Tipperary win would be ideal boost for season ahead but preparations hit by injuries

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The hurling story of the past decade revolves around the Tipp/Kilkenny rivalry and here we go again with yet another instalment in this epic tale. Nowlan Park is a novel setting, for sure, for a Tipp/Kilkenny final but little else changes. The ‘cats’ go in as marginal favourites but Tipperary’s recent form is encouraging.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The hurling story of the past decade revolves around the Tipp/Kilkenny rivalry and here we go again with yet another instalment in this epic tale. Nowlan Park is a novel setting, for sure, for a Tipp/Kilkenny final but little else changes. The ‘cats’ go in as marginal favourites but Tipperary’s recent form is encouraging.

Meanwhile we had a bumper weekend on the club scene with action in all divisions. Unfortunately injuries to county players were the headline items: Paddy Stapleton is definitely out for Sunday but there’s more hopeful news on Paudie Maher after a Saturday night scare.

Familiarity breeds contempt, goes the old saying, and Tipperary and Kilkenny have certainly got familiar over the past decade. It’s a familiarity that’s wearing thin for some. Eamonn Sweeney in the ‘Sunday Indo’ bemoaned the move from a so-called hurling golden age in the 1990s to what he termed an age of iron at present. It’s all very tedious for Eamonn and one can understand that neutral perspective where the absence of variety jars with followers.

Indeed the abiding impression of many leaving Thurles after the league semis was that Kilkenny and Tipperary have established a monopoly. It was probably especially galling for many to see Galway buckle so tamely after events last year and it was one of their own, Martin Breheny of the ‘Independent’, who posed so many critical questions on the Tuesday after the match. Still these things can change rapidly: trudging from Pairc Ui Rinn last February not too many followers saw us as rivals to Kilkenny.

Sunday’s venue arises from a home-and-away agreement that brought Kilkenny to Thurles for the ’09 final. On that occasion we lost narrowly after extra time but what was significant about the fixture was that it restored Tipp morale after being ‘hockeyed’ in Nowlan Park earlier that spring (5-17 to 1-12). And of course that regained self-esteem saw us on a learning curve that came so close that September in the All Ireland before finally slaying the dragon in 2010.

Declan Fanning, Shane Maher and Micheal Webster were all starters four years ago and others like Eamonn Buckley, Diarmaid Fitzgerald, Benny Dunne, Hugh Maloney and Tony Scroope were all panellists who have since departed the scene. It’s quite a lot of flux in four seasons though Kilkenny too have been significantly reshaped over the past few years. The stripey brigade in ’09 had P.J. Ryan, Michael Kavanagh, James Ryall and Eddie Brennan on the starting fifteen with the likes of ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and Martin Comerford on the bench. All have since been pensioned off.

It may be tempting fate but I’d speculate that the Tipp team which goes into action this Sunday is likely to be a stronger formation than the one Liam Sheedy lined out on May 3, 2009. That assumes of course that the injury list doesn’t lengthen during the week. It’s disturbing to hear of county players being on the receiving end in club battles. I thought the era of local hard men taking out county players was in the past, but apparently not. Two of the offenders were red carded last week as Eamon O’Shea was left to count the cost just days ahead of a league final.

Paddy Stapleton seems to be definitely out with a broken hand and, incidentally, I’ve heard no suggestion of foul play in that instance. It’s particularly rotten luck on the Borrisoleigh man who missed a lot of the spring action and was beginning to hit top form since his return. Hopefully he’ll be recovered in ample time for the championship date with Limerick.

There was a major scare on Saturday night concerning Paudie Maher who had to visit hospital following an incident in Sarsfields’ Mid game with Bracken’s. The initial reports suggested major elbow damage but thankfully that has not materialised and at writing time there seems to be growing optimism that he’ll be available for Sunday. Somehow if there was one player you didn’t want on the sideline at Nowlan Park it’s Maher.

Other injury worries relate to ‘Bubble’s O’Dwyer from Killenaule’s win over Ballingarry down South. With players like ‘Buggy’ O’Meara, Gearoid Ryan and Seamus Hennessy also nursing injuries it does tend to stretch resources ahead of a critical league encounter.

Under Eamon O’Shea team selection has been very difficult to predict because he has tended to incorporate four or five changes for each match. This shuffling of the pack has resulted in quite a lot of movement with even established players being rested on some occasions, Paul Curran an obvious example from the semi-final against Dublin. Another aspect has been the rotation of the goalies. Whether or not this policy remains for Sunday only time will tell, though I would have thought that a final against Kilkenny warranted your best possible fifteen.

If the policy of goalie rotation continues for Sunday then it will be the turn of Darren Gleeson; if decision time is called on that issue then it’s more likely to be Brendan Cummins.

The absence of Paddy Stapleton and the likely return of Paul Curran should see a reshuffle in defence. Perhaps they’ll go with Donagh Maher, Curran and Cahill on the full line with O’Brien, O’Mahony and Paudie Maher on the ‘forty’.

