Bulked-up Tipperary look to turn the power on
An interesting trend has emerged in the profiles of the Tipperary hurling team that lays its All-Ireland title on the line against Kilkenny.
Of the 13 Tipp players who started last year's final and are sure to start again this Sunday, nine have registered an increase in their weight, according to the official statistics.
Only two, Paul Curran and Shane McGrath, have noted a decrease from 2010 figures while two more, Gearoid Ryan and John O'Brien, weigh in at the same figure as 12 months ago.
The accuracy of weights and heights supplied by players has in the past been dubious, with attempts to rise up and bulk up designed to lull opponents into the belief that they are facing more than meets the eye.
Given the precision of everything Tipperary have done since Liam Sheedy's appointment as manager, however, it's difficult to reconcile that they would be anything less than accurate with the dimensions supplied.
Nine players are tipping the scales at bigger weights than they were at exactly the same point of the season 12 months ago.
This is surely a case of greater physical power being added over the winter months than a deterioration in the conditioning standards demanded by physical trainer Cian O'Neill, who spent all three years with Sheedy from 2008 to 2010.
It was interesting last week to hear current Tipp manager Declan Ryan dismiss the skill levels of his contemporaries as inferior to those who play the game now.
For Ryan, who quit as an inter-county player in the wake of Tipperary's 2001 All-Ireland triumph, there is no comparison to the fitness and skill levels of today's players.
"The level these guys are at now is incredible, it's phenomenal really. The fitness and skill levels are so far ahead of where the game was even 10 years ago that it's frightening," he said.
The greatest jump in weight has come from Padraic Maher, up nine pounds to 14st 11lbs -- and the left half-back's physical development doesn't require numbers on a page to illustrate it. The power of his performances all season will do just fine.
Beside him, Conor O'Mahony makes the next biggest leap with a six-pound increase to 14st.
It is surely no coincidence then that when the going got tough against Dublin, it was O'Mahony and Maher who took the game to their robust opponents and eventually established control when it appeared to be slipping away. O'Mahony is a regenerated figure this season, as his performance against Dublin underlined.
Last year, he was the only Tipperary starter in the All-Ireland final to be omitted from the list of nominees for an All Star, but there were mitigating circumstances, with illness and injury preventing him from building up any early-season momentum.
This season his fitness and form have been much better and have made the crucial difference.
"I've stayed injury-free and the health has been good too," he said.
Playing beside Maher has invigorated him, he acknowledges, and, like everyone else, he has been in awe of what his young half-back colleague has achieved this season.
"He came into the squad at 19 or 20, and nothing fazed him. To play full-back in an All-Ireland final at that age and to have such an outstanding year. And he's carried that on this year," he said.
"He's the kind of player that if he hits you, you know all about it. But there's a few more like him -- Noel McGrath is certainly no small man either. I don't know if it all goes back to the gym work put in at underage in Tipperary or what, but they're coming in bigger and bigger."
Matching Kilkenny physically in the last two All-Ireland finals was a step Tipperary simply had to take, according to O'Mahony. He sees the 2009 league game at Nowlan Park as the most defining moment in Tipperary's development -- even more significant than the 2010 Munster championship defeat to Cork.
"It showed how far we were off the pace that day in Nowlan Park. Kilkenny were the benchmark, but we sat down and realised that we needed to improve," he said.
"We knew we weren't that bad -- Waterford weren't that bad either (in the 2008 All-Ireland final), but it showed us the hard work we needed to put in to get up there.
"It was an eye-opener to see the standard Kilkenny had set and what we had to do to get up there. To get beaten by something like 20 points, and then to come on and take them to extra-time... it proved that we weren't that far off it.
"They beat us three times that year (2009) but we were getting closer. It gave us that bit of confidence that the gap was closing for us."