Explosive starter to whet appetite
Sheedy's Premier charges desperate to lay down early marker in mission to topple Cats' empire
BRIAN Cody has got his wish. Asked about tonight's clash with Tipperary at the launch of the 2010 National Hurling League he remarked as if it were a matter of complete certainty: "Sure Tipperary would have to be favourites."
It wasn't immediately apparent why that should be the case since Semple Stadium isn't exactly barren territory for Kilkenny ambitions but, on this occasion, the public have bought the Cody line and backed Tipperary into marginal favouritism.
The view is that after matching Kilkenny everywhere except on the final scoreboard for 160 minutes in last year's All-Ireland and National League finals (which went to extra-time), Tipperary are so desperate to start the new season with a win over their 2009 torturers that they will be the more driven force tonight.
Trying to beat Kilkenny in determination represents the tallest of tall orders, but Tipperary certainly have every reason to attempt to unleash a power surge not normally associated with the first round of the league.
Their intention to do so is underlined by Liam Sheedy's decision to select such an experienced side. Experimentation can wait because tonight is not an occasion to drop in newcomers. Sheedy is committed to doing that in the course of the league but knows there will be less stressful tests ahead.
"You're always looking for new players to show that they have the potential to make it through to the team and the league certainly tests lads," said Sheedy.
"If you expect a player to prove that he's ready to step into the championship team, he has to be doing it in the league. Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath found their feet for us in last year's league and got even better in the championship."
Tonight though, is about matching Kilkenny physically and emotionally, a task more suited to players who have been there before. Besides, with competition for places so intense, a good performance against Kilkenny will make a healthy deposit in a player's credibility account.
Take midfielder, Benny Dunne. Nobody will ever know what impact his dismissal at the three-quarter mark had on last year's All-Ireland final but, in such an intense and close game, it's fair to assume that it weakened Tipperary's hand.
Then, there's big full-forward, Micheal Webster, who was brought on for the final few minutes of the final. He would have felt that with a longer stint he might have prised open a defence which kept its goal intact thanks to a combination of poor finishing by the Tipp attack and an inspired goalkeeping performance from PJ Ryan.
Sheedy's response to the defeat was mature and intelligent. He could have ridden the sympathy wave and complained about the legitimacy of the penalty award which effectively swung the game Kilkenny's way. It would have been favourably received by the Tipperary public and provided the squad with a heavy blanket to keep them warm for the winter.
Instead, he made nothing of it, opting instead to point out that all that matters in any game is the final scoreline. "We lost to Kilkenny by five points -- that's all that counted. Galway, Waterford and Dublin came in around the same against them. That's the reality that we all have to accept. There's no point looking for excuses," said Sheedy.
There's no doubt that next to Kilkenny, Tipperary were the most coherent and consistent force in hurling last year, but now the question is: can they press on and actually overtake Kilkenny? That's assuming, of course, that it will be necessary to raise their performance levels to match Kilkenny. The consistent excellence which Kilkenny brought to their game throughout the last decade -- and in the last four years in particular -- will be mighty difficult to retain.
This is a special group of players but they're only human and it really is coming close to asking an unreasonable amount of them to win an All-Ireland five-in-a-row. After all, no other squad has ever achieved it in either hurling or football.
That's no practical reason why it can't be done but history shows how incredibly difficult it really is. Cork were the only county to put themselves in a position to do it in 1945 but lost to Tipperary in the Munster semi-final.
Under the current system, Cork would, of course, have re-entered the All-Ireland race via the qualifiers so Kilkenny have an advantage since defeat in Leinster wouldn't end their prospects. Despite the unique challenge facing Kilkenny, they won't do anything different to previous years in terms of preparation.
There seems to be a view that they won't have as much interest in the league as usual as they look ahead to the ultimate test next summer. It's a misguided assessment. Cody has always operated on the principle that the most effective preparation for any game is to win the previous one and that the best way to get right for the championship is to win the league.
Now that might seem like an obvious way of going about business (indeed it's one that Sheedy has now brought to Tipperary too) but some other counties tend to delude themselves into thinking that losing league games is largely irrelevant if the 'grand plan' is coming together for the championship.
Kilkenny have succeeded in winning league titles while also experimenting, a double-target Cody will again have set for the squad this year. Even an All-Ireland four-in-a-row squad (in fact, especially a four-in-a-row squad) needs freshening up, so expect some adjustments to the Kilkenny side for the championship.
If, for instance, Tipperary had won last year's All-Ireland final, it would be regarded as the end of another glorious phase for Kilkenny, followed by a general overhaul this year.
However, just because Kilkenny inched over the line, doesn't mean that they could breathe a sigh of relief and assume that everything would remain the same for this year.
One of Cody's great traits has been a capacity to spot the right time when change is needed. Sometimes, it's required as much in victory as in defeat, so it will be a surprise if he doesn't make some significant changes for the five-in-a-row challenge.
The extent of those changes will be decided in the course of the league. Even the most established stars know that. It's a policy which has served Kilkenny well over the past decade so why should Cody change it?
Meanwhile, there's a special feel to tonight's game as the two top squads of 2009 battle for the first psychological edge of the new season. It's probably more important for Tipperary that they get it right, but Kilkenny won't want to concede a centimetre to their great rivals, even this early in the year.
Those who attend tonight's game, or watch it live on Setanta Ireland (7.30) can expect an explosive start to the new campaign. Whether or not it will have any long-term impact on how the season unfolds remains to be seen. Meantime, it will be fun looking for clues.
Tipperary v Kilkenny,
Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.30