Thursday 12 December 2019

Epic rivalry to take another turn on greatest stage

Today's captains: Patrick Maher, Tipperary. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Today's captains: Patrick Maher, Tipperary. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Today's captains: Lester Ryan, Kilkenny. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

DAMIAN LAWLOR

A Corkman approached a friend of his last week and asked what he thought of today's All-Ireland final pairing. His old pal, known locally as a wise old hurling sage, was supping a pint and didn't even lift his head, replied, "'Twill be like a war without the killing."

There was a time when such a prediction would most often come to pass, but in modern-day hurling, where goalkeepers are not maimed and fancy corner-forwards actually survive to get a touch of the ball, the game has become a lot more gentle. Yet, it will be furious stuff.

Over the past few weeks, players from both the Kilkenny and Tipperary teams will have listened to older fellas emphasising the rivalry that has always existed between the two counties and today they won't want to be found out as a weak link.

Down through the years there has been mutual respect, but no great love between these teams, especially for those just on either side of the county boundaries. The bragging rights were firmly with Tipperary up to the 1960s but they are most definitely with those on the Kilkenny side now.

In the last six championships there have been six consecutive Kilkenny/Tipperary clashes, not to mention three National League finals as well and barring the memorable 2010 All-Ireland final Kilkenny have won them all.

Since that victory in the 2010 decider, on a day defined by Lar Corbett's breathtaking hat-trick, Tipperary have scarcely had a look-in.

These past few years we've seen most everything that this derby can throw up. A controversial penalty in 2009, Lar stopping the drive for five in 2010, then the infamous marking of Tommy Walsh two years later.

Before last year's qualifier, as the Tipperary team bus moved towards Nowlan Park two hours before throw-in, the visiting players wondered why it was so quiet outside the ground. The answer became apparent once they got inside; the Kilkenny supporters were already there, waiting impatiently, baying for blood.

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This year, Kilkenny came to Thurles and again put Tipperary to the sword in the League final. That was the day a lot of home fans lost faith in their team. The question was posed: "Is this really a rivalry if the same team keeps winning?"

Well, it is and it will be as fierce today as it was down through the years when Tipperary gave Kilkenny lots of it.

With Eamon O'Shea back at the helm, Tipperary have gradually found levels of performance that their manager always believed were within them. When he addressed the team as coach in the dressing room before the 2010 final, O'Shea roared at the players to attack the pillars of the Kilkenny team (their famed half-back line), encouraging his men to believe that if the pillars fell, so too would Kilkenny. That's what happened on the day.

Will the wheel turn this afternoon? If so, Tipperary will have to pitch up physically and be prepared to dog it out until the final whistle. Gala hurlers like John O'Dwyer and Seamus Callanan will have to go foraging for dirty ball and how they respond to that test will help dictate the outcome.

There is a sense that some Kilkenny legs are growing weary; that they are susceptible to pace and fresh legs, but look at what is at stake: A perfect 10 for Henry Shefflin and Brian Cody. Tipperary know what's coming; they are used to fierce tribal contests. They are surrounded by more counties than any other in Ireland, eight in all - most of them strong hurling counties, and this task will not upset them.

Today, we look forward to JJ and Seamie, Lar and maybe Jackie, The Bonner oiling Tipp's engine, Richie Hogan running midfield. Shefflin from the bench and Paudie Maher plucking his first ball from the skies.

We are salivating at the prospect of Cody's match-ups and equally seeing what O'Shea can derive from his team.

This is the latest chapter in an epic struggle. Bring it on.

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