Sunday 23 April 2017

Tipp determined to keep Cody's Cats in a flap

Back-to-back wins over rivals would break new ground for Ryan's men

John O’Dwyer takes on Joey Holden during Tipperary’s victory in last year’s All-Ireland SHC final. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
John O’Dwyer takes on Joey Holden during Tipperary’s victory in last year’s All-Ireland SHC final. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

League games in mid-March never define a season for any county but there's no denying that Saturday night's Tipperary-Kilkenny clash in Thurles is more important than usual for a variety of reasons.

A Tipperary win would almost certainly ensure that they top 1A at the end of the group series, thereby guaranteeing the easiest quarter-final pairing with the fourth-placed side in 1B (probably Laois, Kerry or Offaly), while also carrying the added bonus of dropping Kilkenny into relegation territory.

The latter is an unspoken motivation but with so much speculation on whether a changing of the guard has taken place, with Tipperary replacing their neighbours as the next big empire-builders, it's a real factor in the Premier mindset.

Having beaten Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland final and started this season so well, confidence is running high in Tipperary that they are poised to enter a special period, starting by winning their first All-Ireland double for 52 years next September.

Dominance

If a new Tipperary dynasty can be built while Brian Cody remains Kilkenny boss, the satisfaction will be all the greater after spending so long locked in a black-and-amber grip.

Saturday's game will be the 31st league and championship clash between the counties since Cody took over in Kilkenny at the start of 1999, with results going very much against Tipperary in both league and championship.

Wins stand at 20-8 in Kilkenny's favour, with two draws, a dominance that's even more marked in the championship, where Tipperary won only two of 10 games, the 2010 and 2016 All-Ireland finals.

The lessons of 2010, when Tipperary overdosed on the presumption that they had supplanted Kilkenny at No 1 for the foreseeable future, have clearly been heeded this time.

Tipperary lost their first two league games in 2011 - one by seven points to Kilkenny - whereas they have won their first three this year and appear to be much more focused on maintaining dominance, just as Kilkenny did over such a long period.

Manager Michael Ryan has clearly done a very good job in controlling the mood among the squad, using his wide array of options to make players work off each other.

The panel currently stretches to 41 - four short of three teams - ensuring that all of the established first-choice players have a strong challenger poised over either shoulder. Ryan has already credited that ultra-competitive environment with driving Tipperary to league wins over Dublin, Waterford and Clare by an average of almost 10 points.

They have scored 16 points more than any of their rivals, while conceding 11 points less. It's the ideal background for Kilkenny's arrival in Semple Stadium for the biggest attraction of the league so far.

"We're in a great position, thankfully. I think the panel is the reason we've gathered up these wins. They really do push each other - the training is really good. And the wins have given us a bit of a cushion to keep trying guys.

"There have been years when you need a win and you're just trying to survive and you don't get an opportunity to use your panel," said Ryan after the win over Clare last Sunday.

It's all very different to last year when Tipperary needed to beat Cork in the final game to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.

Despite his eagerness to utilise the full panel range, one suspects that Ryan will keep experimentation to a minimum on Saturday.

He has seen how his seven predecessors (Nicky English, Michael Doyle, Ken Hogan, 'Babs' Keating, Liam Sheedy, Declan Ryan, Eamon O'Shea) managed only seven wins between them (Ryan achieved the eighth last September) over Kilkenny so he will be very anxious to build as quickly as possible on the All-Ireland win.

Contradict

Equally, Cody will be determined to plant early doubts in Tipperary minds. The theory that Kilkenny's playing resources no longer match their great rivals has been gathering momentum since last September and the early league games did nothing to contradict it.

Cody's remark last Sunday that "it's comforting to have two points" underlined the unusual nature of Kilkenny's start to the league which has seen them lose to Waterford and Clare.

In fairness, too much was made of that by some critics who claim that Kilkenny are in decline, since the defeat by Waterford was by a single point after Richie Hogan came within inches of grabbing the equaliser in the final seconds.

The 13-point defeat by Clare was far more worrying for Kilkenny but they looked a lot more like their former selves in the second half against Cork as they powered to a seven-point victory.

Still, they have yet to score a goal in the league, while their 0-51 total is the lowest in 1A, 25 points behind Tipperary.

Despite Kilkenny's indifferent form so far, Tipperary know that this is their biggest test of the season to date, especially in psychological terms.

A win would see them beat Kilkenny in successive games for only the third time since 2000, in another small, but significant, landmark in their bid to extend their territory.

"Gathering up points for them (Kilkenny) is hugely important next week but we'll be looking to give up nothing either," said Ryan last Sunday.

It's very unusual for Kilkenny to be priced at 15/8 in any game, but obviously the markets believe that Tipperary (1/2) are far more secure as they bid to extend their winning run to nine games in the past 11 months.

Irish Independent

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