Another terrific struggle expected between hurling’s big two

Eamonn Wynne

Eamonn Wynne

It’s a view that may not be given official sanction but Tipperary’s preparations for the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship had to be re-aligned from Sunday, July 9.

A week before they played Waterford in the Munster Final, that was the day when the hurling world shifted on its axis as Galway shocked Kilkenny in the Leinster Hurling Final.

That result created a situation where Tipp became aware that if they managed to overcome Waterford they could be facing Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, on an earlier date and stage of the championship than what was widely expected.

Tipp’s success in the Munster Championship and Kilkenny’s subsequent defeat of Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final means the scenario has come to pass and arguably the two best teams in the country will meet in Sunday’s semi-final at Croke Park (3.30).

The pairing means that there’ll be one fresh face in the All-Ireland Final (Galway), after Tipp and Kilkenny contested the last three finals.

Last season Tipp reached a peak when they rammed seven goals past Waterford in the Munster Final. They struggled in the All-Ireland semi-final against a stubborn Dublin team and were so out of sorts against Kilkenny in the final the only surprise was that just 4 points separated the sides at the finish.

This year Tipp’s emphasis has been different. They repeated their victory over Waterford in the provincial final but not with the same abandon and style that had characterised their victory 12 months previously.

Since they beat Limerick in the Munster quarter-final they’ve been slowly and steadily building momentum in their subsequent matches against Cork and Waterford. Throughout the campaign they’ve been playing within themselves, waiting to unleash a big performance when it’s required.

The questions now are whether they’re capable of going full stretch in August, and if the resources that they’ve kept in reserve will be good enough to beat Kilkenny.

Aside from hurling ability, Tipp will firstly need to at least match the aggression and physicality that formed the basis of Kilkenny’s approach to last year’s final; Tipp turned up for a hurling match but Kilkenny came prepared for a battle. From an early stage the body language indicated that Kilkenny possessed the greater hunger and desire.

With just one defeat (against Kilkenny) in 13 championship matches, the challengers will take an impressive run of form into the game.

While wholesale changes in the team aren’t expected manager Declan Ryan and his selectors appear to have at least one tough decision to make. Pa Bourke started at wing-forward against Waterford, scored two points from frees and did little wrong but was still withdrawn 2 minutes before half-time to be replaced by Eoin Kelly, who brought all his experience to the occasion as he played his part in the team’s 7-points victory.

Both players staked their claim for a starting place by emerging as top scorers from their clubs’ divisional finals, Kelly hitting 1-11 in Mullinahone’s defeat of Carrick Swans in the South while Bourke struck that incredible 6-3 when Thurles Sarsfields hammered Loughmore in the Mid.

Kelly has made an impact when he replaced Bourke in each of the last two matches and Declan Ryan must now decide if he’s going to keep him in reserve again or opt for his greater experience in such a high-octane occasion.

Kelly’s long-time accomplice in attack, Lar Corbett, has been easing himself back into the swing of things since returning (against Cork) from his self-imposed exile.

In the Munster Final he started his first full match since last year’s All-Ireland Final. Corbett displayed his wonderful touch and vision at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last month with a performance that suggested that he’s re-approaching his best form. However if there was any criticism of the Sarsfields player it was that he spent too far from the opposition goal – unlike, say, Henry Shefflin who scored 2-6 (including four frees) against Limerick- and an inclination to pass when he might have taken a score himself meant that he failed to score.

Shane McGrath has regained his place in the starting line-up to form a sturdy centrefield partnership with Brendan Maher.

The defence, and the full-back line in particular, had been criticised in the build-up to the Munster Final but Michael Cahill went on to enjoy one of his finest games in a Tipp jersey while Conor O’Brien and captain, Paul Curran were equally vigilant. It’s a performance that will need to be repeated on Sunday while the even more impressive half back line of Thomas Stapleton, Conor O’Mahony and Padraic Maher is bound to be severely tested also.

With players of the calibre of Seamus Callanan, Shane Bourke, Donagh Maher and either Eoin Kelly or Pa Bourke waiting in the wings they have good options on the bench too.

While they might have lost that air of invincibility that they had a few years ago when they swept to four All-Irelands in-a-row, and even if they’ve slipped a couple of notches Kilkenny remain formidable opposition.

At the peak of their powers a few years back this Kilkenny team wouldn’t have foundered in the way they did during the first half against Galway, even if they rebounded well against Limerick.

The suspended Richie Hogan, sent off against Limerick, will be a loss on Sunday but they’re strong in so many areas that the loss of one player isn’t likely to make a huge difference.

As they prepare for their 16th consecutive All-Ireland semi-final, who’s prepared to bet against them reaching another final? Paddy Power bookmakers have them as the 13/8-on favourites, with Tipp at 6/4 and the draw at 10/1.

It should be a terrific struggle and one in which Tipperary have the capacity to succeed.