Monday 18 November 2019

Breaking the cycle of defeat

Tipp crave victory over Cats after just one win in 11 attempts

Kilkenny’s Richie Power consoles Kieran Bergin of Tipperary after last year’s All-Ireland SHC final
Kilkenny’s Richie Power consoles Kieran Bergin of Tipperary after last year’s All-Ireland SHC final

Christy O'Connor

Nine minutes into the 2009 league final, Tipperary exploded in Kilkenny's faces for the first time in the modern era.

Seamus Callanan turned Brian Hogan upside down with a shoulder - which broke his collarbone. The ball spilled loose to Shane McGrath, who picked out John O'Brien with a superb crossfield pass. O'Brien buried his side's second goal to put Tipp five points ahead.

Liam Sheedy rattled off Brian Cody as they passed on the sideline. "Welcome to Thurles," Sheedy reportedly said to Cody.

Tipperary were like men possessed. They had beaten Kilkenny in the 2008 league semi-final but the Cats scolded them for their insolence the following spring by administering a punishment beating of 17 points.

Five weeks later, Tipp were hell-bent on showing they weren't going to back down any more. What transpired was a seminal match in the evolution of modern hurling. A brilliant game was defined by huge hits and savage physicality. Kilkenny won after extra-time but Tipp had made their statement.

"That match set us up for All-Ireland final performance against Kilkenny in 2009," says Brendan Cummins. "And the All-Ireland final win in 2010."

The future looked set to belong to Tipp until the Kilkenny machine started raging again. The Cats won three of the next four All-Irelands.

Tipp are still waiting for another title; their ambitions have repeatedly been slaughtered and sacrificed on the altar of Kilkenny's domination.

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In their 11 league and championship meetings since the 2010 final, Tipp have only won once.

"Being honest, when you get beaten by Kilkenny again, you say to yourself, 'For God's sake, are we ever going to beat these boys?" says Eoin Kelly.

"With the way the GAA season is set up, you have a long time to stew on it when you lose to them. During all that time, you're listening to it from the outside world. 'Ah ye can't beat them'.

"That's the killer. You'd love hurl them again a month later to get it out of your system or remove that perception. You just don't get that chance. When you're constantly being defeated by a team, it knocks you back. You get ready for the next meeting and your hunger and dander is up but it's still sickening when you get beaten by the one team, year in year out."

Prior to 2002, one of the most extraordinary statistics in hurling was that Tipp had only lost once to Kilkenny in the championship over the previous 80 years.

Now, Tipp have won only one of their last nine championship meetings in just 13 years.

Three league final defeats in six seasons to their great rivals have shovelled more salt into a gaping wound that Tipp cannot close.

"If Kilkenny are the benchmark, we have come up short," says Cummins. "To make it worse, we have been the gallant loser."

Mentally and physically, Kilkenny have been stronger, more assured. Most of the games have been played on their terms.

Tipp were brilliant in last year's drawn All-Ireland final but in the replay, they were submerged beneath Kilkenny's tide of power and sheer force of will. In the second half, Tipp's four key assassins - Callanan, John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer, Noel McGrath and Lar Corbett - were restricted to a combined 12 plays.

Mentally, Kilkenny have always felt they have had Tipp's number, that they could get at certain Tipp players and hustle them out of their stride. They felt some Tipp players overlooked the Cats legacy after the 2010 final, which added more poison on the tip of the blade.

And Kilkenny have been slashing Tipperary's face ever since.

The scars are still obvious. Tipp lead Kilkenny by ten points in last year's league and ended up losing by six. The sequence of results suggests an inferiority complex and mental frailty but Tipp have still produced too much quality to distil the ongoing trend into that category.

"The best hurling Tipperary do is against Kilkenny," says Kelly. "If Tipp were afraid of them, that wouldn't happen. The Tipperary dressing-room loves the Kilkenny challenge.

"To me, the main difference between the teams has been composure. In a lot of games, we have just taken the wrong option, lads under pressure shooting for scores on the back foot or from an awkward angle.

"Whereas with Kilkenny, it's always cool and composed. You saw that in last year's league final with TJ Reid's winning score."

How that score was expertly engineered underlined another small subtle margin between the teams which has reflected the gulf. Reid dinked a sideline cut into Richie Hogan's hand and ran for the return pass before slotting it over.

"That is not how TJ normally takes sidelines because he hit it leaning back," says Kelly. "That just shows you Kilkenny's huge skill-set, which a lot of people don't acknowledge. People think Kilkenny are brute force but they can hurl in tight spaces, under ferocious pressure, and make the right decisions.

"Tipp haven't been doing that to the same level. That has to come from management, where you really have to highlight that you're bate up a stick against Kilkenny until you start making those right decisions."

Tipp showed shades of those colours in Ennis last Sunday.

What particularly impressed Cummins was the performances of Tipp's new players, and the deeper meaning it entails ahead of tomorrow.

"If you go back to 2010, our subs beat Kilkenny," says Cummins. "Look at any time Kilkenny have beaten Tipp, it's been their depth. Whether they've come out of the blue, like Kieran Joyce last year, or Martin Comerford in 2009, their bench has beaten us.

"This year is different. Tipp's back-up now - John McGrath, Jason Forde, young (Michael) Breen, Niall O'Meara - are all ready to go. That's why I think Tipp will win on Sunday."

Since 2009, the last match in each of Tipp's seasons has been against Kilkenny. There have been times when Tipp have been so desperate to beat Kilkenny it almost became a frustrating obsession.

IMPORTANCE

Eamon O'Shea has been playing down the importance of the league all spring but Tipp's recent record against Kilkenny, combined with the storied history between the counties, requires a win to stop the pus leaking from the sore.

"This is the biggest league game Tipp have played in a long time," says Cummins.

"Let's be honest, Kilkenny are depleted. They haven't been shooting the lights out. It won't be a disaster if Tipp don't win but it's still a must-win in the circumstances.

"Tipp just finally need to beat Kilkenny. There is real pressure on Tipp to win this game."

Tipp are at home. They have momentum. They're in good form. What's more they have the added incentive of plunging Kilkenny into a potential relegation battle, as an added form of payback for all the hurt caused.

For now though, everything else is irrelevant. Against Kilkenny, Tipp just need that big W.

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