The Wednesday or Thursday after the 2014 All-Ireland final replay an old stalwart from near Urlingford decided to go for a spin on the far side of the border. Eternal vigilance and all of that, dontcha know.
In an unmarked car and under heavy disguise he made his way through the demilitarised zone and presently fetched up in a shop in Moyne or Templetuohy or somesuch. On the counter was a stack of Tipperary Stars, the front page featuring a photo of Padraic Maher in the depths of agony at the final whistle in Croke Park the previous Saturday. Our pal leaned on the counter and mock-sighed, gesturing conspiratorially to the photo. “We’ll never bate ‘em, will we?” The woman of the establishment fell for it and sighed in her turn, “No, we’ll never bate ‘em.”
Today they get the chance to bate ‘em. Today, facing a Kilkenny at the very bottom of their cycle, as stuck for depth as they’ll be for the remainder of the decade, they simply have to take it.
To return to a point made here back in February: If Tipperary don’t win the All-Ireland in year one under Michael Ryan, they’re scarcely going to win it in year two.
What could he possibly say to them in 2017 that he hasn’t already said in 2016? Tide, flood, taken at.
If you fancy a comparison with a previous final try that of 2006, when treble-chasing champions faced young and progressive opposition and couldn’t quite match them for legs or hunger.
It may prove to be a valid comparison and it may not; Kilkenny will not be out-hungered. But the average age of the challengers’ outfield players is 24.
Apropos of 2006 it has been pointed out that Brian Cody triumphed without the services of JJ Delaney. But Delaney was a defender whereas Michael Fennelly has been a bringer of war. Defenders stop people creating; Fennelly both stopped people creating and charged forward to do his own creating.
And of the county’s five goals against Tipperary over the course of 2014’s two-parter he provided the assist for four.
The holders’ porch no longer boasts that big dog. And not just him; Kilkenny are not only down a former hurler of the year who was man-of-the-match 12 months ago, they’re also missing a current All Star plus their most promising newcomer of the league campaign.
Ponder how stronger they’d be with Fennelly and Ger Aylward starting, James Maher on the bench and perhaps even Richie Power — the man who put Tipperary to the sword two years ago — able to give it 20 minutes. Functional beyond belief?
Think of it in the following terms, rather. View it as Pádraig Walsh vis a vis his big brother. Now Pádraig Walsh is a very good player who’s enjoying a fine season. But he’s not Tommy Walsh, in the same way that no Kilkenny team ever again will be the team of 2006-09, and he can’t be expected to be.
Yet Cody’s team will get boots on the ground because they always do. And they have Richie Hogan, so often the hammer of the blue and gold. And talking of history repeating itself, as in this sport it ceaselessly does, Tipp took Waterford for seven goals in the 2011 Munster final by dint of going long and high and early, an approach did them no good in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny defenders with hydraulic arms.
They took Waterford for five goals in this year’s Munster final by dint of going long and high and early. Kilkenny no longer have a half-back line of Walsh, Hogan and Delaney, but Walsh the younger and Buckley are formidable in the air and Kieran Joyce is no slouch either.
Therein lies a prospective sticking point for Tipp: Finding themselves betwixt and between. The direct approach that worked against Waterford doesn’t work against Kilkenny’s lighthouses, the short game of the Eamon O’Shea era has fallen into semi-obsolescence and the balance between these poles lacks definition and coherence.
That Michael Ryan has moulded a team in his own image has become the truism of the summer. A self-fulfilling prophecy, almost. Eamon O’Shea saw himself as a pastor as well as a manager; there has been none of that touch-feely stuff with Ryan, or if there has, he’s kept it hidden brilliantly.
Get stuck in. Well timed shoulders are the new black.
Certainly they have their fibre. Witness the emergence of Michael Breen, Seamus Kennedy and Dan McCormack, the latter the ideal water-carrying assistant for Patrick Maher, who’s still working on the railway but is no longer required to dig his own ditches. All championship they’ve hurled with Graham Greene’s splinter of ice in their hearts, and even when Galway pushed them up against a wall there was never — to these eyes anyway — a sense they wouldn’t work their way through it.
