Tipp can be heroes in their search for hurling's glittering prize

Tipperary will be trying to win county's 27th All-Ireland senior title

Tipp can be heroes in their search for hurling's glittering prize
By Eamonn Wynneewynne@nationalist.ie@TheNationalist

They say you don't have Kilkenny beaten until you're watching the highlights that night on The Sunday Game.

Waterford know that only too well, considering how close they came in the semi-final.

Now it's Tipperary turn to try and break the stranglehold that Kilkenny have exerted on the modern game.

Tipp will be the trying to win a 27th title by inflicting a first championship defeat on The Cats by any team in three years - Cork were the last team to beat them - when the counties meet in Sunday's All-Ireland Final at Croke Park (3.30).

This is an 18th All-Ireland final clash between Tipp and Kilkenny, the last taking place two years ago when Kilkenny won a replay.

Hurling's story in the last nine years has been dominated by these counties, and by one of them in particular who will be attempting to win their 37th title this weekend.

This is Tipp's sixth final in eight seasons, including the 2014 replay, but their sole success in that period came in 2010. One of those previous five meetings ended in a draw with Kilkenny while the other four ended in defeat by their neighbours. A win, therefore, is long overdue.

Tipp arrive into this showdown on the back of successive victories over Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway. Last season they bowed out at the All-Ireland semi-final stage to Galway but the team has rebooted impressively this season under new manager Michael Ryan.

Cork were dismissed in the opening round of the Munster Championship, and even after Bubbles O'Dwyer had been sent off after only a quarter of an hour the defeat of Limerick in the provincial semi-final was more comfortable than the winning margin of two points suggested.

On a damp day in Limerick the Munster Final against a Waterford side that, ultimately, should have beaten Kilkenny in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final was a strange game. A Waterford team still encased in its restrictive sweeper system totally disintegrated in the second half against a ruthless Tipperary outfit that, boosted by a hat-trick of goals by John McGrath, went on to win by 21 points.

The free-flowing game that has been a hallmark of Tipperary teams, and which was sometimes seen to devastating effect in this year's provincial championship, was in a short supply in a scrappy, tight All-Ireland semi-final against Galway.

But what they lacked in style and elegance they more than compensated for with a battling spirit, hunger and desire in a performance that had Michael Ryan's fingerprints all over it. An uncompromising corner back in his own playing days, Ryan has consistently spoken about the importance of his side's workrate since he took over and the group has so far responded in a positive way.

It has been suggested Bubbles O'Dwyer's workrate, or rather lack of it, was a reason why he wasn't given a starting berth against Galway, after he missed the Munster Final through suspension. When he eventually did appear he smacked home a classy goal in an impressive cameo that must have boosted his prospects of lining out from the throw-in on Sunday.

It was a big call by Michael Ryan to omit the Killenaule player from the team three weeks ago but the manager hasn't been one to sidestep the big decisions, as he has put his own stamp on the side. It also reinforced his view that the panel is all-important.

Only eight players who started in Tipp's last All-Ireland Final appearance, the 2014 replay against Kilkenny, started against Galway in the semi-final a few weeks ago. However three others - John O'Dwyer, Michael Cahill and Jason Forde - also appeared at some stage of both those games.

Michael Breen, Ronan Maher, Dan McCormack, Seamus Kennedy and John McGrath have been brought into the fold and have justified the manager's faith in them with a string of impressive displays. Michael Cahill has regained his place in the corner of the defence. The captain Brendan Maher cuts a much happier figure in the middle of the field, as does Padraic Maher at wing back. They, along with Seamus Callanan, Darren Gleeson, Bonner Maher, James Barry and Noel McGrath, among others, provide the leadership, experience and steadying influence for the younger guns.

At the start of the year it was assumed that Kieran Bergin and Jason Forde would push hard for places but they've seen very little game time.

A rumour that Seamus Callanan had picked up a hand injury in training was circulating last weekend and the Drom/Inch player is one player the team could ill afford to be without on Sunday. Over the years he has developed into a player of immense value. There's his accuracy from frees, his ability to find the net from the merest sniff of a chance and his ability to bring others into the game, as witnessed by that instinctive handpass that set up John McGrath's goal in the semi-final.

For all the momentum and everything else they have going for them, however, it must be to Tipp's disadvantage that they're facing a Kilkenny team that will have benefitted greatly from their semi-final replay. They were a very different team in that replay from the one that stuttered its way through the drawn match.

In the first game at Croke Park Waterford looked as if they were poised to upset the applecart, and by their own admission Kilkenny were fortunate to escape with a draw, helped in no small way by Walter Walsh's late goal.

