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Saturday 19 April 2014

Tipp and Cats still the biggest beasts in jungle

Tipperary's Noel McGrath tries to get through the Kilkenny defence during last year's Allianz NHL Division 1 final
Tipperary's Noel McGrath tries to get through the Kilkenny defence during last year's Allianz NHL Division 1 final

In normal circumstances a clash between the reigning All-Ireland champions and Leinster provincial champions would be guaranteed top billing on an Allianz League Sunday, but that won't be the case tomorrow when Clare play Dublin.

Undoubtedly, the Parnell Park showdown is an interesting encounter, but it can't match the intrigue of the Kilkenny v Tipperary shoot-out in Nowlan Park.

That's down to the fascination with how the neighbouring powerhouses are going about restructuring after suffering the disappointment of having their championship seasons ended in July last year.

EXPERIENCE

Despite that unusual experience, it's universally recognised that Kilkenny and Tipperary remain among the biggest beasts in the hurling jungle.

That's reflected in the betting for championship and league where Kilkenny, Clare and Tipperary are ranked 1-2-3 for each of the titles.

However, given that the average age of the Clare panel is young enough to suggest that they will be major influences on the landscape for quite some time, both Kilkenny and Tipperary have been forced into review mode as they attempt to carry out the repairs which became necessary after last summer's setbacks.

Of course, it's altogether possible that if Henry Shefflin hadn't been sent off in the first half of the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork, Kilkenny's season – and, indeed, the race for Liam MacCarthy – could have taken a completely different direction. However, even if it had and Kilkenny went on to win the All-Ireland title, some restructuring would still be necessary.

It's part of the natural evolution anyway, but with four of the multi-honoured Kilkenny defence (JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan) in their 30s this year, the issue of pace arises. One or two over 30 may be okay, but four out of six?

That's risky in an era when there's so much pace in the game. Brian Cody has always contended that an expert knowledge of the defender's art is the most important requirement for anyone who plies his trade in the back six.

That centres mainly on the ability to accurately assess individual opponents, the flow of the game and the general geography of the defensive half.

It's a fair point. For example, several opponents have, over the years, calculated that the best antidote to Tyrrell's reign as the era's most dominant No 4 was to despatch a sprinter in his direction, armed with the instruction to "take him on with your pace." Yet, how many times have you seen Tyrrell either beaten for speed in a run for possession or turned by a galloping No 13?

His natural defensive instincts have proved more than a match for most opponents – quick or otherwise.

The same has applied to other Kilkenny defenders who have been targeted by runners. Still, the mileage among the Kilkenny defence has been clocking up on a collective scale, so the question of pace has to become an issue eventually. Walsh will be 31 in May, Delaney 32 in March, Tyrrell 32 in June and Hogan 33 in August.

It's against that background that Michael Walsh (Young Irelands), Brian Kennedy (St Lachtain's) and Joey Holden (Ballyhale) were despatched into action against Clare last Sunday, while Lester Ryan dropped back to No 6.

Paul Murphy was the only regular defender to start and was later joined by Tyrrell, who replaced Conor Fogarty at half-time

The Kilkenny defence did quite well against a Clare attack that featured five of the starting six forwards from last year's All-Ireland final.

It will be interesting to see how Cody balances the experienced and the new over the coming weeks, but, however he juggles the permutations, it will come down to who's playing best when the big decisions have to be made going into the championship.

However hard it might be on such enduringly reliable performers as Delaney, Walsh, Tyrrell and Hogan, it would probably be in Kilkenny's best interests if one or more were overtaken by younger talent.

For while performance is always more important than age, it would raise questions about the Kilkenny supply lines if the average age of two-thirds of their defence was 32 years. Of course, there's always the option of moving Walsh to midfield or the half-forwards, locations where he won two All Star awards in his early years and where he may now be required anyway.

Ironically, Kilkenny's best performer last Sunday was also their oldest. But then Henry Shefflin is in a special category and if he stays free of injury, will again be a hugely influential figure this year. It's business as usual with Shefflin, but given that so many of his attacking colleagues misfired last summer, the need for new talent up front is as important as in defence.

Age or pace is not a pressing issue for Tipperary, but it's not as if they don't have their own challenges. Quite demanding ones too since they have been unable to build on platforms which looked so solid when they won the 2010 All-Ireland senior and U-21 titles.

Some of the more giddy elements in Tipperary were predicting a lengthy period of dominance, but it didn't materialise.

The last two years have been especially disappointing as Tipperary melted embarrassingly against Kilkenny in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final and facilitated Limerick's revival in last year's Munster semi-final before losing to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

In those circumstances, one would have thought that winning this year's league would be a target for Tipperary so as to head into the championship off a consistent run, but if we are to believe manager Eamon O'Shea, the attitude to the spring competition is somewhat indifferent.

Its purpose, apparently, is to find players, give them opportunities and establish a rhythm. All quite laudable aims which every manager holds, but O'Shea's comment that he had no ambitions for the league is baffling.

O'Shea said last Sunday: "The only important date for me – and I'll spell it out – is Limerick in the championship."

That's 14 weeks away and, in the interim, there's a league to be fought for. Surely, it would be in Tipperary's best interests to go into the Limerick clash as league champions, having put down a clear marker that there was something different about them this year.

The league offers regular opportunities to experiment and work on shapes and patterns, but ultimately every game is about winning. Kilkenny remain the best example of how consistent form in spring can be turned into a golden harvest. O'Shea appears to be taking a different track, having already circled June 1 (the date of the Munster semi-final clash with Limerick) large on his calendar.

The reality is that the manner in which Tipperary handle the next few months will have a significant bearing on how well prepared they are for the Limerick game.

Remarks from the manager that he has no league ambitions may be part of a psychological strategy, the fruits of which will become apparent later on.

However, the danger is that the comment lets players off the hook, scarcely something Tipperary hurling needs right now. After all, their manager has said that the first really important game for him is the Munster semi-final, so why should the players worry too much about the league?

 

Kilkenny v Tipperary: Five-season record (2009-2013)

They have met 12 times in championship and league over the last five seasons with Kilkenny winning nine times to Tipperary's three.

2009

Kilkenny 5-17 Tipperary 1-12 (League)

Kilkenny 2-26 Tipperary 4-17 (League final): after extra-time.

Kilkenny 2-22 Tipperary 0-23 (All-Ireland final)

2010

Tipperary 1-14 Kilkenny 0-13 (League)

Tipperary 4-17 Kilkenny 1-18 (All-Ireland final)

2011

Kilkenny 1-17 Tipperary 1-10 (League)

Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 1-16 (All-Ireland final)

2012

Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-15 (League)

Kilkenny 4-24 Tipperary 1-15 (All-Ireland semi-final)

2013

Tipperary 2-17 Kilkenny 1-19 (League)

Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-20 (League final) Kilkenny 0-20 Tipperary 1-14 (All-Ireland qualifiers)

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