Sport Hurling

Friday 30 September 2016

Jamesie O'Connor: Tipp will create enough chances to win and they have the magic to take them in clash of the titans

Tipperary attack v Kilkenny defence

Jamesie O'Connor

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Tipperary's John McGrath celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Tipperary's John McGrath celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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While there may have been alterations in personnel, Kilkenny's tried and trusted defensive system remains firmly in place, and the stats back-up that assertion. Three clean sheets and just two goals conceded in the four championship matches they've played is clear evidence that this team is as formidable as any of its predecessors to break down

Yet, when you talk to hurling people, many express the view that apart from Paul Murphy, the Kilkenny full-back line is there for the taking. That's obviously casting aspersions on Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast, but while that duo mightn't equate to JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell in their prime, they haven't let Brian Cody down either.

Exactly the same doubts were being aired ahead of last year's final. In theory Galway had the players and the form to really get after them, but they more than held their own and whatever perceived threat existed, never fully materialised.

Of course that has much to do with the Kilkenny system and the defensive efforts of those further out the field. With at least one of the midfielders sitting deep, and the half-forwards tracking back tirelessly, there'll be plenty of black and amber jerseys filtering into their own half when Tipperary have the ball.

Even without that support, Pádraic Walsh and Cillian Buckley have been rock solid on the flanks. Buckley's nose for danger and sense of when to leave his man in order to retreat and avert a goal threat has grown with experience. The ball he flicked off the line in the second half of the Leinster final came at a crucial stage in the match.

On the opposite side, Walsh has been outstanding going forward and like Buckley, is now an automatic selection. That hasn't been the case at No 6, where one of the key decisions facing Brian Cody ahead of today was who to start at centre-back.

The experiment of Conor Fogarty was never likely to be repeated, especially given the injury to Michael Fennelly, so it's no surprise that Kieran Joyce regains the position he lost after a poor display in the drawn semi-final.

If the Tipperary half-forward line can achieve anything close to parity, their chances soar because of the calibre of player they have inside. Seamus Callanan has played well in patches, but has yet to fully catch fire. That's something that would bother me if I were a Kilkenny man, because I think there's a big performance in him.

In John McGrath, Tipperary have arguably the best young player in the game. The ability to make good decisions on the ball is what separates the really top players from the rest, and that's something he possesses in spades. He was the difference in the semi-final against Galway.

In a game where Tipperary are likely to need goals, having a player with his temperament, vision and finishing ability close to goal always gives them a threat. Don't underestimate either his ability in the air, and if anything has given Cody sleepless nights in the build-up to this afternoon, it's how and with whom he's going to stop McGrath and Callanan

With 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer in the other corner, Tipperary have firepower aplenty. But that guarantees nothing, especially if the half-forward line and midfielders fail to mine enough primary possession to feed them. In that department, Bonner Maher's energy levels seem to be back up to where they were in 2010, and that is a big plus.

Furthermore, playing Noel McGrath at centre-forward is another option Michael Ryan has. His ability to drift into space and score from distance, very much like Richie Hogan does for Kilkenny, is an ace Tipperary might yield a dividend from.

MIDFIELD

Losing Michael Fennelly, Kilkenny's fear láidir in the middle of the field, is a major blow. You can't overstate how big a loss such a proven big-game player is, especially given the power and raw physicality he brings to the team.

Man of the match in last year's final, he also dominated this sector in the 2014 replay. In the circumstances, restoring Conor Fogarty to what's probably his best position makes sense, and whether it's TJ Reid or Lester Ryan who joins him, they're still reasonably well equipped to win a part of the field that Tipperary have largely had the better of all season.

With Brendan Maher prepared to sit back and play a holding role, Michael Breen has been given the licence to get forward, and his form has been a revelation.

With 3-5, he's Tipperary's highest scorer from play in the championship, and understandably playing with a lot of confidence. Kilkenny, though, are unlikely to afford him anything like the room other teams have given him, and the forward runs that have yielded those scores will invariably be tracked. I think he may struggle to make the same impact this afternoon.

The middle third will be a crowded place, and the likes of Eoin Larkin and Reid are old hands at operating in the maelstrom Kilkenny will attempt to make it.

There's also the issue of the damage Reid or Hogan are capable of inflicting on the scoreboard from distance, if they're given the latitude to do so.

Brendan Maher can only do so much, and as captain, I expect him to perform. But he will need Breen and his half-forwards to be alive to that threat, and attend to their defensive duties, for Tipp to get the edge here.

TIPPERARY DEFENCE v KILKENNY ATTACK

After conceding just 0-13, 1-16 and 0-13 in a dominant Munster title-winning campaign, the 2-18 racked up by Galway three weeks ago leaves the Tipperary defence looking considerably less intimidating.

