Inside the white lines, Kilkenny do the simple things well. They no longer have the capabilities to blow inferior teams away, as they did in 2007/08.
The irreplaceable Michael Fennelly’s absence is a huge low and that extraordinary pool of forward talent, who regularly created multiple goal chances in a game, is no longer available.
However, above all other teams in this Championship, Kilkenny still possess the ability to pounce on opposition mistakes and mete out the severest punishment.
Outside those lines, they possess a very shrewd management team. They will have noticed that Tipp’s best inside defender, Cathal Barrett, struggled against Galway’s Conor Cooney under diagonal high balls. Brian Cody and his selectors have always sought out weaknesses in the opposition defence. The tall and strong Liam Blanchfield — excellent in the replay against Waterford — or Walter Walsh, look the ideal candidates to gain aerial possession in the left corner of the attack.
Placing Richie Hogan at centre-half forward and TJ Reid on the left side of midfield may also form part of this plan. Operating near half-back, Reid will be difficult to close down once he begins a support run at pace towards the goalposts from an ‘inside left’ position. Richie Hogan likes to drift towards the left wing leaving a potential attacking corridor through the middle.
Possession gained from aerial diagonal deliveries into the left corner, could be transferred to Reid or Eoin Larkin steaming through in support, or to Hogan, looping around Reid as a support runner on his right. This tactic would pull Cathal Barrett out of the play and allow the creation of goal opportunities. Runners, including Walter Walsh from the opposite wing, would drive towards the goalposts and well-timed passes could create goalscoring opportunities.
At the back, Padraig Walsh may operate in a man-marking role on Noel McGrath, with Kieran Joyce delegated to man-mark ‘Bonnar’ Maher. Conor Fogarty’s midfield responsibilities will include nullifying the influence of Michael Breen. Tracking his forward runs, which proved profitable for the Premier in Munster, will be imperative.
Wing-back Killian Buckley sweeps up a lot of ball around the middle, particularly in Croke Park. Tipp’s Dan McCormack may have been selected in June with this encounter in mind. The Buckley-McCormack battle could be game-defining, from a psychological viewpoint.
Today represents Tipperary’s best chance since 2010 of dethroning Kilkenny. It is difficult to forget the euphoria that enveloped the county directly after that particular victory, and the U21 win a week later. Dreams of a future dynasty were shattered, however, when the Premier failed to their neighbours in 2011, 2012, 2013 and particularly in 2014, after a final replay.
This time, Tipp have to view their opponents as 15 individuals rather than a collective and seek to probe for weaknesses in areas that were exploited by Waterford. Above all, they must accept they themselves made important contributions to their own defeats. Poor ball use and lack of composure at vital times in both games in 2014 were major factors in ultimate defeat.
Seamus Callanan and Noel McGrath have shown their brilliance on many occasions but they can be overly casual with their shooting at times. Playing the percentages, recycling possession cleverly when shooting options are poor are basic requirements.
Up front, Tipp’s marquee players have to be resolute and a determined and deliberate approach is required to ‘protect the sliotar’ when in possession. The mindset must be to keep the pressure on Kilkenny by keeping the ball in play and moving it on the forward’s terms rather than the defender’s.
Callanan is a natural centre-forward and is at his most dangerous when he runs at the defence from outside.
If I was Michael Ryan, I would play Callanan just inside the centre-half forward position, moving between right and left, with space to run into in front of the goal.
Instead of playing Bonnar Maher and Dan McCormack next to each other, I would start Noel McGrath at centre-forward with Maher and McCormack on the wings. I would be expecting a ‘2010’-style all-action performance from McGrath. He has the innate ability to spot openings and I would be looking to him to set Callanan up for direct runs on goal with ‘over the top’ accurate passes.
John McGrath has been Tipp’s most impressive forward this season. I would play him inside on Paul Murphy, drifting between the left corner and the full-forward position. Murphy is at his best when he operates as an out-an-out right corner-back. However, he was exposed when used in the number three position in early 2015. McGrath is good in the air, deceptively quick, and adopts good attacking positions. He could be used as a target man to link up with Callanan and brother Noel, running strong supporting lines directly at the posts from outside.
John McGrath was opposed by Murphy in the early season league game in Nowlan Park and the Loughmore Castleiney man troubled the excellent corner-back on that occasion. If he can snatch a few scores and provide good scoring passes to colleagues, it will be a big psychological lift for Tipp.
Richie Hogan regularly makes a big contribution for the Cats. I would place Seamus Kennedy on Hogan as a man-marker with Ronan Maher on the right. Once danger threatened, Brendan Maher would slot back to the centre-half back slot as the half-forward line dropped deep into midfield, clogging up the supply lines.
At the back, Tipp must summon the composure of Beckenbauer and the steel of Claudio Gentile, two of my favourite soccer players.
Kilkenny have been winning titles unspectacularly since 2011. They are in their mature stage and win by doing just enough.
They give opponents chances which were non-existent in 2007 and 2008. Tipp spurned some glorious opportunities in 2009 and 2014 and learned some harsh lessons. Brendan Maher has stated that this Tipp team have learnt from past failings. We shall see.
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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