All-Ireland final: Kilkenny sweating over the fitness of top goalkeeper ahead Tipp showdown
An injury scare surrounding their goalkeeper, Eoin Murphy, is the latest misfortune to visit Kilkenny ahead of their defence of their All-Ireland title against rivals Tipperary this afternoon. Victory will see them complete three MacCarthy Cup wins in a row and 12 triumphs in the 18 seasons Brian Cody has been manager.
But even with Kilkenny's formidable reputation, the odds are stacking against them. Tipperary destroyed Waterford to retain their Munster title and overcame Galway with a spirited finish in the semi-final. The team has been revamped under Michael Ryan's management, 21 years after he was part of a successful Tipp expedition at Kilkenny's expense.
Tipperary feel they are ready to atone for the serial disappointments of the last five years today.
Reports of Murphy's fitness doubts have circulated over the last few days, although there was no official confirmation - and details remained sketchy and in dispute well into yesterday afternoon. The Glenmore player is believed to have gone over on an ankle in training on Wednesday, with some sources saying he is a serious worry, others claiming his availability will be a last-minute call. The Cats have already lost midfielder Michael Fennelly to a long-term injury.
Last year's All Star forward Ger Aylward has missed all of this season with a cruciate ligament injury, and Richie Power was forced to retire in January. Yet Kilkenny, redoubtable as ever, are back in the final and not likely to give up their title easily.
In one of two changes from the semi-final, Kevin Kelly has been named in what will be his first championship start. Kelly, man-of-the-match in the All-Ireland minor final in 2010, is 22 and the first player from St Patrick's Ballyragget to feature in an All-Ireland senior hurling final since Matt Ruth in 1979.
The other change sees Kieran Joyce of the Rower Inistioge reintroduced after losing his place following the drawn semi-final against Waterford. Joyce made the most of a similar opportunity when recalled for the 2014 All-Ireland final replay against Tipperary, being one of the stars in their victory.
If Murphy isn't fit to play, then Richie Reid, a younger brother of TJ, is in line for a first senior championship start in an All-Ireland final, similar to Kelly's situation. Walter Walsh had that distinction in the 2012 final replay and went on to win the man-of-the-match award. In the same match Galway took a gamble on the fitness of their goalkeeper, James Skehill, but it backfired and they were forced to replace him for the second half.
Tipperary once enjoyed a long-running supremacy over Kilkenny in championship hurling, the defeat in the 1967 All-Ireland final their first since 1922. Kilkenny didn't beat Tipp in the championship again until 2002, but since then they have dominated the fixture, with the exception of the 2010 final, when Lar Corbett scored the first hat-trick in a final since 1970.
Kilkenny have since won the finals of 2011 and 2014 at Tipp's expense, and also defeated them in the 2012 semi-final and in the 2013 qualifiers in Nowlan Park.
Tipperary make one change from the side that defeated Galway, with John O'Dwyer holding his place after coming on in the semi-final and scoring a crucial goal. O'Dwyer, popularly known as Bubbles, had a chance to win the 2014 final but his free from almost 100m in stoppage time was ruled wide by Hawk-Eye.
The wider implications of another Tipp v Kilkenny final for hurling's health is for another day. For now, the country is looking forward to a thunderous contest that normally provides something lasting and memorable.
Sunday Indo Sport