Never has a last chance saloon looked as appealing as tomorrow’s All-Ireland final – potentially the last time we will see some of the game’s greatest exponents of the last 15 years in action.
Chief among those is, of course, King Henry. If his final bow is to be in the pursuit of a record 10th Celtic Cross then so be it, there could hardly be a more appropriate end to the great man’s inter-county career.
The elder statesmen of both sides are, in many ways, an encapsulation of their teams too; waging war against the punitive effects of time to reclaim their place at the top of the pile before eventually succumbing.
Eight All-Ireland debutants notwithstanding, these are battle-hardened groups for whom novices are the exception to the rule. In search of redemption in the aftermath of a tormenting 2013, Cody and O’Shea have turned to the old stalwarts, at least in part, to point the way to redemption.
With Lar; Henry; Jackie; JJ and others in tow, the protagonists of yesteryear are very much present and correct heading into the latest instalment of what is perhaps hurling’s greatest rivalry.
Certainly, this has been the outstanding tit-for-tat battle of recent times – the trilogy of finals between 2009 and 2011, encompassing the failed ‘Drive for Five’ and the Cats’ subsequent revenge, still fresh in the memory given the spectacular heights the sides scaled during that period.
This year’s championship does not have a team at that heady level of ability. That, however, is not to take away from either team or denigrate the final we have in store. It will, as always, be a spectacular sporting occasion.
Eamon O’Shea deserves particular praise for hauling his tenure back from the precipice of unmitigated failure to being within 70 minutes of the greatest prize of all. Four successive championship wins speaks volumes for the man’s conviction in his methods and belief in his players.
Theirs has been the unlikelier ascent having suffered successive provincial knock-out at the hand of their near neighbours and with an epic loss in Nowlan Park sandwiched between.
A closing quarter of 2-10 against Galway in this year’s qualifiers ensured there was to be no repeat of last year’s qualifier exit, and set the wheels in motion for their barrelling run to the final, culminating as it did with a trouncing of Cork in the semi-final three weeks ago.
Against feeble Dublin and Cork opposition and with Offlay their only other test since defeating Galway, questions remain however. Making the Cats look equally inept would be the definitive answer.
For the realisation of that task, O’Shea has entrusted the same 15 with the responsibility.
Cody, however, has shuffled the pack making three changes. David Herity has paid the price for a shaky semi-final display against Limerick with Eoin Murphy taking his place between the sticks; Richie Power’s tour de force from the bench earns him a starting berth at the expense of Mark Kelly; and Walter Walsh replaces his namesake Padraig to add greater aerial threat up front.
Walsh’s inclusion could prove pivotal just as it was in 2012 when he made his championship debut. His presence in the full-forward line will further test what is a still unproven Tipp full-back line. It’ll be interesting too to see if Cody looks to put Colin Fennelly or perhaps TJ Reid in on Pádraic Maher in keeping with his preference to put his best forward on the opposition’s key defender.
O’Shea, however, might prefer to see the other Maher picking Fennelly up leaving Pádraic to concentrate on his own game as he did against Cork in such impressive fashion. Walsh could easily be imposed upon Maher too, however, in an attempt to unsettle the makeshift full-back.
The Tullogher Rosbercon man’s height could pose Maher problems on the edge of the square just as Aisake Ó hAilpín and, more recently, Johnny Glynn have in the past.
How Maher handles whichever task he’s assigned will be crucial to Tipp’s hopes just as Delaney’s attempts to shackle the rampant Callanan at the other end of the pitch will be. The semi-final showed that JJ had lost none of the nous of old but also afforded us a glimpse of the fading light in another of Kilkenny’s greats.
Callanan, with an incredible 7-38 to his name in five games this season, will fancy his chances of adding to his tally given the remarkable form he’s unearthed thus far.
Were any of O’Dwyer; McGrath or the old stalwart Lar to chip in with a strong tally of their own in addition to Callanan’s, and with Bonner being Bonner, Tipp have plenty ability to rack up a tally that’ll take some beating.
The midfield battle is set to be riveting too with player-of-the-year favourite Richie Hogan and Conor Fogarty facing off against Shane McGrath and James Woodlock who have been magnificent since their restoration to the side.
In truth, every facet of this game is intriguing. It is after all, Tipp v Kilkenny in another All-Ireland final.
We might have seen it all before but just as last year’s decider was exciting for trying a new recipe, 2014 is all about the tried and trusted main course served to perfection.
Our appetites will soon be sated.