
Unlike 2014, Tipperary arrive at this platform not having lost a game. Not since the pair met in 2011 has an All-Ireland final been played between two unbeaten sides. At least in preparation for this, the Munster champions look more like equals even if it is a tad strange they have been pegged as marginal favourites with the bookies when it’s Kilkenny on a hat-trick of All- Ireland titles.
Westmeath man Barry Kelly might not be the man in the middle but he will, for one half at least, share the same sideline as the manager who claimed he made a “criminal” call in rewarding a free against Brian Hogan in the drawn 2014 final. Worth a sideline cam, surely? Should Brian Gavin pick up an injury, Kelly will be handed the whistle.
Not involved in the 2014 matches, Michael Breen has been the best midfielder in the country so far this year ahead of David Burke, Conor Fogarty and Jamie Barron. Breen surely would have loved a duel with Michael Fennelly, a real case of young bull meeting old bull. Instead of matching and beating Breen, Kilkenny will be endeavouring to find a way of stopping him.
Unlike previous meetings, one-on-one penalties are now the way along with one- versus-five for 20 metre frees. The advantage rule has also been introduced in the meantime and Gavin has shown his willingness to use it.
In 2014, Kilkenny found the net on 18 occasions in six games, an average of three a game. In their four matches so far in this year’s competition, they have managed just five, their game best being the brace they scored against Waterford in Thurles last month. On the other hand, Tipperary scored 17 goals in seven SHC outings that year compared to 10 in three this summer.
Two years can be an eternity in hurling and the back-line Michael Ryan is likely to name tonight will show three changes from the defence that started in front of Darren Gleeson in the counties’ last SHC meeting.
Winning an All-Ireland without Peter Canavan was a major incentive for Tyrone in 2008. Similarly, it was for Kilkenny last year without Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Hogan, Aidan Fogarty and David Herity. The pair along with Eoin Kelly, Shane McGrath, James Woodlock, Lar Corbett, Conor O’Mahony and John O’Brien has all since retired.
He featured twice as a blood substitute in the 2014 replay, first for Jackie Tyrrell and then for JJ Delaney, but Joey Holden is now a firm regular in front of Eoin Murphy. An All-Star in his first full season last year, he appears to have shaken off early season jitters.
In 2014, the average age of the starting Kilkenny team came in at around 27 to Tipperary’s 26. That is likely to drop for each team Sunday. Although Walter Walsh began a final replay at the age of 21 in 2012, Liam Blanchfield has the chance to be a rare U21 starter for Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final. He, along with Mark Bergin and Diarmuid, is one of three SHC debutants for the Cats in 2016. Ronan Maher should be Tipperary’s one U21 starter with Barry Heffernan on the bench.
So who will Michael Ryan attempt to pacify as being the first man in – John O’Dwyer, the super sub the last day, or Niall O’Meara? Or may he even keep both in reserve and look to Sean Curran to reinforce the work ethic he so values in the half-forward line. In all the meetings against Cody’s Kilkenny, none of Nicky English, Michael Doyle, Liam Sheedy, Declan Ryan and Eamon O’Shea have faced such a conundrum.
Cody has overseen victories in the six replays he has experienced as manager but never has a Kilkenny team of his come into a final having been matched by a team in an All-Ireland semi-final, as they were by Waterford. Tipperary are hoping to become the first team since Clare in 1997 to claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup winning all the way from the Munster quarter-final stage.
It’s obvious under Ryan how Tipperary have modelled a lot of their direct hurling on Kilkenny. Breen is the prime example of that but Brendan Maher has added muscle as has Pádraic Maher as difficult as it is to believe. Maher, it is known around Tipperary, on at least one occasion had to have a jersey cut off him due to his muscle mass. Patrick “Bonner” Maher’s jersey may bellow but on last year’s All-Star tour to Austin the impressiveness of his conditioning surprised a few players from other counties.
He might have been there alongside Eamon O’Shea two years ago as he was in 2013 in opposing Cody as he was with Sheedy in 2009 and ’10 but this is the first time he shares the whitewash with Cody with the same word emblazoned upon their backs. The Upperchurch man is the eighth Tipperary manager Cody has faced.
It might not amount to much if Cody elects again not to spring any more than three from the bench but since the beginning of the year, 20 seconds of additional time has been allocated per substitute, which should provide us with a little more action than previous encounters.
Now, Kilkenny really haven’t had a decent run-up to a final since 2014 when the lack of a visit to Croke Park the previous year reawakened the county.
But then the hype ahead of this final hasn’t been particularly lofty in Tipperary either as much as demand for tickets are reported to be strong. Don’t mistake the quietness for complacency.
Instead, liken it to Gandalf’s “deep breath before the plunge”.