Jamesie O'Connor: The four areas where All-Ireland final will be won and lost
With so many old foes set to renew acquaintances in the Liam MacCarthy showdown, this could be a clash for the ages
In January 2012, Liam Sheedy called me. He had stepped down from the Tipperary job after the 2010 All-Ireland victory, but had now agreed to manage the Munster Railway Cup team.
As was the case when he returned to the Tipp job last autumn, one of his first priorities was getting Eamon O'Shea on board. Eamon and I had stayed in contact from the time he coached me in NUIG in the early 1990s. Hence the phone call. I knew Waterford's Stephen Frampton would fit in well and that completed the backroom team. Unfortunately, a pre-planned family break abroad clashed with the semi-final versus Leinster, but I fancied us to go to Nowlan Park and win.
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When I rang Eamon on arriving back into Dublin airport that Sunday, the news wasn't good. Joe Dooley had selected a team containing ten Kilkenny players, with Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin, Michael Fennelly and Richie Hogan among them. When I asked how it had played out, Eamon summed it up succinctly. The Kilkenny boys were up for it. The bottom line was this: Liam Sheedy was in Kilkenny, and they intended to deliver a message.
Brian Cody mightn't have been directly involved, but for his players, derailing the five-in-a-row in 2010 hadn't been forgotten. Or forgiven. Payback of sorts. That's the Kilkenny mindset.
It's worth pointing out, though, that Sheedy was hell bent on turning it around a year later. We didn't get to meet Leinster, but everything was upbeat and positive, and silverware was delivered. That's his mindset.
Whatever hype there might be about Sheedy and Cody, today's All-Ireland final is all about the players. With so few of the protagonists from a decade ago still around, 2016 rather than 2010 is the better reference point. If Cillian Buckley plays, then ten of the Kilkenny 15 who started that day will take the field again. Tipp have 11 of the same faces.
These are two experienced sides. Yes, there are players on both teams starting in their first final. Yes, there are players on both sides getting on a bit. But when you have giants of the modern era, players who have given so much to the game - TJ Reid, Séamus Callanan, Brendan Maher, Richie Hogan, Pádraic Maher, Pádraig Walsh - on the field, giving their all, then this is a final to be savoured.
Kilkenny defence v Tipperary attack
Whatever else, the Kilkenny management know they can't allow Tipperary's forwards, especially Séamus Callanan, the space they were afforded in the 2016 final. The Kilkenny full-back line has had its troubles this season, and with the quality Tipp have, it requires protecting.
Paul Murphy is probably not the Paul Murphy of his prime four or five years ago, when he was the best corner-back in the game, but like Joey Holden in the other corner, he's still experienced and battle-hardened. Huw Lawlor at full-back has pace and athleticism, but he doesn't have that same bank of knowledge to draw on, and a lot will depend on how he copes on the edge of the square, especially with Callanan in such a rich vein of form. Cork's Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan created havoc in the quarter-final, and while none of Tipp's forwards possess the raw pace of Cadogan, they make up for it in guile and accuracy.
John McGrath will have done a lot of soul-searching in the three weeks since his dismissal in the semi-final. With a point to prove, and the finishing instincts of an assassin, he could be the key danger man Kilkenny have to stop.
In the second half against Cork, and again against Limerick, it was evident that the Kilkenny half-backs wanted to sit and not venture beyond their own '65. That only works if the midfielders and half-forwards come deep to facilitate it. In that regard, Kilkenny usually aren't found wanting. Both Cork and Limerick struggled to find space on their own puck-outs, and had difficulty getting consistent quality ball to their inside forwards. Kilkenny made sure the middle third became a war zone, especially in the semi-final. Even Limerick, with their power and physicality, struggled to come to terms with the ferocity and intensity the Cats brought to every ruck and tackle. This afternoon won't be any different.
Tipperary have so many accurate shooters - Bubbles O'Dwyer, Jason Forde, Noel McGrath, along with Callanan and John McGrath - that if they get the ball in their hands, scores will flow. But that's the kernel of it this afternoon. Can they get the ball into the hands of the shooters often enough?
