Jamesie O'Connor: Kilkenny look more comfortable with their new style of play - but Tipp have the greater weapons
Trivia question: of the 30 Tipperary and Kilkenny players who paraded before the 2016 All-Ireland hurling final, just 19 months ago, how many started in the league semi-finals last weekend? Fewer than you might think. 20? 15? Guess again. Less than half - a mere 13 of the same personnel lined out from the throw-in - 43 per cent to be precise.
Admittedly, another five came off the bench last Saturday and Sunday, four of whom are likely to be automatic championship starters. But that still means a 40 per cent player turnover in the space of a year and a half.
How do you explain it? With the new championship format, unearthing fresh talent and solid back-up players was always going to be a priority this spring. Tipperary will play four championship matches in the space of 21 days, so the depth of their panel - and everyone else's - is going to be tested. Hence the greater level of experimentation than was previously the case.
Injuries are another obvious mitigating factor. Some of the more notable absentees - Seamus Callanan and Richie Hogan for example - fall into that category, while army peacekeeping duties account for the omission of Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly. But it's still interesting that the teams that have reached today's final used more players during this campaign than any of their rivals.
Of course the deeper pool of playing talent available to Michael Ryan and Brian Cody has a lot to do with that as well. Ryan in particular, though, gave game time to players on the fringes when other managers would have reverted to type and rolled out the established starters.
In terms of assessing the depth in his squad, he's wiser as a result, and I think he has played a blinder in how he rotated the team and shepherded his resources. The broader panel is a happier camp, the older players are fresher and while the likes of Alan Flynn, Willie Connors, Billy McCarthy and Paudie Feahan mightn't make the starting 15 come May, they've shown they can survive at this level.
In Kilkenny's case, the number of players used is a nod to the fact that the team needed freshening and an infusion of youth. I was in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on the opening night when they narrowly lost to Cork, and there were eight changes from the side that started that game to last Sunday. That was a game they could just as easily have won, and the spirit, work-rate and effort Cody places such a premium on has been evident throughout the campaign. He mightn't admit it, but after losing the first two matches, he must be thrilled to be back in the final and with the progress his side has made.
He wouldn't have expected anything less than the leadership provided by the spine of the team. In the central positions, Pádraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley at the back, along with TJ Reid and Walter Walsh up front, have been excellent. What must please him is how some of the other pieces of the jigsaw seem to be fitting into place around them. The full-back line looks settled. Richie Leahy and James Maher have done really well at midfield, with Martin Keoghan and John Donnelly looking the part up front.
Stylistically, there's also a definite shift in how the team is playing. The two games Kilkenny lost in last year's championship were to sides playing with a sweeper - Wexford and Waterford - and they paid the price for lumping the ball down the throats of Shaun Murphy and in particular Tadhg de Búrca.
Kilkenny have never been slow to adapt, hence the greater emphasis on working the ball out from the back, using it more judiciously and playing around the extra defender. They're growing more comfortable with it by the week - many of the younger guys have been exposed to that possession style with their colleges anyway - and Murphy had minimal impact on the game last weekend.
If the style of play has changed, what hasn't is the intensity, work rate and hard edge that characterises every side Cody puts on the field. Wexford were unbeaten at home under Davy Fitzgerald, in league and championship, so to go to Wexford Park, score 1-27 and win by nine was impressive. Admittedly, Wexford were flat. The exertions of the Galway game seven days earlier were a factor, but (and you might have heard this one before) they couldn't live with the greater hunger and work rate Kilkenny brought.
If Kilkenny's 1-27 was impressive, what about the 2-31 Tipp put on the board less than 24 hours earlier? That may have included extra-time, but Callanan, Noel McGrath, and 'Bonner' Maher didn't play, and 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer only appeared 10 minutes into the second half. Jason Forde has been a revelation, Ronan Maher looks to have a new lease of life out at midfield and Darragh Mooney has consolidated himself as first choice between the posts.
Nowlan Park is not an easy place to get a result, and Tipperary haven't won there since 2008. They've had the opportunities, especially on their last couple of visits, but yet haven't been able to get it done. Further motivation comes from the fact that Brendan Maher and some of the older Tipp players have played in four league finals and have yet to win one. Three of those four defeats have been at the hands of Kilkenny. They surely can't contemplate another. When the sides met back at the end of February, and the game was in the melting pot, Michael Ryan wisely resisted the temptation to unleash Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath from the bench. One or other of them may well have swung the match Tipp's way, especially given the solitary point Kilkenny had to spare at the end.
There'll be no such hesitation today. Tipp have the greater weapons on the bench and overall, look the stronger side. Tipp to win.
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