Forde's time on the big stage may have finally arrived
Late developer thriving on extra responsibility in Callanan's absence after years on the fringes
Silvermines is not a traditional hunting ground for Tipperary senior hurlers. Noel Sheehy had 11 years with the county between 1986 and 1997, winning two All-Irelands, but the next player to make any kind of sustained impression is the one being talked of most in this year's National League: Jason Forde.
Forde is seen in some respects as a late developer but his career when he came into the squad was well on schedule. He made the Tipp senior panel at 19, and was a significant selection by Eamon O'Shea in the Munster Championship five years ago against Limerick when chosen ahead of the legendary Eoin Kelly. That spelled an obvious changing of the guard but Forde had to wait, picking up a stomach bug the night before the match and being left off following consultation with the team doctor.
Kelly is one of the players Forde has cited as an inspiration when he was younger. When his senior championship debut did arrive in 2013 it was as a sub against Kilkenny in the winner-takes-all qualifier in Nowlan Park. In the league final that year Kelly was recalled and Forde started on the bench, coming on after 57 minutes for Seamus Callanan. They lost to Kilkenny, 0-20 to 2-17 at Nowlan Park.
It has taken Forde until this spring to really blossom, but that run has been without a test against Kilkenny. In the earlier meeting in Nowlan Park, which Tipp lost, he was being rested after playing in the Fitzgibbon Cup the previous day. With John McGrath also committed to UL at the time, Tipperary will feel they have to deliver on expectation this afternoon, something which has proved repeatedly problematic against Kilkenny.
Last year, Callanan, with 4-34, and McGrath, 5-27, were Tipp's leading scorers in the National League as the county's forwards were in full throttle until they ran into Galway in the final and lost by 16 points. Aside from issues with Kilkenny and their recent history of superiority, that defeat is an added motivating factor today. Another is that their last win in Kilkenny in the league at Nowlan Park was in the semi-final 10 years ago.
This year Forde has thrived in Callanan's absence through injury. He is top of the league scoring charts with 5-60. TJ Reid is his nearest challenger going into the final, six points adrift on 1-66. Forde's 2-11 in the semi-final is the second highest individual tally of the spring. He also had 2-9 against Wexford. But can he now do it in the final against Kilkenny in their own backyard?
Reasons posited for his late-ish - he's now 24 - emergence are manifold. Not working hard enough being one. Injuries. The competition for places. His versatility, having played in all forward positions for the county, as well as midfield and also centre-back, where he starred for UL in early Fitzgibbon Cup campaigns. But for a number of years Tipp's attack revolved around Callanan, the star of their 2016 All-Ireland final win over Kilkenny. With Callanan injured Forde, brought on and later taken off against Galway in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, has responded brilliantly to the responsibility, which has included the free-taking duties.
Last year was further complicated by the suspension he served for his altercation with Davy Fitzgerald during the league semi-final win over Wexford. It led to him missing the opening championship match against Cork. Having come into the team in 2013 he had a limited league exposure in 2014 and didn't figure in the league final loss to Kilkenny that year, although he started the earlier regulation game in Nowlan Park won by Kilkenny 5-20 to 5-14, scoring a goal. In the later All-Ireland final and replay between the counties, he was a late substitute.
In 2015 he started wing-forward in the Munster final win over Waterford, scoring two points, and hit 1-3 in the semi-final hammering of Limerick. The following season he didn't start a championship game, the year of Callanan's coronation. Forde had to be content with a string of substitute appearances.
Forde didn't play any part against Kilkenny in the league at Nowlan Park when Tipp lost two years ago. He came on when the teams drew last year in Thurles. Today he will hope to make his mark. Kilkenny will test Forde and his team's constitutions like no other. Were they to come up short it would not be the first time but Forde has never been in this kind of form or physical condition up to now.
Tipperary: D Mooney; A Flynn, J Barry, M Cahill; B Heffernan, P Maher, R Maher; B Maher, S Kennedy; S Curran, B McCarthy, J McGrath; M Breen, J Forde, W Connors.
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy; J Holden, P Walsh, P Deegan; C Delaney, C Buckley, E Morrissey; R Leahy, J Maher; M Keoghan, TJ Reid, J Donnelly; B Sheehan, W Walsh, A Murphy.
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Kilkenny v Tipperary, Nowlan Park 3.30
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