For midfield I’ll guess at Brendan Maher and Shane McGrath as the likely starters. The attacking formation has been particularly unpredictable. Some have suggested that if experimentation continues then Noel McGrath might be in line for a rest though I wonder at the logic of that facing into what could be a season-defining day. Corbett, ‘Bonner’ Maher and Callanan will surely start, hopefully with Lar at centre on Brian Hogan. If there’s to be a man-to-man alignment let it come from Kilkenny. Given the demands of the day I suspect Eoin Kelly, if fit, will be factored in too and then there’s Shane Bourke and John O’Dwyer also in the mix. Given the rigours of a collision with Kilkenny in a league final I’d expect Jason Forde to be kept out of the action, at least at the start.

While we nurse our injuries Kilkenny have been hit heavier in that regard. Shefflin seems to be a long way off a return and T.J. Reid has also been missing. Richie Power is reported to have cracked ribs as a possible legacy from the league semi with Galway and his colleague at Carrickshock, Michael Rice, missed the club’s defeat by James Stephens at the weekend. Incidentally Liam Cahill coaches Carrickshock this year after a few seasons with Clonoulty.

We’ve never played Kilkenny in a league final at Nowlan Park and I’m told we’ve never beaten them twice in the same league campaign. So on many fronts a victory on Sunday would be registered as a first of its kind. We’ve played Kilkenny on sixty-three occasions in the league, beating them thirty-one times, losing on twenty-six occasions and drawing six games. It’s a healthy record over the decades though in recent years Kilkenny have been catching up rapidly. Under Cody’s reign for example we’ve met sixteen times in the league with the ‘cats’ holding a ten-five lead; there was one drawn game.

Overall there’s no disguising the importance of Sunday’s game for both sides. League games can set a trend for later in the season and there’s no denying that if we have All Ireland ambitions then Kilkenny will stand in the way later in the summer.

Unavoidable also is the fact that Kilkenny play a high-intensity, physical game and if you’re not tuned in for the collision you get blown away. They may be missing some key names at this stage of the season but they’ve also unearthed some quality recruits in the likes of Kieran Joyce and Lester Ryan especially. They won’t wish to yield ground to the old enemy at home so expect them to go full tilt at retaining their title.

The bookies give Kilkenny a slight edge: they’re listed at 8/11 with Tipp on odds of 5/4. A neutral, dispassionate preview would probably anticipate a narrow win for the locals. Such an outcome would be bearable given past experiences but a win would really light up the summer ahead. Let’s go for it.

A parting word on the final: Barry Kelly has been appointed referee in a week when others like Michael Wadding, Cathal McAllister and Anthony Stapleton have been dropped from the inter-county panel. We’ve had a lot of experience of Michael Wadding over the years and while he’s made major mistakes at times I’ve always regarded him as even-handed, which is surely the most important trait of any official. It’s not a comment I’d make about some of those who’ve survived this latest cull.

Given the week that’s in it there’s little space for comment on club action which preoccupied fans countywide last weekend. I saw a double header of games at Golden on Sunday as part of a West series that’s looking tiresomely predictable at this juncture. Barring major upsets it looks like Clonoulty, Eire Og, Cappawhite and Kickhams for the semis with Golden and Cashel heading off into the first wave of county action.

Clonoulty, without working up much of a sweat, are trundling along to the inevitable knock-out stages. They dispatched Kickhams by a butcher’s dozen on Sunday last in the second of the ties on the Golden bill. Not that there was any butchering on view in this one as Kickhams came up well short. It was all very disappointing as Clonoulty led by seven at the break and quickly extended it well into the comfort zone on resuming with the first of John Devane’s goals.

Error-ridden and injury-interrupted the stop-start nature of the game just killed any momentum. The opening half must have lasted for fifty minutes with the unfortunate injury to All Ireland minor medallist, Sean Maher, causing the first of many delays. Kickhams might not have been expected to win but would have anticipated a more stubborn resistance than this especially after earlier wins over Golden and Cashel.

The opening bout was certainly the highlight of the programme. Eire Og and Cappawhite - sometimes friends, often foes - served up a right spirited game that remained in doubt to the very end. Okay the hurling may not have been classic but there was a closeness and competitiveness about it that kept the attendance engrossed.

Eire Og led by three at the break and stretched it out to six on resuming after Damien O’Brien goaled. However, Cappawhite refused to bow and clawed their way right back into it. The lead came down to just the minimum and Jerry O’Neill had a long-shot chance to equalise but missed before Eire Og sealed it out. The losers probably felt they deserved a draw but against that argument you have to factor in the heroics of Franny Quinn in the Cappa’ goal as well as Eire Og’s far greater spread of scorers.

P.S. Tipperary and Kilkenny are remarkably close on cumulative score over the sixty-three league meetings between the counties. Kilkenny are on 127 goals and 682 points (1,063 pts) with Tipperary hitting 129 goals and 673 points (1,060 pts).

P.P.S. As ever my appreciation to that wizard of statistics, Seamus O’Doherty. I hope he’ll be walking tall in Ballyragget on Sunday evening.