Wednesday 22 November 2017

Henry Shefflin: It wasn't losing the five in-a-row that motivated Kilkenny to crush Tipp - it was the 2010 U21 final

Premier's 2010 All-Ireland U-21 win and the perception of there being a new act in town drew response from Cats that's still being felt

Henry Shefflin

Six days after the 2010 All-Ireland final I was sitting at home feeling a little sorry for myself, my knee swollen like a balloon, the cruciate ligament and cartilage in shreds and a pair of crutches for constant company.

At 30 years of age I was facing into a second major knee operation in three years. Already at a low ebb after losing to Tipperary, that prospect of more surgery and long rehabilitation compounded the misery. Watching the All-Ireland U-21 final from Thurles unfold on TV that evening, however, quickly changed my mood.

Tipperary blew Galway apart with one of the most devastating performances at that level in any era. Thurles was Colosseum-like and all the gladiators were in blue and gold.

Naturally, the crowd loved it. The celebratory tone was palpable, even from as far away as a front room in south Kilkenny.

A third of the team - Padraic Maher, 'Bonner' Maher, Brendan Maher, Noel McGrath and Michael Cahill - all started against us the previous Sunday, 'Bubbles' Dwyer and James Barry had yet to step up. But the future was clearly in their hands. And people weren't shy about saying it.

My pride was hurting from defeat, my knee was hurting from the damage sustained but nothing pained me more that night than the perception that there was a new act in town.

The five-in-a-row was dashed and it was as if we were being told with a sympathetic pat: 'Move on now lads, your time is up.'

If there was any greater motivation for picking it up and going again, I certainly don't recall it. Not even the memory of the final cut as deep. I can recall saying to myself in the aftermath and in the weeks and months that followed how I wasn't letting go here, that we weren't gone.

It fuelled my recovery that winter and we have retained the upper hand on them since as the record would illustrate. A night that might have represented a changing of the guard, more so than the final itself six days earlier, was worked to our benefit.

So much so now that the importance of winning tomorrow is greater for Tipperary than it is for Kilkenny. This, to my mind, is their last opportunity to break the stranglehold in place since 2011.

I met an old adversary coming out of a shop earlier in the week and he didn't hide that feeling of necessity. "We have to win this one," he said. No more words required.

It's somewhat ironic for Tipperary to be in this position. When I was growing up there was a certain awe about them. They beat Kilkenny in the 1991 final which Kilkenny should have won and that same hold that now exists in reverse appeared to tighten.

The modern generation could scarcely fathom that. I always recall going into Hotel Kilkenny with Tommy Walsh on the Monday after the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.

Our usual routine was a sauna before we'd take off for a few celebratory drinks. Inside we met Noel Skehan. "Where's Lar?" was the first thing he said in jest, referencing the bizarre marking arrangements of the day before.

We got talking and I expressed my reservations about winning a semi-final as easily as we did in the second half. I was guarded, felt it was dangerous territory going into a final.

Noel wasn't having any of my caution, however. It was, he told us, one of the best days he had in Croke Park to beat Tipperary and beat them so well, stressing how different it had been in the past.

That always stuck with me. The shoe is on the other foot and that's why it's such an important game for them.

Tipp, it seems, could always bully Kilkenny teams in the past, that added physical element always gave them the edge. When skills are relatively even it's the physical contest that will decide it. It's why games between these counties have been so good. And it's what decides this final.

Tipperary just haven't had a strong enough mentality in Kilkenny's company since that 2010 final, 2012 being the most obvious example but even in 2013 and 2014 too. Do they have it now? Until they beat Kilkenny in a game of this magnitude again you'd have to say they don't.

Tipperary have taken a more robust, direct approach this season but you can't say the level of intensity they would have wanted to test themselves at really manifested in Munster. Cork, Limerick and Waterford all set out with extra defenders and that, inevitably, leads to a slight drop.

Galway did bring that intensity and Tipperary were a bit at odds with it until two wonderful pieces of skill got them home.

There's been compliments towards Dan McCormack and 'Bonner' Maher for turnover ball but I'd ask the question, 'Why don't they have the ball in the first place?' To me, intensity is winning your own ball and I haven't seen enough of that from Tipperary's half-forward line.

They hadn't played in five weeks which has been a problem for Munster champions so the benefit could be there for them tomorrow.

I've questioned the leadership within Tipperary at the beginning of the championship. So far they've done everything asked of them. But they know this is the big test, this is the day they've been waiting for to really prove it.

It's an element I feel has been missing since Eoin Kelly's influence receded and, looking at the team-sheets, you'd have to say more Kilkenny players have shown it over the years.

That said, Michael Fennelly's loss is enormous. He's a club colleague as well as a former county colleague and is one of the hardest men you will come across - all elbows and hips, shoving his weight around. You think back to the 2011 final, his goal and his collision with Shane McGrath, for two perfect snapshots of what he brings.

I'd expect Richie Hogan to push back into the attack, in on Ronan Maher at centre-forward.

Go back to your national school days and the best players were either named at centre-back or centre-forward. That principle doesn't change much and how the younger Maher handles Richie will be telling.

The other battle I'm looking forward to is Walter Walsh and Padraic Maher, two big physical men. To me, they have been among the most consistent players this season, neither too far off Hurler of the Year. Padraic has had better games but maybe never a more consistent season.

The full-back line was the perceived weakness in Kilkenny at the beginning of the season but the improvement has been dramatic, especially in Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast. But facing Seamus Callanan, John McGrath and probably 'Bubbles' is their acid test now.

Kilkenny won't make any special plans for them but they'll want to keep it very tight. Brian Hogan was very good in the drawn game two years ago but it was all too open for Brian Cody's liking and he made the necessary changes. No surprise then to hear him say he thought the replay was a better game of hurling.

Goals will play their part too. Colin Fennelly picked off two the last day that are big currency for a confidence player like him. Kilkenny have waited on him all year and now he has arrived. His shoulders are back and he's buzzing.

Tipp don't play as expansive a game as they did in 2014. Their directness actually suits Kilkenny. Like 2013 and 2014 there won't be much in this but Kilkenny's intensity is always a given and that's too much of a guarantee to overlook.

Irish Independent

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