EARLIER this week we asked a number of former Kilkenny captains and players if their team could create history tomorrow and complete the five in a row.
All expressed confidence the feat would be achieved. Now it’s the chance of their equivalents in Tipperary to answer the opposite question – can Tipp stop them? Yes, but with reservations, say three of those who were there when Tipp last beat Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final, 1991 – Declan Carr, Nicky English and Michael Cleary.
Carr has no doubt about the task facing the Premier. He said: “This Kilkenny team is the best I’ve seen. The biggest challenge for Tipperary is surviving the first quarter; that’s when Kilkenny go hunting; they did against Limerick (07), against Waterford (08) and again this year against Cork. If Tipp can withstand that surge, if it’s level at half-time, Tipperary will win.”
English is equally cautious. “I think the odds in the bookies are pretty realistic, Tipp nearly 3/1, Kilkenny raging-hot favourites. On form, you’d have to go with Kilkenny but Tipperary aren’t also rans, they’re definitely the best of the rest.”
Cleary gives Liam Sheedy’s men ‘a good sporting chance’. “Kilkenny have shredded the book on sporting superlatives but the hurling they’ve been playing this year is exceptional. However, there’s a lot happening that’s so unlike Kilkenny – they don’t like hype, and none of it is of their own creation. On all known form it’s Kilkenny’s title but I think Tipperary have a very good sporting chance, 40/60. They’re better equipped to take them on than anyone else. It is a long time since Tipp came into a game with so little publicity, which is a brilliant way to go into any game.”
All-Ireland winning player and manager Babs Keating pinpoints the line which could decide the outcome: “Tipperary will have to control the half-forward line and hold that Kilkenny half-back line. In the semi-final, the Waterford half-back line and half-forward line were atrocious against Tipp. It remains to be seen if the new youngsters in attack, Gearoid Ryan and Patrick Maher, are up to it. Last year, it was like Tommy Walsh had a ball of his own. He’s one of the greats, as is JJ Delaney.”
From an even earlier era (1954-67, five All-Ireland titles), the mighty Theo English has some advice from the attackers. “Tipp are better this year, playing more as a unit, and the selectors have a bit more cop on. Last year, every shot they took at their goalie they went to his left side, and he’s a left-sided goalie – they should have gone for the other corner and force him to bring the hurley across. But I think Kilkenny are better than last year.”
Caution all the way, but then came belief – the great Jimmy Doyle (1956-75, captain 62 and 65, six All-Irelands) and the even more confident Len Gaynor (1965-73, Clare manager 1990-94, Tipp manager 96-98). Doyle said: “I thought they should have beaten them last year. The hunger is still there to put in a performance like that again. They’re very sharp at the moment. They do need a bit of luck, which they didn’t get last year. Maybe they’ll get that luck tomorrow. You have to be fair to this Kilkenny team, they’re the best of all time but then if that ref was only half-right last year we’d have won it.”
And Len? “They’ll have to play better than they did last year because Kilkenny are better. It’s going to be a tremendous game, but I think the speed of Tipp’s hurling should be enough to see them through. They’re very slick in the forwards, move the ball smartly; if they can contain the Kilkenny forwards to a reasonable score, there’s no reason they can’t win.
“And I think they will win.”
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