The undoubted progress that has been made in Tipperary football over the last number of years will be tested and measured in detail on Sunday when Kerry come to Thurles.
The Munster and All-Ireland champions open the defence of both titles at Semple Stadium against a Tipperary side buoyed by optimism garnered from under age and senior progress in recent years.
The magnitude of the task facing Peter Creedon’s side is immense. Tipperary have failed to beat ‘The Kingdom’ in senior championship football since 1928, and in four of the past five years when the sides met in Munster the Kerry boys have won convincingly each day.
Two years ago at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, Tipperary were on the receiving end of a 17 points drubbing and while all agree that the gap in quality has narrowed since 2013, few expect that difference to be bridged fully on Sunday.
After a steady national league campaign in Division 3 where status was comfortably consolidated, Tipp seniors opened their championship campaign last Sunday week in Thurles with a 1-24 to 0-5 win over a disappointing Waterford side.
However, this was only Tipp’s second provincial win at senior level in 12 years and when that statistic is measured against the almost total domination in the province by Kerry (76 titles), a perspective is quickly realised.
With five All-Stars from last year in their team, and with the tonic return of Colm Cooper to a championship jersey, Kerry will provide Tipp with their sternest test since last year’s semi-final in Cork when Tipp came oh-so-close to causing a sensation. Besides ‘Gooch’, Kerry can this year once again call on the services of returned stars Paul Galvin (retirement) and Tommy Walsh (Australia). James O’Donoghue, Footballer of the Year in 2014, has also overcome his recent injury and is expected to start against Tipp.
But according to Kerry sources, the biggest bonus for them is the return of Colm Cooper whom many expect to start at centre-forward in a playmaker role with Kieran Donaghy at full-forward.
The crucial battle will hinge around the middle of the field with Kerry’s Anthony Maher and David Moran positioned to oppose Tipp’s impressive pairing of Steven O’Brien and George Hannigan.
Preparation in Kerry has been going well and Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side have just returned from a week’s training in the Algarve. Added to the fact that all the panel have been spared from competitive club matches and club training over recent weeks, they should be raring to go on Sunday next.
Kerry are coming prepared for a good battle and are renowned for never underestimating any team. Recent remarks by Tipp boss Peter Creedon that his side was “anxious for a crack at Kerry” have been noted as motivation to the All-Ireland champions.
On the downside for Kerry, they have been away from competitive action since 5th April when they concluded their Division 1 league programme with a 1-14 to 0-17 draw against Tyrone in Omagh. That lack of competitiveness is their one concern before facing Tipp, acknowledging that no amount of training or challenge games equate to real championship fare.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side are fully aware of the achievements of the Tipp minors and under 21 footballers of recent years and they will treat Tipp’s challenge with the utmost respect, expecting a very tough battle on the day.
No one was more surprised than Kerry themselves with their victory in last year’s All-Ireland final. At the start of 2014 with their best player Colm Cooper sidelined through injury few gave them any chance of winning the Sam Maguire. But a Munster final demolition of Cork, a somewhat fortuitous win over Mayo in the semi-final, and then a change to an alien style of defensive play in the final against Donegal captured for them their 37th All-Ireland crown. They should have too much once again for Tipp on Sunday but a good performance from Tipp will maintain momemtum for the qualifiers.
Again no one will be more surprised than Kerry if it doesn’t work out like that.