Saturday 25 March 2017

Cats ready to take step into fifth dimension

All-Ireland SH final
Kilkenny v Tipperary, 3.30, Croke ParkM Wadding (Waterford), Live, RTE 2

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

MICK O'Dwyer has always contended that Kerry's five-in-a-row ambitions in 1982 were derailed not when Seamus Darby smashed the ball to the net late in the All-Ireland final, but when Jimmy Deenihan broke his ankle in training 15 weeks earlier.

Kerry survived without Deenihan's defensive cunning right up the closing minutes of the final, but badly missed it as fraught nerves were exposed just as the five-in-a-row was within grasping distance. Put simply, Kerry tied up near the finish line.

Earlier, Mikey Sheehy, one of the most reliable place-kickers in GAA history, had hit a penalty kick too close to Offaly goalkeeper, Martin Furlong, who made a crucial save. Sheehy would later admit that, for reasons he could never explain, his legs felt like rubber as he ran up to the ball.

Could it have been five-in-a-row pressure which sabotaged Sheehy's kick? And had the gods made an early intervention on that fateful June evening when a freak accident ruled Deenihan out of the championship?

No definitive answer to those questions will ever emerge, but there's no doubt that Kerry's experience will weigh on Kilkenny minds tomorrow.

Once it's confined to the supporters it will have no effect but if even the slightest doubts invade the dressing-room then Tipperary will end Kilkenny's great dream.

It looked for a while last month as if the forces of mischief weren't even disguising their intentions to ruthlessly undermine Kilkenny, when they threatened to leave them without Henry Shefflin, John Tennyson, Brian Hogan and maybe even Tommy Walsh. It didn't turn out nearly as bad as that but there must still be doubts about players who are carrying knee injuries.

Tipperary have no such doubts about their general well-being but have to deal with the reality that despite producing an excellent performance for more than an hour in last year's final, they didn't see the job through.

fortitude

Kilkenny didn't play especially well last year, yet had the know-how and fortitude to chisel out a win with a two-goal burst late on.

Without the injury concerns, Kilkenny would be in an excellent position. Noel Hickey's return at full-back has helped reduce the goal giveaway rate (one in three championship games this year as opposed to six at the same stage last year), while JJ Delaney's release to the half-backs has improved that area.

Michael Fennelly's advance at midfield has been significant and while the attack hasn't quite got the radar on full screen, they have still managed to score an average of 3-19 per game. If they repeat that tomorrow, they will take their place in history as the first five-in-a-row winners.

The big question mark about Tipperary is whether they have improved on last year. If you disregard the big defeat by Cork as one of those freak days which don't tend to be repeated, their season is measured by the performances against Galway and Waterford, who were the only genuine All-Ireland contenders they encountered.

They struggled to put away a Galway team which, for all its reputation as a developing force, haven't reached an All-Ireland semi-final since 2005. Tipperary raised the efficiency levels against Waterford and are hoping that they have timed their run to perfection so that they peak tomorrow.

Tipperary were delighted with the performances of Eoin Kelly, John O'Brien, Lar Corbett and Noel McGrath who, between them, plundered 3-13 from open play against Waterford, but then they were allowed too much room, something that won't happen tomorrow.

The Kilkenny defence was secure against Galway and Dublin and while Cork scored 19 points, many of them came late in the second half, long after Kilkenny had switched to cruise control.

Tipperary are better equipped than anyone else to challenge Kilkenny line-by-line and, with the memory of last year's solid effort to encourage them, they will wage a very intense battle.

Intensity comes as second nature to Kilkenny, but can they keep it? Or, as has happened to most empires in the past, will it fall when least expected?

That's always a risk, but on the basis that Kilkenny's obsession for success is matched by the required performance level, they have to be fancied to go where no other team has gone and become the first five-in-a-row champions.

That's assuming of course that the 51-year sequence without a draw doesn't end, in which case the replay will on September 26.

Last championship clash: Kilkenny 2-22 Tipperary 0-23

Odds: Kilkenny 2/5 Tipperary 9/4 Draw 12/1.

Verdict: Kilkenny

Kilkenny -- PJ Ryan; J Dalton, N Hickey, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, J Tennyson, JJ Delaney; J 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, M Fennelly; TJ Reid, H Shefflin, E Larkin; E Brennan, R Power, A Fogarty.

Tipperary -- B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Curran, M Cahill; D Fanning, C O'Mahony, Padraic Maher; B Maher, S McGrath; G Ryan, Patrick Maher, J O'Brien; N McGrath, E Kelly, L Corbett.

Irish Independent

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