John McGrath against Shane Prendergast is a face-off Kilkenny will wish to avoid, or at any rate to render irrelevant. Does the fact that Seamus Callanan has averaged just over 0-3 per outing — commendable without burning down any buildings — after a curtailed league campaign render him more dangerous or less? Debatable, but it’s hard to imagine Tipperary winning without an eight out of 10 performance from him.
A slight question attends Ryan’s big-day capabilities on the line. Whereas he’s an old hand when it comes to the Croke Park whitewash on the first Sunday of September, this will still be the first time he’s the one calling in the air strikes. His selectors are novices too. That’s not the case with Kilkenny. If Cody took some weird and wonderful temporary brainwave you can be sure Mick Dempsey and James McGarry would make him see sense.
It’s unlikely to be gastronomically challenging, fusiony fare. One can visualise Dempsey and O’Shea, say, gladly venturing to Noma or Aniar. Not today’s protagonists. Like Lisheen’s rowing O’Donovans, Cody and Ryan are shteak and shpuds men, and let’s not have the steak too rare either, please.
Unlike in their previous September collisions since 2009, the teams are mirror images of one another. When mirrors collide, glass gets broken. And Tipperary’s entire belief system under Ryan has been predicated on a mindset that refuses to take a backward step.
They duly ground it out in the last few minutes against Galway. But it hardly needs to be observed that grinding it out against Galway is not the same as grinding it out against Kilkenny, the national, European, world and Olympic champions of grind. That said, ending up in too many tight corners is not a viable lifestyle option either. Coventry City did and look what became of them.
Some other observations.
At least Tipperary didn’t win the semi-final pulling up, which would have been the worst possible conveyance for them to arrive in. The Breen/Maher midfield fadeout after their bright opening should concentrate both minds.
Although Maher is a house-sitter par excellence Breen is the one Kilkenny will be wary of — especially his ability to create overlaps when storming forward.
A couple of lay-offs to Bonner Maher they could cope with. A couple of lay-offs to John McGrath could spell doom.
Are we putting too much store in Tipperary’s narrow defeat of opponents Kilkenny cruised past? Probably not, given that Galway were a stiffer proposition in mid-August.
John O’Dwyer starts. Ryan would have to agonise about getting his timing right.
Kevin Kelly starts. This year’s Walter Walsh, albeit smaller and less bulky. But better to start him than have to bring him on.
Don’t expect to see TJ Reid spend the entirety of the proceedings at midfield, as in Thurles last month. The champions will probably need two goals to win; Reid isn’t going to bring them about from 80 metres away. And given the dearth of natural born killers up front it won’t be a shock if Eoin Larkin is sited closer to goal. At 32 he doesn’t need to be doing double shifts.
Good and all as Cathal Barrett and James Barry are on the front foot, their powers of recovery are a different matter and the job Colin Fennelly did on Barry in the second half of the drawn game two years ago will not have been forgotten. It won’t be a massive surprise if Walter Walsh does a stint on Barrett in order to try to clean him in the air.
If they’re stride for stride in the last 10 minutes, Kilkenny will respond to the whip and keep sticking their neck out. We have to take on trust Tipp’s ability to do likewise. On current evidence book it’s not a leap.
The equation, then, goes something like this. Tipp slightly better + Kilkenny slightly worse = Tipp victory.
Too obvious? Lar Corbett’s line during the week about possible over-confidence among Tipperary supporters was disconcerting. How could that be even vaguely possible?
Still, the feeling here is that Kilkenny, for the first time in an All-Ireland final since 2004, will not have enough fresh questions to pose of their opponents.
The old soldier from near Urlingford may have to keep himself confined to base for the week.
Don’t miss the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast. Daithi Regan, Tadhg O’Connor, Eddie Keher, Eamonn Murphy and PM O’Sullivan join Peter McNamara to discuss the Kilkenny v Tipperary All-Ireland hurling final.
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