When hurling continents collide

With respect to the Troggs, you feel it in your fingers. You feel it in your toes. Love may not be all around when Kilkenny meet Tipperary, but you should still be tingling in anticipation ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final

THINK OF the game on Sunday as an allegorical painting from the 17th century, symbolic figures on the canvas embodying the eternal struggles. Ambition led by Youth encounter Guile joined to Power. Some such concoction by a well-spattered Dutchman.

It’s that elemental. Tipperary and Kilkenny won’t clash on Sunday. They’ll collide like continents, it’ll just be a lot quicker.

A cursory glance shows parallels, maybe, with Cork-Tyrone a couple of weeks ago – an up-and-coming team with pace to burn, searing an older, experienced adversary. However, Cork and Tyrone had one previous championship encounter, almost 40 years ago, before any of their current players were even born. Kilkenny and Tipperary, by contrast, chafe along the length of a border and share what might be euphemistically termed a bracing historical rivalry.

That history carries lessons for today, as history invariably does. For instance, the Tipperary supporters banking on raw pace to carry their side over the finishing line on Sunday should consider the occasion back in the mid-sixties when Kilkenny came with a fine side which looked set to stop the Tipp juggernaut.

That Kilkenny side had pace too, and when one Tipp star was asked if he feared the Cats’ athleticism, his response was pithy. “They can do the running,” he said. “We’ll do the hurling.”

And they did.

Kilkenny have been efficient in 2009, not spectacular. The Olympian heights of August-September ‘08 haven’t been reached again, though the parallel argument is that maybe those heights haven’t been necessary.

There’s been a different dynamic to their season from the start, whether you judge that from the gauntlet thrown down in the league final or the early peak which was necessary to beat Galway. After almost a decade talking up the Leinster championship, Brian Cody was hardly going to allow Galway a winning debut in the eastern province; hence the emphatic response to the early blow to the chin from Joe Canning.

Or are we just unrealistic in our expectations when it comes to Kilkenny?

“Maybe that’s the thing,” said Henry Shefflin last week, “That other teams are coming back and lifting their game, and that we are coming back a small bit. But it’s very hard to gauge.

“As the year went on, I think our performance against Galway was good, Dublin was okay and I think against Waterford it was a good performance as well.

“It’s all about getting the victories, I suppose at the end of the day, but you’d love to have the performances going well. There’s one last day for one performance and you’d be hoping that it would be a big performance.”

You wouldn’t bet against it. Kilkenny have timed their run to peak condition perfectly in the last few years, handing off opponents no matter how they set up to counter the Cats. Waterford dropped off Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final last month and did well, but ask Henry Shefflin if he feels tactics have arrived to stay in hurling and he’ll borrow one of his manager’s favourite phrases.

“I think the game takes on a life of its own. Just look at the game between Cork and Tyrone, you can talk about tactics until the cows come home but at the end of the day it’s about the team that probably wants it that little bit more, that’s that bit hungrier and fresher.

“Maybe sometimes during a game you can see it, (it’s) suffocating if all the backs are on top of you, but I think that’s a day when things aren’t going well for you and you’re not able to spread it around, you’re not able to move the ball quick and you’re getting caught in possession.

“I think that’s what happens when things aren’t going great. Those kind of tactics do come in because you can’t seem to get over that tactic, to change it for your team’s benefit.”

Maybe it’s just us, obsessing about alignments and withdrawn forwards to create a seven-man defence, though quite how you beat one of the greatest teams of all times with five forwards against their six backs we’re not quite sure.

Could be similar to that old Henry James short story, The Figure In The Carpet, in which the characters try to puzzle out the pattern in a carpet until somebody simply asks: “Where is the figure in the carpet? Or is it all just carpet?”

Maybe that’s a lesson to us. Maybe it’s all just hurling.

PARDON the digression. Kilkenny have huge advantages going into this game, not least an intimacy with Croke Park which rivals that of the groundskeeper. That shouldn’t be overestimated: a Waterford hurler recently admitted that for all his county’s six All-Ireland semi-finals in recent years, there was a difference to the first Sunday in September when he and his team-mates stepped out for last year’s final.

Those semi-finals had been played in front of 60,000 spectators. For the final there were another 20,000 adding their voices. It makes a difference, and Tipp boss Liam Sheedy knows that.

“You’re probably talking about polar opposites,” he said last week. “Some of the Kilkenny lads are probably facing a tenth All-Ireland final, while most of my boys are probably seeing it for the first time.

“My job is to get them to do the same in the build-up that they did for the first round of the Munster championship. There is going to be hype, but you’ve got to learn to deal with that. We’ll make them aware of as much as we possibly can’ but at that stage it’s a matter of handing over to them. What you want them to do is you want them to bring a performance. Now if that performance means they get beaten, fair enough, but at least bring the performance and see what happens.”

Can Tipperary do it? On the face of it they have a great chance: they carry more pace up front than Limerick and Tipperary did in the last two years, they’re hungrier than Kilkenny and they have experience at both ends of the field, in Brendan Cummins and Eoin Kelly, to help the youngsters along.

Against them, though, stands a team which sees history peeping over the horizon like a sunrise. DJ Carey said last week that Kilkenny can play it any way you like. It’s difficult to see them being surprised by anything Tipperary spring next Sunday afternoon.

Youth versus experience. Pace taking on strength. Blue and gold against black and amber. It’ll be elemental, just like we said.


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