If it hasn’t happened already, the last two All-Ireland Hurling Finals will eventually go down in sporting folklore as occupying a deserved place among the best finals in living memory.
Now, with Tipperary and Kilkenny poised to go head-to-head for the third year in succession, another thriller between the current game’s two best teams is in prospect.
Yet Tipperary manager Declan Ryan isn’t the least bit concerned about the quality of Sunday’s final.
“We don’t mind in Tipp if it’s another classic or not. We haven’t had much success in Tipp in the last 40 years on All-Ireland Final Day, so whether it’s a classic or not the result is the number one priority”, he says.
“There’s no doubt that these two teams have had a couple of great battles but this is a new game now. This game will be played on its own merits and anything that has gone on in the past will be irrelevant once the ball is thrown in. It’s a new game”.
Declan and coach Tommy Dunne are in the unusual position of having played with some of the current team and having guided others to All-Ireland Minor success. Brendan Cummins, Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett were team mates on the team that lifted the McCarthy Cup in 2001; Ryan and Dunne, and selector Michael Gleeson, were in charge of the successful Minor team in 2007 that featured Padraic Maher, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher, Michael Cahill and Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher.
“We knew the quality of young men that were coming through in Tipp, having been involved with a lot of them as Minors, and having played with some of the older guys as well we knew the quality of the men available. That made the decision (to take the job) a little bit easier and the transition (from the last management) more seamless.”
But was it a poisoned chalice accepting the role of managing a team that had just won the All-Ireland - “it was a huge challenge and a huge honour to take over as manager. The fact that the county won the All-Ireland last year brings its own extra dimension, but you never know if you’re going to be asked to take on the Tipp job again”.
Declan is eager to play down the importance of the manager’s role - “every member of the backroom team has their own duties to carry out and they’re doing those duties to the best of their ability. While some man might have the name of manager, the manager is only part of the backroom team. If everyone is doing their own job then the manager can oversee the lot.
We held onto a lot of the backroom team and that made the transition that little bit easier”.
He went on to say that the management was fortunate with the high standard of the players at their disposal - “there are plenty of leaders in the group, we just have to guide them along and let them off and hopefully they’ll play as well as they can on the day. Whether they win or lose after that, you know that if you do your best you have some satisfaction out of that”.
Tipp’s runaway win over Waterford in the Munster Final had the supporters and media alike purring, but they were brought back down to earth by Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. Talking to Declan Ryan, you get the impression that this situation suits both himself and the team just fine - “the semi-final has dampened a lot of the hype that was going around about Tipp after the Munster Final. You know when you go to Croke Park you’re not going to get anything easy.
Against Dublin we knew if we got in at half time level or near enough to it we’d be going fairly well, because Dublin were set up defensively and they try and quell your forwards. They succeeded in doing that.
Equally we knew that our guys would tough it out, they have been training very hard all year. The positives we took out of it (the semi-final) were that our lads will stick at it, and that we have a good bench to call on when the time is right and the need is greatest.
It can seep through (all the talk about the team) but these guys are used to being successful, they’ve been successful at underage level and at senior level now and they’re used to a certain amount of hype and that kind of talk. Sure it’s a concern when everybody is writing you up, but we’re going into the All-Ireland Final and we know it’s a 50-50 game, and you’re going to need a bit of luck and you’re going to have to be at your best, simple as that”.
He also believes the performance against Dublin revealed something important about the team’s personality - “there were a lot of teams in Tipp over the last 25 years who would have been beaten by Dublin, they wouldn’t have stuck it out the way the guys stuck it out. That’s a testament to the character that’s in the group, and how well these players have prepared, that they can win the battles as well. The semi-final was certainly a battle, and the final itself will be a huge battle altogether. It will come down to a little bit of luck on the day and whoever gets the bounce of the ball”.
Although he won All-Ireland Senior medals in three different decades – 1989, 1991 and 2001 – Declan says that there’s no comparison between his own playing days and the modern game. “The level that these players are at is incredible, it’s phenomenal, and the fitness and skill levels of these guys is so far ahead of where the game was even 10 years ago.
The basic skills now are far superior, the boys’ touch is so good, their ball-handling skills and the pace they’re travelling at, the speed of the game, all those things are far superior to where they were even 10 years ago. A team is looking for the edge all the time, and these guys do a phenomenal amount of pre-season. Physically they’re in super condition, maybe that wasn’t as intense 15 or 20 years ago. The preparation levels just go up and up every year.”
Their manager is of the opinion that the players are fortunate to have so much preparation, “and to have Tommy Dunne or someone of his calibre coaching the team. Those things shouldn’t be taken for granted by any player, all those things are in the mix as to why Tipp are successful at the minute. There has been a lot of work done at underage too and it’s very similar to Kilkenny, where they’ve been grinding out the results at underage, so the preparation levels are very high.”
The panel’s major injury worry this year has been Brendan Maher’s broken ankle. But with substitute appearances against Waterford and Dublin behind him, Declan Ryan reports that he’s “100% and ready to go”.
He said the Borris-Ileigh player had worked very hard and there was a lot of credit due to him for getting himself back into a position where he was available for selection again. “It was a blow at the time but he’s a good character who lives for the game of hurling, and he’s done everything that has been asked of him to get him back into shape.”
The manager is determined to make the most of the occasion that is All-Ireland Final Day. “We haven’t had too many of these days in Tipperary over the last 40 years, so it’s important that we enjoy them and take everything in. Obviously you prepare your team as well as you can for the big day and hopefully they’ll turn up in good form and do themselves justice”.