Kilkenny must act fast as momentum lies with Tipp

"Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?"
— Henry IV, Part 1

Ger Loughnane got it right, as he usually does. The drawn game “brought hurling to a new level”.

But Rory O’Connell put it more colourfully. Rory O’Connell? The acclaimed Ballymaloe chef. Watching the match three weeks ago reduced him to tears, and not because of Brian Cody’s substitution policy. “It was majestic,” he declared. “A glorious spectacle of skill, passion, physical beauty, extremes and pride. And all for the love of the game.”

If Mr O’Connell cooks with anything like the panache with which he gives quotes, someone please book me in to Ballymaloe asap.

Before we get around to the rematch, two small matters to clear up from the last day. No, of course Cody didn’t put on Henry to do a lap of honour. Not with four minutes left and the issue still sizzling. Have sense. This is Cody.

And yes, Richie Power might have taken that opportunity to put Kilkenny five points ahead, but these pussycats are trained feline killers, not cuddly domestic types. He went for the jugular and he couldn’t be blamed for doing so. “It’s in my nature,” as yer man said at the end of The Crying Game.

And so for the third September in a row we ended up kissing our sister, and for the second September in three years the black and amber caliphate has another chance to perpetuate itself. Yet while the Cody era will not end until he’s the ex-Kilkenny manager, this evening — unless the teams get all 1931 on us — marks the swan song for many of the men on whom the empire was built. Have they one day left in them to summon the spirits from the vasty deep? And do the spirits, who dutifully materialised against Galway two years ago, still exist to be summoned?

In a way, not that they’ll see it thus, it’s immaterial if they don’t. Shefflin, Delaney, T Walsh, B Hogan et al: as a collective they have been consistently, staggeringly, historically brilliant. Brilliant, resilient, engagingly modest — an attribute widely overlooked — if too often infuriatingly taciturn. But time and tide, people, time and tide.

Eamon O’Shea has his tanks on the lawn, a far bigger and heavier division than the one repelled at Nowlan Park last summer. A few of the shells misfired last time out. Fire enough of them from the same range today and they won’t misfire.

Tipperary are not merely playing a different attacking game to Kilkenny, they’re inhabiting a higher plane of consciousness. From 1-14 against them last summer to 1-28 against them on September 7: the progress and manner of it have been astonishing (bear in mind 1-13 was enough to win the All-Ireland for Clare in 1995 and Wexford in 1996). Nowlan Park 14 months ago appeared the end of the line for the 2010 MacCarthy Cup-winning team. In a way it was, because 2013’s was an edition O’Shea inherited whereas this is a side he has built — or rebuilt — himself, in his image of what a team should look like. If Tipp have been energised by the rebirth of Seamus Callanan, it’s because he in turn has been empowered by O’Shea. It’s as though the manager has given his forwards a pill that’s opened their minds to a new world of possibilities. Go ask Eamon.

At their 2008-09 apogee, Kilkenny always had Shefflin as conductor, even if he was happy to frequently conduct from the back of the stage. At their finest, Waterford were kings of extemporisation; you never knew who would be first violin on any given day. But the Tipp of three weeks ago passed around the guitar and took turns on it.

Today is a clash of contrasts. A short — not too short — game versus a long game. The offload to the runner 30m out as opposed to the long ball to TJ Reid on the edge of the square (remember Lar Corbett materialising on Noel McGrath’s shoulder for his second goal in 2010 and McGrath making the pass, not because his brain told him Corbett would be there but because instinct told him he might be?). Dreamer versus pragmatist’s pragmatist.

O’Shea doesn’t dream from within the spaciousness of his own ivory tower, however. This is a man with the pragmatism to include Kieran Bergin, Shane McGrath and James Woodlock in his team. The party only begins after the fight for the staging rights has been won.

Talking of 2010, the cottage industry of what-iffery that sprang up around Shefflin’s departure, with one branch vehemently asserting that the real void was left by Brian Hogan’s absence, got it wrong. Now we can be sure of the identity of the man Kilkenny missed most that day. The other Hogan. Richie.

Tipp will have some class of a plan for Hogan here and there’s been no shortage of advisors to tell them it should be called Michael Cahill. Just as long as they don’t take too long to decide what to do if circumstance demands it.

A prima-facie reading of the runes points to Kilkenny. They’ll surely have more players playing well than three weeks ago; Tipperary surely won’t have as many playing quite so well; and Tipp will surely hit more than three wides (or, if you prefer, one wide, given that the other two glitches comprised an overhit pass from Noel McGrath and an aimless long ball from Brendan Maher). QED the black and amber streamers will fly afterwards.

But, wise men, riddle me this: is a Kilkenny improvement inevitable? And is it fanciful to suppose Tipperary, the more progressive side, may be even better than they were last time, or at any rate more economical from close range? Let’s not forget very few of their points were hit-and-hope efforts. Time after time, they –— and this was the operative word — worked the ball into the optimum position before pulling the trigger.

Some other observations.

Kilkenny’s changes came as no surprise. Padraig Walsh, who’s become a victim of his versatility, has track-back pace and hurled a lot of ball when moved to right-half back in the league final. Kieran Joyce’s job will be to do what Brian Hogan failed to do first time out and stop the sliotar going through. Nobody will be expecting Joyce to catch Bonner Maher in a race; his job is to ensure it doesn’t become a race in the first place.

The question about John Power — and no, he is no relation to his Callan namesake from two decades ago — surrounds not his skill level but his mobility. Presumably the idea is to tie down Cathal Barrett. Yet starting Power is no risk, provided Cody is ready to kick his substitution habit and use his bench early and often.

Reupholstered as an attacker as opposed to an additional navvy in midfield, Eoin Larkin was terrific in the first half of the drawn game. But how much are left in the legs when you’re facing your 10th All-Ireland final? Will Noel McGrath hit five points again?

It’s a fine line, as it always is with Noel, between playing deep and picking up the breaks, and playing deep and not. Or, as against Cork last month, playing deep, picking up the breaks and driving them wide.

Breaking even at midfield will suit Tipperary. It’s not a big ask given the form of James Woodlock and the rehabilitation of Shane McGrath. It’ll be a bigger ask if Michael Fennelly starts there.

Tipp’s record in Croke Park under O’Shea, the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final apart, keeps getting better. Still, of the three extraordinary performances there on his watch against the Black and Amber, two did not produce victory. The stacks in this high-stakes poker game grow taller. I’ll see your attacking carousel and raise you my Padraig Walsh and John Power.

Death-row dinner choice? In a word: Tipp. In another word: momentum.


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