Ability to adapt in heat of battle can deliver Kilkenny's finest hour
Even if Tipp repeat their heroics of last year, it might not be enough today, says Jamesie O'Connor
I can't profess to have ever read The Art of War, written hundreds of years ago by Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist, but apparently Napoleon did, along with countless other generals throughout the ages.
In modern times, judging by the number of references I've come across, so too have a plethora of modern American sports coaches. Several of the brightest US sporting bosses have utilised the Chinese sage's belief that 'all warfare is based upon deception' and to achieve victory, you must 'first, win the war, then fight the war'.
Given the complete superiority they have had over all and sundry for the latter part of the decade, deception is the last thing Kilkenny have been required to employ in order to dominate the hurling landscape. In addition, most of the wars they have been required to fight in 2010, have been won inside 35 minutes.
Yet, with a young, athletic, and rapidly improving Tipperary side, ravenously hungry to atone for the disappointment of last year, standing between them and immortality this afternoon, never has the threat been greater to their supremacy.
So, with legitimate doubts over at least two of their first-choice starting 15, and in particular their talisman, Henry Shefflin, deception and any other weapon available will be used to win what's become the most eagerly anticipated All-Ireland final I can remember.
That Kilkenny were apparently slow to even release a team to Croke Park last week for the official match programme was an indication of just how guarded and reluctant they have become about conceding even the slightest advantage, psychological or otherwise, to their opponents. Even with the official Kilkenny team released late on Friday night, Tipperary are likely to be kept guessing as to just exactly who or what they are facing right up to the throw-in at 3.30 this afternoon. All of which, of course, adds to the intrigue of the day.
Whether or not Shefflin actually starts, or John Tennyson for that matter either, is just one of several imponderables that really whet the appetite.
Starting any player who isn't 100 per cent fit in a game of this magnitude is a risk, and the Tipp defenders are likely to be queuing up to test out the Ballyhale man's well-being. But Shefflin isn't just any other player, and given his 11-year relationship with the manager, and his central role in the team, they'll surely start him given the progress his injury appears to have made.
Take it from me, he will have sweated blood in Ger Hartmann's clinic to get to this position and having been put through the wringer down in Limerick, he looks to have given himself every chance of achieving what looked an impossibility just a month ago. That said, a fully fit Shefflin was well shackled by the Tipp defence 12 months ago, and whatever potential upside exists in having his presence and leadership on the field would be more than offset by the downside if he's forced into an early departure.
However, given the level of planning and preparation that will have gone into today, the Kilkenny players will be aware of such a scenario and the responsibility on everyone else to take up the slack if he or Tennyson is absent.
It's worth remembering, too, that a year ago, no single Kilkenny forward managed to cut loose from general play, but to a man they all contributed. Eleven Kilkenny players got their names on the scoresheet, the biggest spread of scorers ever in an All-Ireland final, and that was instrumental in keeping the scoreboard ticking over. In the end, 2-22 was an incredible total to accumulate, especially given how well it appeared the Tipperary defence had played.
In that regard, two things were significant. The first was Kilkenny's economical use of possession. Because of the huge volume of ball they are usually able to win, it's not something they have to get right all the time, and they have had days (especially this year) when the wides tally has been well into double figures. However, in last year's final, on the biggest stage of the year, they gave a masterclass in maximising the use of possession. Denied the lion's share they are so accustomed to obtaining, they showed enormous discipline and selflessness in taking the right options, and hardly a ball was wasted over the 70 minutes in the last third of the field.
The second was the contribution made by the subs. I remember remarking in these pages last year that Conor O'Mahony had hurled himself to a standstill in outplaying both Henry Shefflin (pictured right) and Eoin Larkin, probably the two best half-forwards in the game. Yet, with ten minutes left, Kilkenny had the luxury of springing Martin Comerford. To have a player like that coming on with fresh legs, a massive appetite to prove a point, not to mention the five All-Ireland medals, four All-Stars and wealth of experience in his back pocket, was the straw that broke the camel's back.
The 1-2 the Kilkenny substitutes hit from play when introduced was the five-point margin that separated the sides at the final whistle. A year on, the accepted consensus seems to be that Kilkenny are better than they were in 2009. Noel Hickey's return has released JJ Delaney to his best position on the wing, and the defence looks impregnable as a result. The attack has massacred the opposition at will (up 17 points against a respected Cork defence with half an hour to go), and with the likes of Michael Rice, arguably the best midfielder in the game, kept in reserve, the bench appears to be deeper than ever.