Waterford had them on the rack but in the crucial closing stages they retreated into a defensive shell and lacked the belief that they could kill off their opponents. They simply didn't trust themselves to finish the job. That belief that Kilkenny can be beaten, as well as confidence and trust in their own ability, is something that Tipp will need in abundance this weekend.

Typically, Kilkenny made three changes for the replay at Semple Stadium seven days later with the introduction of Liam Blanchfield, Mark Bergin and Eoin Larkin. And there was a different mood about them from the time that Liam Blanchfield fired over the opening point.

Two goals from Colin Fennelly helped them avoid what would have been a first All-Ireland semi-final defeat in 11 years, as did that tremendous intervention by goalkeeper Eoin Murphy when he plucked Padraic Mahony's late late free from out of the sky and from over the bar to prevent the game going to extra-time.

The only bad news that evening came when Michael Fennelly pulled up with a ruptured achilles tendon after 58 minutes. In the last decade or so, and even among a group of players that has been without peer, perhaps, in the game's history, the Ballyhale Shamrocks man has been an amazing servant for the county and a key figure in so much of their success.

He'll be a major loss in the final but Kilkenny haven't allowed similar disruptions to derail them in the past.They have a knack of successfully parachuting players into the team on the big occasion, with those players slotting seamlessly into the system - Walter Walsh for the 2012 All-Ireland Final replay against Galway, Kieran Joyce for the 2014 All-Ireland Final replay to curb the threat of Bonner Maher, and Liam Blanchfield for this year's replay against Waterford.

Kilkenny's record during the Brian Cody reign has been nothing short of phenomenal, the most successful in the game's history. Since he took over as manager in November 1998 they've contested 14 finals, winning 11. The season before Cody arrived they lost to Offaly in the final, so this will be the county's 16th final in 19 years. Since he stepped into the job seven Tipp managers( Nicky English, Michael Doyle, Ken Hogan, Babs Keating, Liam Sheedy, Declan Ryan and Eamon O'Shea) have come and gone, with Michael Ryan the eighth during that period.

Cork were the last team to beat them in the championship, in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles on July 28 2013. Since then they've won the last two All-Irelands and are now going for another three in-a-row.

Even when their drive for five was shattered in 2010 they came back the following year to turn the tables on Tipp, and they've won three of the four finals since then.

Brian Cody's influence on the county bears favourable comparison with Alex Ferguson's reign at Manchester United. Both men have impressive records of longevity at the helm of highly successful eras and the hunger and desire of their teams to keep coming back and winning titles, year after year, is admirable, to say the least.

Michael Ryan has described Kilkenny as the masters of intensity. If the O'Donovan brothers, the Olympic rowing silver medallists pull like dogs then Kilkenny work like dogs, and that's an approach that Tipp at the very least will need to have to match if they are to have any chance of winning.

The match-ups will be significant too. The difficulty that corner backs Cathal Barrett and Michael Cahill encountered with high balls in the semi-final has suggested that Kilkenny could target that area, with Walter Walsh, all six feet, five inches and 15 and-a-half stone of him, possibly posted onto either player in an attempt to unsettle them and win vital possession.

Two of their best players, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid drifted into midfield for the replay against Waterford and that's another option that Kilkenny have if Brendan Maher and Michael Breen continue in their rich vein of form.

However Tipp will have their own plans to unsettle Kilkenny and they'll need something very special to do just that. It's in Kilkenny's DNA to leave everything they have on the pitch and never give up. As Tipperary saw even in victory in 2010, their spirit and resistance is never broken too easily.

In their most recent championship clashes, with the exception of the drawn game two years ago, Kilkenny have found a way to suffocate and stifle Tipperary. As well as matching Kilkenny's raw aggression they'll also need to find a way to create space, particularly in the forward line.

It's all set up for an intriguing battle at Croke Park in a few days time, one that will hopefully enhance the game's reputation. It's also hoped that the misgivings that some Tipp fans harbour about the choice of Brian Gavin as referee won't be an issue. He's an experienced and very capable official and no referee is going to spot every foul in such a fast and intense game, although a referee letting a game flow sometimes means allowing some fouls to go unpunished.

Tipperary have come a long way since losing to Galway in last year's semi-final. Now there's a sense that they're better at taking control of games and setting the agenda instead of waiting for things to happen. Even when things didn't run smoothly against Limerick and Galway their response couldn't have been better.

In the past three years all of their eight exits from the knockout stage of the All-Ireland and Munster Championships and National League had come by a margin of three points or less, so the reversal of that trend against Galway was most welcome.

This year there's been a different edge to the team, one that suggests they just might be able to go all the way and do a number on Kilkenny in the search for hurling's glittering prize.