John Mullane: Tipp must be ready for the masters of intensity - and the undisputed master of final match-ups
Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan has described Kilkenny as the "masters of intensity" ahead of next Sunday's All-Ireland senior hurling final.
Ryan should also understand that he's pitting his wits against the 'master of match-ups' in Brian Cody.
One of Cody's greatest skills is his ability to nullify the threat of the opposition by getting his key match-ups just right. He also has a history of placing his best players on the opposition's perceived weakest.
He really is a genius when it comes to plotting a pre-match strategy, and we have some recent history to call upon between Kilkenny and Tipperary to back up this point.
In the 2011 final, Cody put Eddie Brennan on Pádraic Maher, who, at the time, was in Hurler of the Year form. He also positioned Henry Shefflin on John O'Keeffe, who was playing in his first final for Tipp.
Both match-ups worked out in Kilkenny's favour and now we have a similar situation in the Tipperary half-back line, where Maher is once again showing Hurler of the Year form and there's another man in the No.5 shirt, Seamus Kennedy this time, preparing for an All-Ireland final debut.
I suspect that Cody will target Kennedy with TJ Reid and put Walter Walsh on Maher. I'm also expecting that Richie Hogan will play in the No.11 role in a direct confrontation with Ronan Maher, another All-Ireland senior final debutant.
In the drawn All-Ireland final of 2014, Hogan ran riot and Cody will hope that he can replicate that form two years on.
The question is, does Michael Ryan have a trick up his sleeve to rival Derek McGrath's work in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny?
Perhaps this time it will be the placing of Patrick 'Bonner' Maher on Cillian Buckley, a move similar to Bonner's tour of duty against Tommy Walsh in the 2010 final. Bonner might just nullify the influence of Buckley and I'd like to see Noel McGrath in that pivotal No.11 role for Tipperary, operating like Austin Gleeson did for Waterford against the Cats.
Cody might be expecting Bonner to play at No.11 when he brings Kieran Joyce back into the team. Joyce did particularly well in this duel in the 2014 replay, but playing McGrath there might upset Kilkenny.
Tipp will have to break even in this half-forward and half-back battle, like Waterford did, to have a chance of winning. They'll also have to up their intensity levels considerably, because you can be sure that Kilkenny will turn up and bring a performance.
It should be said that the loss of Michael Fennelly is massive from a Kilkenny viewpoint. For 45 minutes of the Waterford replay he was a colossus and Kilkenny will miss his sheer presence in the middle of the field, and at centre-forward.
Look at what Cody did in the Waterford replay, placing Reid, Hogan and Fennelly in the centre of the field; his three best players in the area where Kilkenny struggled first time out.
It's that knack of learning lessons from previous encounters that marks Cody out as such an astute thinker. You can be sure that he will have a plan to compensate for Fennelly's loss.
Cody's just an unbelievable man and I really admire his love of club hurling and for his own club, James Stephens. Since retiring from the inter-county game, I've gained much more of an insight into the plight of the club player, left twiddling his thumbs for weeks on end during the summer as the county players strut their stuff.
When you're a club player on a full-time basis, you're one of many who suffer from a lack of fixtures. When they finally arrive, there's an incredible rush to get them run off in a short time-frame.
That doesn't happen in Kilkenny and it's down to one man - Cody.
The Kilkenny club championship template is one of his greatest legacies and you'd wonder why other counties don't follow suit.
And yet I still believe Tipperary can edge this All-Ireland final, despite the fact that they're carrying huge pressure into the game, certainly more than Kilkenny.
If Tipp had won the 2014 decider, they'd find it a lot easier preparing for this one.
Tipp simply have to win, while Kilkenny have that bit more freedom to go out, enjoy the day, work hard and express themselves - as they usually do.
The luxury that Kilkenny have over Tipperary is that it's a lot easier to add to your collection of medals, rather than chasing them.
However, Tipp have a precious commodity in their team and that's goals - and goals are required if you're going to overcome Kilkenny.
Remember back to 2010 when Tipp scored four against them and the general consensus was that they would go on and dominate.
Sadly, they forgot that Kilkenny were still a monster and they have a monster of a manager. I mean that in the nicest possible way, because they remain the team to beat and Tipp will have to fight desperately hard to slay them.
Win, and Tipp will feel that their recent haul is relatively decent - a senior success to put alongside their minor win in 2012. They'll feel again that it's their time to push on for more honours.
If they lose, I believe they could be permanently scarred in a psychological sense.
Offaly man Brian Gavin will referee the game and it's his fourth final, following on from the 2011 decider, the 2013 draw between Cork and Clare, and the 2014 replay.
Tipp have failed to win in previous finals when Brian has been in charge, but that's no fault of his. In his three previous outings, he's refereed the finals to final standards and that's why Croke Park revert to their tried and tested. He lets the game flow and, for me, he's the best choice to take charge.
I've noticed some disquiet among Munster officials that no referee from the province has taken charge of a final since Waterford's Michael Wadding in 2010, but the best referees out there at the present time lie in the Eastern province, in my view.
If you're looking for a fairytale story next Sunday, the McGrath brothers from Tipperary could provide it. What a day this could be for their family, as Brian captains the Tipperary minors against Limerick, before John and Noel line out for the seniors.
Go back 18 months and it must have been an extremely difficult time for Noel and his family following that cancer diagnosis.
If Brian, John and Noel could claim All-Ireland medals next Sunday it would be truly incredible, but Kilkenny don't do fairytales and they most certainly don't do sentiment.
Anything that Tipp get on Sunday will be hard earned against the masters of intensity - and the master of match-ups.