Can they create the space required to engineer the goal opportunities that will win them this match? Limerick cut that supply off at source, Bubbles, McGrath and Callanan were denied any consistent possession, and irrespective of how good your forwards are, no team can score if they don't have the ball. That's the template Kilkenny are likely to follow.
I'm intrigued to see what the match-ups will be. Will Bubbles start at centre-forward? Will Noel McGrath play there? How far out the field will Pádraig Walsh follow him, if he does? Will Conor Fogarty and Paddy Deegan man-mark and be prepared to play in any of the six defensive positions, or largely hold their wing berths and play a more zonal game? How badly will Bonner Maher's loss be felt in a game that's likely to be as fiercely fought as this one?
If, and it's the key if, Tipp can mine enough primary possession, you'd expect they'll be more efficient than Limerick were against Kilkenny. The 15 wides the defending champions shot were ultimately what undid them, and at least five too many. This is where I see the match being won and lost.
There's no doubt that Conor Browne has given Kilkenny added energy and industry since coming into the team for the last two matches. He's mobile, athletic, abrasive, and exactly the type of midfielder Brian Cody's teams have typically possessed.
Beside him, Cillian Buckley's season may have been ravaged by injury, but to be picked ahead of James Maher and Richie Leahy would indicate he's getting healthier, and inching back to his best form. Having Buckley back in the starting side means that for the first time all season, Cody arguably has his best starting 15 on the field.
Browne has picked up the key opposition midfielder - Darragh Fitzgibbon and Cian Lynch respectively - in the last two matches, and largely negated their influence. Noel McGrath is a completely different player, but no less important, and the one who falls into that must-stop category. Outside of the Munster final, McGrath has been superb, and is in the conversation for Hurler of the Year. Whether at midfield or centre-forward, he looks to find those little pockets of space and from there, he doesn't need much time to get to work. He delivered two absolutely clutch scores in the last ten minutes of the semi-final, just after Conor McDonald's second goal when his side needed them most. It's also no surprise that he's credited with more assists for scores than any other player in the Tipp team, and his use of the ball is terrific. Will Browne be tasked with that job? Will it fall to the more experienced Buckley, leaving Browne to go with Michael Breen?
Of course there's no guarantee McGrath will operate at midfield. Liam Sheedy may view Dan McCormack as a better fit to go toe to toe with Kilkenny's athleticism there, and ensure that McGrath doesn't get tied down.
But given the likely levels of congestion in that area anyway, who starts where may be irrelevant.
Kilkenny attack v Tipperary defence
Any forward line that contains multiple All-Ireland winners TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Walter Walsh, and Richie Hogan, along with Adrian Mullen - perhaps the best young forward in the country - has to be respected. And John Donnelly showed flashes last year that he had what it takes to make it at this level, and after struggling to make the team all summer, he finally seems to have found his best form. Donnelly had more possessions in the first half of the Limerick match than any other player.
Like so many of the modern inter-county teams, Kilkenny have been withdrawing at least one of their inside forwards, to create space for Fennelly inside. It's been a regular sight to see him isolated one-on-one in space, and when the right ball is delivered in those circumstances he's been a major headache for the opposition. He asks questions of defenders, puts the head down, takes you on and draws lots of frees. He's accounted for 3-10 from play, gets more than his fair share of assists, and the timing of his first-half goals against both Cork and Limerick were big confidence boosters for the team.
Brendan Maher has been Tipp's go-to man-marker all year. But does he pick up TJ Reid, as many expect, or is the threat posed by Fennelly the more pressing problem?
In the Munster final, Maher was tasked with handling Aaron Gillane, and outside of one slip which Gillane exploited to put the ball across for Peter Casey's goal, he was flawless. Fennelly, however, is physically bigger and stronger, more direct and less likely to shoot from outside. Ronan or Pádraic Maher might be a better fit to mark him, but both prefer to play further out the field. It's a big call that Sheedy has to get right.
