Cyril Farrell: Challengers have lot going for them but it might not be enough to outwit Cody's big-time masters
Published 03/09/2016 | 02:30
Two years they've waited - two long, frustrating years, during which the Tipperary hurlers heard a lot about themselves from their own supporters and others.
They were told they lacked steel, that they couldn't quite get the big jobs done, and that they were lacking something to make it all change.
All untrue of course. If Hawk-Eye hadn't been in operation in Croke Park two years ago, it's very possible that John O'Dwyer's late free in the drawn All-Ireland final clash with Kilkenny would have been given as a point and, in all probability, won the game for Tipperary.
Last year, they lost by a point to Galway in the semi-final, scarcely a result that could be given a deep significance in terms of deciding that there was 'something missing' about Tipperary. They lost by a point, for God's sake, against a very good Galway team.
Flip it around to this year when they beat Galway a point. Those are the fine margins at this level. You win by a point - you lose by a point. When you lose, it doesn't mean you got everything wrong, no more than when you win, you got everything right.
If Tipp win tomorrow, you'll hear plenty about how the difference between this and the last few years is that Michael Ryan 'put steel into them.' Rubbish. There has been no shortage of steel in Tipperary or any of the other top teams in recent years. Not winning an All-Ireland isn't always down that.
Ryan has done a good job but I don't go with the line that he has made Tipperary harder or meaner. The biggest difference this year is that they are playing a more direct game.
The question now is whether they can harness that into something that presents Brian Cody's men with a whole new set of problems.
With the exception of Kilkenny whose consistency has been remarkable for so long, the big issue for all the others has been an inability to perform at the peak of their powers every day.
It has certainly been a factor with Tipperary. Even this year, they hurled very well in Munster and would have expected to press on even further in the semi-final against Galway but they didn't. They won, but there were long periods when Galway were the better side.
Of course, winning covers a multitude, but Ryan would have telling the squad since then that if they don't improve considerably tomorrow they have little chance of unseating the champions.
They are, of course, well capable of improvement. The balance of the team has improved this year across every area. Michael Cahill's return to full fitness has strengthened the full-back line. Seamus Kennedy's arrival at No 5 and Ronan Maher's switch to No 6 have reinforced the half-backs; Brendan Maher and Michael Breen are a well-balanced midfield pairing.
Dan McCormack's hard graft at No 10 was important in Munster and against Galway, while John McGrath has increased the scoring options inside. That's a lot of positives so it will be interesting to see how Cody reacts to the latest Tipp model to challenge Kilkenny's supremacy.
Some managers form an idea of where they think the opposition's weak links might be and try to exploit them, but Cody quite often targets perceived strengths.
That's why I expect him to take on Tipperary straight down the middle. Centre-back Ronan Maher is a classy hurler who lies deep, reads the play well and allows his skill to be his guiding influence.
James Barry has been secure at full-back so the view would be that Tipp are pretty solid down the centre of the defence. I still think Cody will target it, either with TJ Reid taking on Maher or Walter Walsh moving in and trying to out-muscle him.
Kilkenny will be anxious to get Reid and Richie Hogan into the scoring zone as often as possible because they are proven finishers. Tipp will try to force them outfield in search of possession so if that begins to happen you'll know Kilkenny aren't firing properly.
Hogan has been playing to his exceptionally high standards but Reid hasn't quite reached his customary levels so far this year. You can look on that in two ways.
Tomorrow could be the day when he returns to full power or it could be just one of those years when a top player doesn't quite replicate what he had been doing. Knowing Reid and Kilkenny, the odds favour the first option.
They have, of course, lost one of their great muscle men in Michael Fennelly, a serious blow at a time when he was coming right into his best form. Most counties couldn't get away with losing such a big performer but, over the years, Kilkenny have shown that they are the masters at improvisation.
Besides, they have had three weeks to work without him. Cody won't have made much of it. A hazard of the game has robbed us of a player so let's get on with it - that will be his approach.
It's strange how little has been made of the fact that Kilkenny are going for another three-in-a-row. That's down to their dominance for so long but, at the same time, it will be some achievement if they achieve it. Normally, that might be expected to bring added pressure but not this time. Kilkenny will just get on with it as another All-Ireland final.
Indeed, there's more pressure on Tipperary, who didn't think when they beat Kilkenny in 2010 that they would be waiting for another All-Ireland six years later.
They have had a fair few disappointments against Kilkenny since then but they need to scrub them from the memory.
Instead, they have to operate on the basis that the past is the past and that tomorrow offers a brand new opportunity.
Based on the season so far, Tipperary can make a good case as to why they will win and they may well be right.
However, I'm still not convinced that they have what it takes to dislodge Kilkenny, who are so good at getting it right on the biggest day of all. It could be the crucial difference again.