Not a lot of people seem to remember it but Tipperary actually did a job on Kilkenny in this fixture two years ago.
The visitors were understrength due to Ballyhale Shamrocks’ run to the All-Ireland final, thereby removing further cards from a deck weakened since the previous September. As a result Tipperary were entitled to win and win well. They duly did, by 2-22 to 1-13. Afterwards everyone went home for tea and soon forgot the afternoon.
The obvious touchstone for tonight, then, is not that comprehensive Tipperary win of 2015 at Semple Stadium but rather Kilkenny’s more comprehensive win at Nowlan Park in 2009. The backstory is worth recounting because it contains a resonance for this evening.
When Tipp travelled to Noreside for that fixture on March 22nd they were, in the vernacular, a coming team. They were title holders, having won the league under debutant manager Liam Sheedy the previous season.
They’d gone onto become Munster champions for the first time in six years. They’d run Kilkenny close in the All-Ireland U21 final and hadn’t received the rub of the green in a late Patrick Maher penalty/non-penalty kerfuffle. All in all it was evident that this was a group destined for bigger and brighter things.
So Kilkenny went and beat them by 5-17 to 1-12.
Real King Herod stuff. A slaughter of the innocents. In the way that Middle Eastern potentates tend not to go on long holidays for fear that one or other of their 19 brothers will arrange a palace coup in their absence, champions are not in the habit of lending hope to potential successors. Don’t be giving them ideas. Nothing personal, just business.
As it happened things didn’t turn out too badly for Tipperary afterwards. They were young but they weren’t as innocent as they appeared that day. They redeemed themselves handsomely two months later in the league final, very nearly beat Kilkenny come September and did beat them the following September.
Looking back on the modern relationship of the pair, Nowlan Park 2009 — unlike Croke Park 2011 — turned out to count for precisely nothing in the long run.
But just one thing, as Columbo might have said. Michael Ryan was a Tipperary selector the same afternoon.
He may have forgotten this entirely. It’s possible. It’s also possible that Donald Trump will join a contemplative order, that Enda Kenny will never again stretch the definition of truth when he’s speaking and that Ray D’Arcy will some Saturday night host a chat show that doesn’t involve a riveting interview with some RTÉ timeserver or other.
So what would your approach be tonight if you were Ryan? Pick an experimental team on the basis that you can afford to do so after three wins from three and that the whole object of this year’s league for Tipp is to inspect and condition newcomers with the championship in mind?
Or pick as strong a team as is practicable and sew it into patently vulnerable opponents? Faster, faster, kill the pussycat?
Because you can. Because good habits become instincts. Because the wheel appears to have turned and it’s now Tipp’s chance to insinuate themselves into Kilkenny’s heads and stay there for as long as they can. Because you don’t want to be giving those lads ideas. Nothing personal, just business. Well, maybe a tad personal in this instance, but so what?
Going for the jugular entails a slight risk. What if Ryan deploys his optimum XV but encounters a ferociously pumped-up Kilkenny — let’s face it, that can surely be taken as a given — and Tipp win narrowly, or perhaps don’t win at all? That doesn’t exactly look a likely scenario right now, yet Kilkenny are in a considerably better place this morning than they were seven days ago.
If Cody will be looking to anyone in particular it’ll be to Colin Fennelly. Not for his accuracy — let’s pass over his lack thereof last Sunday, admittedly his first outing of the campaign — but rather for his ability to eke out possession and carry the sliotar into contact.
The half-forward line rather than the full-back line was where Kilkenny lost the battle six months ago. The half-forward line is where they cannot afford to lose it again tonight. And to return to the subject of cutting off potential problems in infancy: If Pádraig or Ronan Maher are forced to turn and chase Fennelly they won’t have the time or space to be dumping ball on top of Seamus Callanan.
Should the employment of a seventh defender prove a leap too far for the visitors they’ll compensate by trying to compress the lines as they did so smoothly of old. Richie Hogan lying deep at centre-forward, the midfielders sitting on top of the half-back line and the half-backs — unlike last September — as close to the full-back line as possible.
It’s been largely forgotten that Seamus Callanan took none other than JJ Delaney for five points from play in the drawn 2014 All-Ireland final. Viewed in that light, Joey Holden’s plight deserves a dram of sympathy. Pádraig Walsh may prove no more of a match for Callanan than Holden did but he’s good in the air and that’s a start.
Even if it goes wrong and Walsh winds up starting the championship back in the number five shirt, what of it? Cody has to experiment and getting the defence sorted is a bigger task than getting the forward line, which will eventually take care of itself, sorted. Experimentation. That’s what they invented the National League for, remember.
While Kilkenny are fortunate this fixture didn’t come a couple of weeks ago it still comes too soon for them. Tipperary have the big guns, have the big men — how Steven O’Brien fares with this evening’s pace will be a particular item of interest — and have the bench.
As for a full-forward line of O’Dwyer, Callanan and the second member of the apparently interminable line of McGraths, there hasn’t been an iteration like it at the top level since Kilkenny entered the 2001 championship with Carter-Shefflin-Carey.
Funny thing; They didn’t win the All-Ireland that year.
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