John Mullane: Kilkenny are on the brink - Here are the 5 things Tipp must do to bring them down
Beating Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final is no easy task and Tipperary, more than any other county in recent times, understand this fundamental fact.
Tipp showed that it can be done with that famous victory six years ago, but Kilkenny have had the better of the September exchanges, winning finals in 2009, 2011 and again in 2014.
Here, I take a closer look at the five things that must happen for Tipperary to emulate their 2010 heroics . . .
1 Score goals and not concede them
Tipperary will need to score 24-26 points, while also ensuring that they don't concede goals.
In 2014, Tipp scored 1-28 in the drawn final (1-24 from play) but it still wasn't enough to win them the game. In 2009, a highly-respectable tally of 0-23 didn't suffice. In both games, Tipp missed serious goal opportunities.
Kilkenny goalkeeper PJ Ryan was man of the match in 2009 and two years ago, Tipp missed two penalties in the first match. On both occasions, if Tipp faced any other team, they would have picked up the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
What sunk them was conceding two goals in 2009, and three in 2014 (two more in the replay).
In 2010, however, they scored four goals and conceded just one. Tipp are now a team that thinks goals and scores goals but they've been generally solid at the back too, bar the concession of two against Galway.
If Waterford scored a goal in the drawn Kilkenny semi-final, they would have won the match, when you consider they registered 0-24. In that vein, I'm predicting that Tipp will need something like 2-20 or 3-17 to get over the line.
To score the goals required, Tipp will have to break down the Kilkenny half-back line. Clare, in the league semi-final, showed that Kilkenny can be got at but the Cats are a different animal now. They were without a number of key players that day, notably Paul Murphy in the full-back line, and with Kieran Joyce dragged out of his centre-back position, there was little protection behind.
There was no Conor Fogarty either against Clare but what you'll find tomorrow is the Kilkenny full-back and half-back lines staying close together, with their midfielders and half-forwards dropping back to provide extra cover. The only way for Tipp to break them down is to get ahead early. If Kilkenny are forced to chase the game, gaps may appear.
In 2010, the constant inter-changing of the Tipperary forwards helped them to win but if you remember the first goal, Lar Corbett was isolated one-on-one with Noel Hickey. I'd be amazed if a Tipp forward finds himself in a goalscoring position with that kind of space tomorrow.
2 Nullify Richie Hogan and TJ Reid
Easier said than done, but consider the following scenario: would Michael Ryan consider asking Pádraic Maher to pick up TJ Reid wherever he goes, and ask his best man-marker, Cathal Barrett, to shadow Richie Hogan?
If you can curb the influence of TJ and Richie, you're a long way towards winning the game. Michael will then trust his other four defenders to hold up against their Kilkenny opponents.
Michael won't need reminding that in the 2014 draw, TJ and Richie combined for 1-14 of Kilkenny's 3-22. In the league final earlier that year, it was that Reid-Hogan one-two in extra-time that broke Tipperary hearts. And in that same game, Richie and TJ hit 2-17 between them out of 2-25.
They've been the best two players in the country in recent seasons - both picking up Hurler of the Year gongs - and Richie is in the shake-up for the individual accolade again. So, how do you stop them? Perhaps Michael has to go down the Brian Cody route and pick players suited to playing on Richie and TJ. In my mind, Maher and Barrett fit the bill. There's a risk in taking Barrett out of corner-back and while Cody may decide to deploy Walter Walsh on Maher, why doesn't Maher go looking for TJ before the ball is thrown in?
TJ (below) is such a potential headache for Tipp because he could also play at midfield, dropping deep into his own half and delivering pinpoint ball up-field. The big issue for Tipp is that they're dealing with two of the most complete hurlers in the country.
3 Avoid a 'lull' period
This is crucial, while Tipp must also target the minutes before and after half-time. Tipp cannot afford any of those patches in matches where they fail to score.
In the 2014 replay, they went 11 minutes without raising a flag in the second half, just about hanging in there when they should have been kicking on.
In the Cork match earlier this year, they went 17 minutes without a score in the second half. Next time out against Limerick, they failed to score from the 11th to the 24th minute. In the All-Ireland semi-final, Tipp were scoreless from the 15th to the 32nd minute. You might get away with that against lesser opposition - but not Kilkenny.
If you go ten or 15 minutes without a score against them, they will inflict maximum damage at the other end, creating a buffer which will allow them push on and win the game.
Kilkenny are the masters of the vital periods before and after half-time. Three minutes before the break in 2010, Tipp led by six points, 1-10 to 0-7, and yet Kilkenny recovered to trail by just a point heading down the tunnel. Early in the second half, they drew level but then Tipp went into overdrive and hit 2-1 without reply.
That's what's required and Waterford homed in on not losing that 15-minute period after half-time in last month's drawn semi-final. If you can withstand the onslaught from Kilkenny, you have a chance to overcome them but if it's a case that Tipp go even five minutes without a score, they'll need to do something. It could be a player going down to break the play, engineer a free from somewhere or a moment of leadership where one of the Tipp players fires over a score.
More than any of that, it's about recognising that Kilkenny are building a head of steam - and stopping it before it becomes a hurricane.
4 Come with the required levels of intensity
We've seen so often how the skill levels of the Tipp players is off the charts but the 'bottle' question has hung over them on more than one occasion. When the intensity levels are not there, Tipp fail to deliver. That word, 'intensity', has been mentioned continuously by Michael Ryan since the Galway win and he knows that what they brought to the table last month won't be good enough tomorrow.
Bar 2010, and 2009 to an extent, Tipp have been trumped on big championship days by Kilkenny in the intensity stakes.
Players come and go but the intensity in Kilkenny's play remains constant. Tipp will need to match that, keep it going for the 73 or 74 minutes and if they do, the rest should fall into place.
Tipp must at least break even in both half-back/half-forward divisions, and midfield. Cody knew that Kilkenny struggled there against Waterford in the first game, and made plans accordingly for the replay.
In this key sector of the pitch, Tipp don't have to worry about the gladiatorial presence of Michael Fennelly - and that's a big plus.
Under Michael Ryan, Tipp have shown they are a different animal this year and I believe the levels of intensity they brought to the Munster final against Waterford were overlooked because of the 21-point margin between the teams. Tipp didn't get enough credit for that facet of their game.
Brendan Maher landed Kevin Moran out over the sideline and in the All-Ireland semi-final, Pádraic Maher made that huge hit on Joe Canning.
Moran and Canning are proper men and don't fall too easily but in those two moments alone, we saw the improvement in Tipp's strength levels.
5 Get it right with the starting 15 and subs
Finals are won not only on the field, but on the touchline too. Tipp's starting 15 was revealed last night and Ryan had a big decision to make. He will have spent plenty of time agonising over whether or not to hold John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer or spring him maybe 40 minutes into the game.
I'd start Bubbles and get as many minutes as possible out of him but Michael will remember that when he was a selector in 2010, substitutions worked a treat as Seamus Callanan, Benny Dunne and Seamus Hennessy all made scoring contributions off the bench.
This time, Ryan can call upon one from Bubbles or Niall O'Meara, and Jason Forde is another attacking option.
Against Kilkenny, there's no margin for error. Tipp left Brendan Maher out of their team in 2011 and paid a heavy price.
As I discussed last Monday, Cody is the master of match-ups and he will gamble. Now it's time for Michael Ryan to roll the dice.