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Hurling: Premier pace pivotal

THIS is the first time in exactly five years that Kilkenny have started a championship game as underdogs.

That one fact is both a tribute to the endurance of Brian Cody’s stickmen and an indicator of just how far Tipperary have travelled over the past few seasons. But even Tipp’s favouritism comes with a caveat, as Boylesports yesterday cut Kilkenny’s odds from 6/4 into 11/8 in response to heavy support for the so-called underdog. What essentially those punters were saying is that here is a 50-50 game with the balance potentially even tilting towards Kilkenny. In that respect, why wouldn’t you jump at those odds? This is an incorrigibly difficult All-Ireland final to call, for all manner of reasons. Back in May, we ventured that Tipperary were in pole position to retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup so thrillingly annexed the previous September.

At the time, it seemed an entirely plausible prediction. No, Tipp hadn’t won the league but they’d recovered reasonably well after a twogame losing start to Declan Ryan’s managerial reign. They were top-heavy with prolific forward talent. They had the precocity of youth blended with some wise and supremely gifted old heads. And self-belief could scarcely be an issue for the group after last September. Kilkenny, meanwhile, were still licking metaphorical wounds – and hoping for some real wounds to heal – in the wake of their utterly uncharacteristic league final implosion to Dublin. Still, even then, in the same way that you never write off the Germans, it would have been foolhardy to expect Brian Cody’s war veterans to slink away quietly into the night.


Yes, they looked stale. True, the fabled reserve talent didn’t look so fabulous against the Dubs last May. But they are Kilkenny. That was then; this is now. Today, Cody has a full-deck of decorated heroes to choose from. Moreover, unlike last September, there are no distracting daily bulletins charting the ‘miracle’ recoveries of Henry Shefflin and John Tennyson. The circus that surrounded that ill-fated Drive for Five – with 8,000 people descending on Nowlan Park for King Henry’s return to training – is history. Now, it’s all about the one-in-a-row. Tipperary will doubtless be approaching tomorrow with a similar attitude, although in the back of the mind will lurk the realisation that here is a glorious opportunity to become the first Tipp side since the ’60s to win back-toback All-Irelands. Both counties may also privately acknowledge tomorrow as the defining best-of-three rubber to an epic September rivalry. Depending on your bias, you can easily concoct a raft of reasons to favour either protagonist.

Kilkenny optimists will obviously cite the fitness of Shefflin: for his frees, his leadership, his perennial knack of going for the jugular. Richie Power tallied eight frees after Henry hobbled off last September, but he hit a further three off-target – Shefflin rarely misses any. There is also the likelihood that Cody will put one of his heavy-hitters, quite probably Shefflin, onto the wing of John O’Keeffe, just to check out if Tipp’s one defensive All-Ireland debutant can be spooked by the occasion. Leaving aside Shefflin’s availability, there is the major consideration that Kilkenny have a point to prove after their defence was plundered for four goals in last year’s final. Cody is no fan of ‘sweepers’ but Kilkenny’s midfield and half-back line are sure to retreat in a bid to close off the space in front of the fullback line.

Tipp thrive on the oxygen of goals, most of them supplied by the jetheeled Lar Corbett and the predatory Eoin Kelly. They create these chances through constant forward movement and speedy delivery from deep. For reasons much of their own making, Waterford were clueless to stop it but Dublin showed in last month’s semifinal that Tipp’s inside raiders can be stifled, if not quite stopped. If Kilkenny manage to clog up the space that Corbett & Co exploited last September, the challengers could be half-way up the Hogan. But? Well, that Kilkenny defence is a year older and the likes of Noel Hickey and Jackie Tyrrell, for all their tungsten strength, can be exposed for pace on the turn. This time, though, they should get better protection from their half-backs whereas 12 months ago Tommy Walsh was not his usual swashbuckling self (possibly because of shoulder trouble) and Brian Hogan wasn’t even fit to play.

One other reason to fancy the Cats? Remember 2006, the last time they started an All-Ireland as underdogs but with a point to prove against defending champions. For all that, we don’t subscribe to the theory that the champions’ own hunger will be found wanting. Beating Kilkenny in successive All-Irelands? Carrots don’t come much bigger or tastier for Tipp. Yes, most Tipp fans would be happier if Brendan Maher was starting – it’s a strange call, presuming matchsharpness is not an issue. However, the 2010 Young Hurler of the Year could still have a decisive influence coming off the bench whereas Kilkenny have plenty of experience but a less obvious game-changer among their subs.

The other imponderable is whether Tipp have been weakened, even marginally, by last autumn’s departure of manager Liam Sheedy and coach Eamon O’Shea. Leaving aside Dublin’s heroic resistance, this may be the first time that Ryan and Tommy Dunne are truly tested to the limit. Yet, for all our wavering, we’re sticking with Tipp. For so long, Kilkenny have been the goal kings but the Premier poachers have usurped their mantle. They have advantages of pace and youth; this could prove decisive especially if their rivals are forced to chase down a Tipperary lead. Yes, Tipp’s semi-final display exposed plenty of flaws – but that may be no bad thing, and don’t tell me Kilkenny were footperfect against Waterford. Both teams need to raise their game. Both, we suspect, will. Fasten your seat belt for one hell of a ride.

Tipp by two.