John Mullane: It's a battle between Reid and Callanan to become hurling's greatest showman
Eamon O’Shea’s role will be crucial as Premier look to bamboozle Cats and create space for their forwards to flourish
Some things change but the rivalry between Kilkenny and Tipperary has stayed the same and it’s fitting that we finish an epic decade of hurling exactly the same way as we started.
An era of dominance was predicted when Tipp landed Liam MacCarthy nine years ago under Liam Sheedy but his departure signalled a rough few years for the Premier.
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They may not have ruled as many expected but All-Ireland honours in 2016 – combined with another success this weekend – would make them the first Tipp side to land the All-Ireland three times in one decade since the great team of the 1960s.
That would cement their brilliance while Brian Cody will enhance his status as the greatest GAA manager of all time should he secure his 12th All-Ireland triumph – and his greatest yet – in what has the makings of another classic.
KILKENNY’S BIGGEST CONCERNS
Tipp went to town in the ’16 final, creating acres of space for their full-forward line to operate in with Seamus Callanan sending over nine magnificent points from play in one of the great final displays.
Cody will have developed a plan to minimise that space and I don’t see history repeating itself with Pádraig Walsh sitting in front of the ‘D’, offering protection for rookie full-back Huw Lawlor.
The Cats will go the same route that served them well against Limerick with each line dropping back to make the middle third a war zone, as Cody will be anxious to keep goal chances at a premium.
How do the Kilkenny defenders negate the movement of the Tipp forwards without losing their shape? Cody is not one to worry but it’s essential that they are not taken on another tour of Croke Park.
Noel McGrath is Tipp’s playmaker and nullifying his influence is essential. Outside of the Munster final, he’s been a revelation at midfield. He is the link player from defence to attack, everyone looks to give him the ball and he makes it talk.
Conor Browne has been outstanding since coming on the scene after the Leinster final and looks sure to land the unenviable task of picking him up having curtailed Darragh Fitzgibbon and Cian Lynch – last year’s All-Star midfield pairing – in his last two games.
TIPPERARY’S BIGGEST CONCERNS
TJ Reid. He tormented Tipp when giving a tour de force in last year’s league final – hitting 15 points and lording it in the air – and he can’t be marked zonally; someone will have to pick him up wherever he goes as he can hurt you from anywhere.
Brendan Maher has picked up the opposition’s danger man in every game this summer and his versatility makes it a no-brainer that he is the man for the job.
Reid has been held scoreless from play in their last two games but his influence has been massive with an unbelievable ability to win dirty ball, earn frees and bring other players into the game – so Maher’s role is crucial.
Tipp must match Kilkenny’s intensity in that middle third and they cannot afford to switch off or there will be trouble ahead.
When Tipp hit their purple patch, they need to make hay on the scoreboard because teams regularly dominate Kilkenny in terms of possession, yet still find themselves losing where it matters most.
While everyone is talking about stopping Colin Fennelly and Reid, halting Adrian Mullen’s gallop is huge as he has been a revelation and could prove himself a man for the big occasion yet again having excelled in the All-Ireland club final in March.
The middle third is key and Tipp must focus on winning aerial ball in a crowded area. Without Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, they may struggle in that area yet again and Sheedy will no doubt try to address his.
TACTICS AND MATCH-UPS: Kilkenny
Kilkenny won’t want a shoot-out and will go the same route as they did against Limerick by flooding the middle third. But can they reach the same levels of aggression and ravenous hunger that downed the Treaty?
I’d expect them to alternate the positioning of their four most senior players in attack: Reid, Fennelly, Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan, and keep Tipp guessing, but it’s the likes of John Donnelly and Mullen and their use of the bench that can be the match-winners for Cody.
The battle between Lawlor and Callanan is the key duel but if Kilkenny prevail, I can see Eoin Murphy (below) playing a leading part like PJ Ryan did 10 years ago with a man-of-the-match display.
Murphy’s all-round game – sweeping behind the full-back line, long deliveries, expert free-taking and shot-stopping – offers so much to the Cats and he will need to be at his best once again.
Stopping Noel McGrath will also be pivotal for Kilkenny to land their 37th title, with the inexperienced Browne set to have a huge bearing on the result.
TACTICS AND MATCH-UPS: Tipperary
The role of Tipp coach Eamon O’Shea will be massive as they try to bamboozle Kilkenny and create the space needed for their star-studded attack to shine.
Bringing in Seamus Kennedy and Barry Heffernan made Tipp more secure at the back and more versatile to take down Kilkenny as both can play anywhere across the six positions, if Tipp do designate some man-markers, as expected.
Heffernan can pick up Fennelly or Walsh in the full-back line and he could find himself alongside Ronan Maher, who was outstanding in the closing stages of the Wexford game when manning the edge of the square.
Cathal Barrett will surely pick up Hogan but Brendan Maher on Reid will be crucial if it plays out as expected.
The use of Tipp’s bench in the last quarter is key and like Kilkenny, they have the trump cards to win it off the bench.
This is most certainly the greatest show but who is going to be the greatest showman? Will it be Reid or Callanan and can Cody rewrite the history books having bounced back from Leinster final defeat?
If they prevail, I’d love to see Reid call Cody up the steps of the Hogan Stand to collect Liam MacCarthy. He may not be interested in doing it but it would be fitting as I can’t remember him lifting the cup or going up to soak in the fruits of his efforts at any stage as manager.
Sheedy could become the first manager to beat Cody in two All-Ireland finals and cement his ‘Messiah’ status among Premier folk.
It’s hard to separate the sides but when all is said and done, it will come down to two things.
If it’s a high-scoring, open game and Tipp find space, they have the firepower to prevail while if it’s a tight, condensed affair without big tallies, Kilkenny will dig it out.
It could essentially come down to the two captains, Reid and Callanan, both vying for Hurler of the Year. Whoever does the most damage can become the greatest showman and pick up the show’s greatest prize.