A DOZEN years have passed since Eoin Kelly won his first Celtic Cross. Just three have elapsed since he won his second, skippering Tipperary back to the summit. And yet, even since then, the veteran forward believes the game has evolved to an incredible degree.
So much so, he ventures, that Tipp can't hope to reclaim Liam MacCarthy in 2013 simply by revisiting the template that toppled Kilkenny's drive for five in 2010.
"It's unbelievably changed. I think the intensity is the biggest thing, and the physicality," he explains, speaking at Centra's All-Ireland SHC sponsorship launch in Croke Park. "In the middle-third now, before you'd have a midfielder giving in a lovely ball to a forward – but now the minute the midfielder wins a ball, there's three or four lads tackling him. Whoever wins that middle-third has a big advantage."
The recent Allianz League final was a case in point – this frenetic reacquaintance of old Tipp and Kilkenny foes included one ferocious battle for possession shortly before the off-the-ball flashpoint that ended in red cards for Lar Corbett and JJ Delaney.
In the course of 46 pulsating seconds, 11 different players played the ball, which was turned over five times. The crowd were on the edge of their Nowlan Park seats. But how were the players?
"That's kind of what I'm trying to say, (about) that section of the field," Kelly concurs. "For midfielders and half-forwards and half-backs, I'd say their tongues must be hanging out more than the rest of us."
He was speaking ahead of Sunday's trip into Limerick's Gaelic Grounds citadel. Tipp are hot favourites, not alone to take the weekend spoils but to retain their Munster crown next month. To which Kelly has one riposte – remember last year's provincial quarter-final.
Then, John Allen's outsiders led by seven points after 48 minutes only for Tipp to eventual triumph by four, aided by a stunning comeback and abetted, perhaps, by flagging Limerick limbs.
Asked if they were caught by surprise, Kelly admitted: "I think we could have been; (it) could have been the intensity and physicality they brought.
"We are hoping we will rectify that, but we won't know until Sunday. In the end, I think they should have won last year. But that's dead and buried now."
Tipp have already demolished Division 1B champions Dublin in a league semi-final – the latter having already vanquished Limerick in the 1B decider – but Kelly refuses to see this 1A versus 1B divide being a factor on Sunday. "Munster championship, everyone is up for it," he points out. "There's a different atmosphere, a different hum around the place.
"It is do-or-die, like; there's a massive prize on offer at the end of the game. Playing in a Munster final, for both sets of players that's what you want."
As for Kelly's likely weekend involvement, the often injury-troubled 31-year-old pronounced himself "in a good space" fitness-wise ahead of last night's final training session before Eamon O'Shea unveils his first championship team as manager. O'Shea was Liam Sheedy's much-lauded coach in the All-Ireland year of 2010. Now, though, he inherits a team needing to restore its damaged reputation in the wake of last year's All-Ireland semi-final implosion against Kilkenny.
So is there a drive for redemption in Team Tipp? "There is really," the six-time All Star agrees. "You would have seen that earlier on in the year. Lads really knuckled down to it. Lads are not getting younger and the Paudie Mahers, Brendan Mahers, Noel McGraths, all these lads are going 22, 23, 24, coming into their prime as elite athletes, as elite hurlers, and they want to make it happen now." Starting Sunday.