Wednesday 20 September 2017

Christy O'Connor: Nine weeks which changed the game

When Kilkenny and Tipperary met in the league final, the summer looked to be playing out on familiar lines. Christy O'Connor examines exactly what has happened since

Lar Corbett is sent off in the league final, during which, he also fractured his ribs
Lar Corbett is sent off in the league final, during which, he also fractured his ribs
Henry Shefflin is on the bench for the clash with Waterford
June 9: Tipp are overrun by Limerick, who outscore them 0-9 to 0-2 in the last 20 minutes. Four of their starting forwards are withdrawn before the end.
June 29: Kilkenny lose to Dublin by three points and the injuries continue to mount up

Christy O'Connor

A day after the NHL Division 1 final in May, Kilkenny were as short as 11/10 to win the All-Ireland, while Tipperary were priced at 7/2.

After the fresh coat of paint Galway splashed across last year's championship, black and amber and blue and gold were expected to be the dominant colours of the hurling summer once more.

Who could have expected any different after the quality of the league final? The match wasn't on the same level as the 2009 decider between the same teams, but there was still more than enough edge to the combat to rubber-stamp its elevated status.

The statistics also highlighted the game's intensity and quality. Both teams made a combined total of 359 plays. Those numbers were off the wall for league hurling but were further underlined when compared with comparative analysis of the three Kilkenny-Tipperary All-Ireland finals between 2009-11, when the average number of total plays was 368.

Furthermore, the average hook-block-tackle count in those three games was 26. In May, Kilkenny shaded that category 26-25.

Kilkenny had a host of big names still to return, and if there were any question marks about their desire or relentless hunger, they answered them in the last quarter. Kilkenny won the puckout statistic 10-4, while they made 47 plays to Tipp's 34 in that crucial period.

At the same time those All-Ireland odds were released, Limerick were 9/2 to beat Tipp while Offaly were 10/1 outsiders to take Kilkenny.

Although the winners of Kilkenny-Offaly had to play Dublin or Wexford in a Leinster semi-final, the odds of Kilkenny and Tipperary meeting in a potential qualifier in early July would have been between 48-50/1.

Madness

Nobody in their right mind would have requested such a bet. A projected pricing on such a fixture would have been deemed complete madness.

So what has happened in the meantime? How did both counties end up on a collision course that will see one of them exit the championship before a provincial final has even been played?

The league final is the obvious starting point, but with this year's league being the most competitive campaign in 16 years, and with both teams playing a semi-final and final, did Tipp and Kilkenny use up too much gas during the spring?

Three teams to have already made a big impact this summer – Limerick, Dublin and Laois – spent the spring largely cruising in Division 1B and 2A. Cork were relegated. Galway didn't impress in Division 1A but they were always going to be in a Leinster final.

Kilkenny expended huge energy in winning the final, but it was difficult to know how much powder Tipp were keeping dry with an expectant meeting against the Cats later in the summer. Tipp have always needed goals to beat Kilkenny but they created just one goal chance that day.

Tight defending and pressure from out the field heavily impacted on movement and accurate stick-passing, but of the 38 stick-passes Tipp played in to their attack in the league final, only 13 were successful.

Some Tipp forwards were criticised for not being willing to take the pain required to score goals against Kilkenny, but greater precision in their passing and movement was still Tipp's priority afterwards.

By the time they met Limerick, though, Tipp were trying to be too precise. It often seemed as if they were attempting to play a board game.

There was a total lack of aggression from Tipp; they were complacent, and once Limerick dialled up the intensity, they blew Tipp apart, especially in the last 20 minutes.

Tipp stopped getting the ball to their most effective players in that period. In that last 20 minutes, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher, John O'Brien, Noel McGrath, Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly and John O'Dwyer made an aggregate total of just 10 plays.

'Bonner' Maher has always been central to Tipp, but he made just seven plays. After joining the Army last winter, work commitments have been a priority and Tipperary have only had full access to Maher over the last two weeks.

Corbett initially wasn't on the match-day panel of 26 and was only included when Jason Forde came down with a bug the day before the Limerick game.

Shane McGrath had also been suffering from an illness in the lead-up to the match, but none of those issues were a legitimate excuse for their performance.

With a number of players so long on the road, the team is at a critical crossroads now. Eamon O'Shea may have already had an eye on the future by not being over-dependent on older players in the forward line against Limerick, but he needs a leadership focus up front against Kilkenny.

Whatever happens from now on though, O'Shea is sure to completely overhaul the panel for next year.

On the same day that Tipp lost to Limerick, Offaly were rattling four goals past Kilkenny. The following week, four key Cats players were summoned before the management to discuss their form.

That practice has been routinely carried out by Brian Cody and his management over the years, but if they were looking for a response against Dublin, they didn't get it.

Kilkenny's problems were exacerbated when Paul Murphy picked up an ankle injury that kept him out of the replay. It further depleted their resources. Nine of the 11 subs from last Saturday had a combined total of just 12 championship appearances.

With Jackie Tyrrell having missed the drawn game, he was given a fitness test after the warm-up. Tyrrell clearly wasn't fit and was substituted late on.

Kilkenny were bailing water off a leaking ship all evening. They managed just five points from play, while the Kilkenny attack was restricted to just 26 second-half plays, which was surely one of their lowest returns over the last decade.

Walter Walsh, who had rescued the drawn game with 1-4, never got a look-in. He made just four plays overall and was held scoreless by the excellent Paul Schutte.

The first four balls Kilkenny played in to their attack – including puckouts – were all aimed at Walsh, but their hurling was untypical of Kilkenny all evening. They kept running down the centre of the Dublin attack, while they also played very little of the criss-crossing ball that the Cats normally hit to open up defences.

Now, Tipp and Kilkenny meet in the biggest qualifier game in history and with it all on the line. It would be the ultimate nightmare for Kilkenny to lose to their greatest rivals in Nowlan Park, especially for this team.

After the humiliation of last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Tipp will summon whatever pride lies within them to make a stand. Like Kilkenny, this is a defining match for them.

At the same venue in May, these two played out a game which looked like a trailer for the big event in September.

However, to the astonishment of us all, the whole hurling world has been turned upside down in the meantime.

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