Some of that dip in performance can be attributed to the rustiness associated with the five-week break they were coming off, but Kilkenny showed the night before just how potent their attack can be, and they will pose a stiffer test than Galway.

Both Galway goals came from forcing turnovers out the field - something Kilkenny excel at - which put Tipperary on the back foot. While James Barry was rock solid at full-back, neither Cathal Barrett nor Mickey Cahill in the corners played as well as they had in Munster. Barrett, who had been outstanding all year, had a few shaky moments, particularly under the high ball, and that's something that won't have been lost on Cody.

At No 6, Ronan Maher would love to sit back in the pocket, but that's a luxury that isn't likely to be afforded him. Assuming Richie Hogan starts at centre-forward, can Tipperary afford for Maher not to follow and man-mark the Kilkenny sharpshooter?

Considering how lethal Richie can be, I don't think they can. Maher's brother Pádraic, dominant all year on the left wing, will have his own hands full with Walter Walsh, who's becoming an increasingly important part of this Kilkenny team.

Curbing the influence of the opposition's top defender usually ranks high on Cody's list of priorities, and with Maher unlikely to take a backward step, that battle alone will be worth the admission fee. Don't be surprised either if Cody decides to test out Seamus Kennedy in his first All-Ireland final, by siting Reid or Hogan over on the other wing.

With Eoin Larkin likely to start in the corner and drift out the field, the Cats will hope he takes one of the corner-backs with him to create space for Colin Fennelly and Liam Blanchfield in the inside line.

Fennelly showed in the semi-final the threat he can be, operating in that type of space and with the right ball coming in. Whatever the personnel in the Kilkenny attack, Tipp will have to be disciplined, because irrespective of how well they're playing, Kilkenny have proven their ability to keep the scoreboard moving and get to 24 or 25 points.

THE MANAGERS

One of the most interesting aspects of the TV work I've done over the last couple of years has been working with Kilkenny legend JJ Delaney. It isn't in JJ's nature to open up the Kilkenny playbook or reveal any secrets, but particularly when we've covered the Kilkenny matches, he's said little things that give you an insight into the mindset of the team and the way they have of doing things.

At the root of it all is the manager. The genius of what Cody has achieved lies in its simplicity. The basic tenets he references - the team coming before everything else, the honesty of effort required, the premium placed on hard work, especially up front, the requirement to win your own ball - it sounds so easy and clichéd that any team could do it. The reality is that most of them don't even come close.

Married to all that is an exceptionally high skill level, huge fitness and a hardness that few teams can match. That ability and desire that emanates from the manager, to go to war and sustain it until the bitter end while continuing to make the right decisions on the ball all over the field, is what invariably wears teams down.

And underlying it all is an intelligence, and tactical awareness that's second to none. After the drawn All-Ireland semi-final, JJ remarked how the game had been very much played on Waterford's terms. "Normally," he said, "it's played on Kilkenny's." The inference was that that would be the case in the replay six days later. For the most part, that's how it played out. For example, what other manager, given the forward talent no longer available, would start his two best forwards, his two most accurate finishers, at midfield, as Cody did in Thurles?

Standing between him and another three in a row is Michael Ryan. Being part of the backroom team in 2009, 2010 and 2014 will stand to the Tipperary manager and I have no doubt that he will have spoken at length with both Liam Sheedy and Eamon O'Shea ahead of today to pick their brains.

However, this is his team now, cast in his image. That there is an increased physicality and noticeably harder edge to Tipperary this year is no surprise to anyone who crossed his path on the playing fields, as I did in the 1990s. Yet the baby hasn't been thrown out with the bathwater, and the flair in attack that Tipperary will need to win today hasn't been dispensed with either.

CONCLUSION

Three points down with less than ten minutes to go last Sunday in Croke Park, it struck me that there was no sense of panic anywhere in the Dublin ranks.

A fortnight previously, in a similar position, I saw the exact same composure under pressure being shown by John McGrath, Seamus Callanan and Bubbles O'Dwyer in front of our studio at the Canal End. That coolness under pressure and ability to make the right decisions on the ball when the game is in the melting pot inside the last ten minutes was what won Tipp the match.

Kilkenny had displayed the same attributes seven days earlier, despite playing second fiddle to Waterford for much of it.

This game is so hard to call, that's what I think it'll come down to. Who will make the right decisions at the crucial time? Logic decrees that it's Kilkenny, given how often they've done it in the past. Yet, the loss of Michael Fennelly, and a feeling in my gut that we'll see a little bit of magic from McGrath and Callanan, overrides it. Tipperary will create enough goal chances to win. I think they have the finishers to take them.

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