If Brendan Maher plays on Fennelly, then who picks up Reid? When he drifts outfield, Tipp can't afford to not follow him, but doing so leaves the middle wide open. Then there's Pádraic Maher. Kyle Hayes put him on the back foot from the off in the Munster final, and it's rare that Tipp's fear láidir is as inconspicuous as he was that afternoon. Limiting his impact would help Kilkenny's cause immensely. There'll be a plan for him. So pick your poison. It's fascinating just thinking about it.
Elsewhere, Richie Hogan also takes watching. The former Hurler of the Year hasn't been at his best, but he couldn't possibly be, given the back issues that have bedevilled him. We have seen flashes of his genius though. If he's had an uninterrupted run-in, where he's been able to play the training matches, he'll be sharper and more dangerous. Cathal Barrett may get that job, but if Hogan drags him away from goal, Tipp lose the cover skills and pace that Barrett brings to the full-back line.
No more than at the other end of the field, the match-ups, and getting them right, or conversely, mismatches that can be created will go a long way to determining the outcome. For every plan, there'll be a counter-plan. Can Kilkenny put this Tipp defence on the back foot, as Limerick did? Will the Tipp defence be able to exert the same dominance they enjoyed for much of the Munster campaign, and in the last 20 minutes against Wexford?
It's no coincidence, especially considering the responsibility and pressure the modern-day goalkeeper has to shoulder, that arguably the two most consistent performers between the posts all summer are in the final.
Eoin Murphy's all-round excellence means he remains the consensus number one goalkeeper in the country. His shot-stopping, handling and distribution have been as impressive as ever. With an array of targets to aim at on his own puck-out, he's still prepared to mix it up and go short if necessary. Throw in his accuracy from long-range frees and he's one of the most vital cogs in this team.
Brian Hogan has also had a really impressive year. He was one of the few Tipperary players to emerge from the wreckage of the Munster final with an intact reputation, pulling off a number of top-class saves. Admittedly, he may feel he should have done better with two of Wexford's goals in the semi-final. Nonetheless, he's grown into the position as the season has progressed, and there aren't too many other criticisms to be levelled at him over the seven-match campaign. If there's a concern, it's on the puck-out. Tipp aren't blessed with the same number of ball-winners as today's opponents, something Limerick went to town on. That won't have gone unnoticed in Kilkenny. Any repeat of that, where Callanan and co are starved of possession for prolonged periods, ratchets the pressure up on Hogan to find a solution. He may have to take a risk or two, to keep Kilkenny honest. It's vital he holds his nerve if one or two get picked off.
Put yourself in the shoes of Séamus Callanan, Noel McGrath, Brendan or Pádraic Maher this afternoon. You're into your 30s, with over a decade now spent in a Tipperary jersey. How many more chances are you going to have to get that third All-Ireland medal? How many more finals are you likely to play in?
Down the corridor, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan have seven medals each. Paul Murphy, Eoin Murphy, Conor Fogarty and Colin Fennelly have four. Walter Walsh and Cillian Buckley three, Pádraig Walsh and Joey Holden two. But does anyone really think that their appetites have been sated? TJ Reid could well utter the words 'the famine is over' if they do win, a full four years since their last All-Ireland - such is the level of success they've become accustomed to under Brian Cody.
I watched both semi-finals again last week. The tactics and match-ups on display were obviously hugely important. Still - and that's the beauty of this sport - trying to discern any great pattern amidst the helter skelter and chaos of it all was nigh on impossible at times.
I've oscillated one way and then the other all week about who comes out on top. I can't get it out of my head that there were far fewer instances in the semi-finals of the Tipp forwards forcing turnovers, compared to their Kilkenny counterparts. Kilkenny may try to turn this into the type of war that they're conditioned to win.
Then again, the semi-finals were two different types of matches. When you look at the resolve Tipp had to show - five points behind and a man down with under 25 minutes left - and how they ground it out, overcoming three disallowed goals, how can you question their desire or character?
I remember Shaun Edwards, the Welsh rugby defence coach, saying after they defeated Ireland in this year's Six Nations that you have to match the intensity of your opponents. That's a big ask considering the ferocity Kilkenny will bring. If Tipp do so, they have the forwards to win.
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