A clash of confidence
The managers of Tipperary and Kilkenny have complete faith in the ability of their teams and won't be changing. That's what makes this final so fascinating
Published 27/08/2011 | 05:00
CAST your mind back a year. Traffic jams outside Nowlan Park as thousands of curious Kilkenny supporters pitched up to see for themselves how Henry Shefflin was moving.
Lads whose only medical experience was putting a sticking plaster on a cut finger were discussing -- in the most informed terms of course -- the intricacies of cruciate ligaments and how a damaged one would stand up to the demands of an All-Ireland final.
It was showtime in Kilkenny as the supporters prepared to celebrate the All-Ireland five-in-a-row. Meanwhile, across the border in Tipperary, all was relatively calm. They were facing their own pressures, topped by the possibility of losing a second successive All-Ireland final, but things were still set up nicely for them.
Even with Kilkenny at full strength Tipp had a 50-50 chance of winning (after all, it was only in the closing minutes that the 2009 final turned against them) and, given the doubts over Shefflin, plus the absence of Brian Hogan, the pendulum had swung quietly in their direction.
For reasons more related to money than logic, Kilkenny were short odds-on favourites; this year it's Tipperary's turn to occupy the fancied bay and, again, it's based on figures rather than facts.
Kilkenny will enjoy what's happening. With the exception of the doubt over Colin Fennelly, they are playing with a stronger hand this time. Fennelly has progressed well this summer but if he's not fully fit, there are quite a few alternatives, including a certain Eddie Brennan who just happens to have won seven All-Ireland senior medals.
Kilkenny will also be happy that Tipperary are favourites. This is territory Kilkenny haven't experienced since the 2006 All-Ireland final where, of course, they shredded the odds and beat Cork.
Tipperary are in new surrounds too, not just as favourites but also as the group who can do something that none of their fellow county men have done for 45 years by holding on to Liam MacCarthy for a second successive year.
It won't feature in their thoughts -- not consciously anyway -- but their supporters are already winding up for what they believe will be a special occasion.
Stopping Kilkenny winning the five-in-a-row was sweet, but to win the double at the Cats' expense would leave Tipperary in celebration mode for the entire winter.
It's unusual for a team to be defending the All-Ireland title with new management but, so far at least, all has gone to plan for Declan Ryan as manager and Tommy Dunne as coach.
Having said that, they have won all their championship games from the front and were never really under any pressure on the home stretch. That's most unlikely to happen tomorrow week. People love to surmise about the tactical approach teams will take but, in this case, I wouldn't expect anything very radical. Both Kilkenny and Tipperary believe totally in their own ability and will be trying to impose that on the opposition in a positive way.
For instance, I reckon there's as much chance of Brian Cody singing the 'Rose of Mooncoin' on 'Up for the Match' next Saturday night as there is of him playing an extra defender to cope with the Tipperary attack. However, Kilkenny will attempt to close down space by dropping all the lines back. Nothing new there, they often do it and very effectively too.
They do it quite subtlety, with the half-backs squeezing in front of the full-backs, midfield and half-forward dropping back to fill space, leaving more room up front when they attack. Tipperary are good at that too.
The final week before an All-Ireland final is all about fine-tuning and, in Kilkenny's case, is very much second nature.
It's nothing new to Tipperary at this stage either. Still, it doesn't matter how often players have experienced it, there's still an awful lot of nervous energy around and those who harness it best are usually the ones who deliver on the big day.
There's an extra edge to this final as it's regarded as the defining clash between the teams, a hurling version of the third meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This game has generated interest way beyond the GAA. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what the RTE viewing figures are but I'd suggest they will beat anything we've seen for a long time. What's more, I have no doubt the game will live up to the huge expectations attached to it. Bring it on.