However, any analysis of Kilkenny's form this year has to take into account the quality of the opposition they faced to get here. Dublin were desperately poor in the Leinster semi-final. They simply don't have the physique or weapons to compete with the Cats. After scraping over Offaly, Galway competed well for 35 minutes, but were blown away after half-time and never looked like they really believed they could win the game. Apart from the first-round victory over Tipp, Cork looked a very ordinary side this year -- a pale shadow of the force they were five or six years ago. Waterford exposed the bluntness of their attack in the Munster final. Deep down, the Cork players probably knew after that that their best chance of picking up silverware for the year had passed and that they couldn't beat Kilkenny in the semi-final.
Admittedly, Tipperary themselves were atrocious against the Rebels, but the Tipp team taking the field today bears no resemblance in form, mind or body to the one that took the field that day in May. What's certain, is that no other team Kilkenny have faced this year, has the calibre of forwards Tipp possess. No other team is capable of playing the type of unorthodox, free-scoring game required to unhinge the Kilkenny defence. No end of thought and planning will have gone into today, and Tipp will seek to find a way to play the game on their terms and not Kilkenny's.
While they can't and won't allow themselves to be bullied, I can't see the Tipp forwards standing toe to toe with the Cats as some have suggested. They are simply not built to do so. Jackie Tyrrell and Co will devour them if they get drawn into that kind of game. Instead, there is likely to be constant movement, plenty of support runners and players popping up in unusual positions. By all accounts, the forwards are flying in training and finally seem to have found the rhythm of last season that made them so dangerous. If they can win enough possession in their half-forward line, and Brendan Cummins' role on the puck-out is massive here, the Kilkenny backs may have to answer a few questions for the first time this year.
So can Tipperary win? A month ago, I would have said no way. A week ago, the answer would have been maybe. Now, I think they can. Admittedly, the caveats are numerous.
Tipperary obviously have to produce a performance every bit as good as they did in last year's final. In that regard, they have to feel good about their form -- that they are peaking at just the right time. They also seem to have found their best 15 with Noel McGrath much more involved at centre-forward, John O'Brien happier closer to goal and in Patrick Maher and Gearóid Ryan a pair of hard-working, pacy wing-forwards. Furthermore, having handled the occasion and all that goes with it so well 12 months ago, there has to be a confidence there that they can do so again.
They obviously need to avoid conceding the early goals Kilkenny are sure to go after, and that places a huge onus on their full-back line, probably the weakest link in their team. But that can be done if they keep their shape like they did in the semi-final and get plenty of blue jerseys back into the last third of the field. At the other end, they are going to have to get goals themselves. Remember that Kilkenny, in All-Ireland finals under Brian Cody, have never conceded more than one goal, and that to win, Tipp are likely to need at least a couple. They certainly had the chances in last year's final, but PJ Ryan was man of the match. Had they converted even one when Kilkenny were on the ropes midway through the second half, the outcome may very well have been different.
Neither will Tipp have forgotten that the key refereeing decisions 12 months ago went against them; that they were forced to play most of the last quarter a man down after Benny Dunne's dismissal and that very few breaks went their way on the day. Twelve months on, they appear to have subs capable of coming on and making an impact. Pa Bourke and Seamus Hennessy are both supposed to be flying and the mercurial Seamus Callanan has the ability to break the game open.
Tipp are also arguably better at midfield with Brendan Maher, the young player of the year, and Shane McGrath back to his best, and a ball-winning half-back line capable of winning the aerial battle, Tipp have every chance of pulling it off.
However, when it comes to putting my head on the block, that head still says Kilkenny. Even though the closer today has come, the more I have wavered. There just seems to be fewer things required to go right for Kilkenny than their opponents, for the day and history to be theirs.
All in all, as Sun Tzu put it, they know how to 'win the war'. While it would be a dream for the game to exceed the classic of last year, I have no doubt but that it will be a spectacle and an event to savour.
Finally, with unashamed bias, the best of luck to the Clare minors who play raging hot favourites Kilkenny in the curtain-raiser. Six of the starting 15 and a number of the subs soldiered for me with St Flannan's earlier in the year so I make no apologies for wishing them and all involved the very best in what should be a great start to the day.