Thursday 13 December 2018

John Mullane: Two men hold the key for Kilkenny as Cody's empire bids to strike back

Skinning Cats in their back yard would pave way for Tipp glory - but Kilkenny have upper hand in final clashes

Padraig Walsh and Conor Delaney have big roles to play in the Kilkenny defence. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Padraig Walsh and Conor Delaney have big roles to play in the Kilkenny defence. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

John Mullane

I remember back in 2013, wondering what it would feel like for Tipperary if they managed to win a National League title against Kilkenny, in the old enemy's backyard.

Would it have propelled them on to further glory in the summer? As things worked out, it didn't. Tipp lost that League final at Nowlan Park - and they fell there against their neighbours in the Championship.

Contrast that to Kilkenny, who went to Thurles and won National League finals against Tipp in 2009 and 2014. In both years, they would also claim the Premier County's scalp on All-Ireland final day in thrillers.

But remember 2008, when Tipp beat the Cats at Nowlan Park in a League semi-final?

Winning there was the kick-start for the Liam Sheedy era. A victory of that nature can have massive psychological gains for Tipp, or any team that's managed to come out of Nowlan Park with a result during the Brian Cody era.

That's why tomorrow's League decider in Kilkenny city is so important for Tipp. Not only would a victory there bring Tipp a first League crown in 10 years, it would also send them into the summer with a pep in their step.

Tipp manager Michael Ryan doesn't need reminding of how losing heavily against Galway last year damaged his side.

The flip-side is what winning that League final at the Gaelic Grounds, and in such emphatic fashion, did for Galway.

Michael has got what he wanted from the League but once they reached the last four - and this was evident from last Saturday's semi-final win against Limerick - it was clear that Tipp wanted to win the competition.

He realises what a win tomorrow could do for his men.

Can we read too much into the result in the group stages?

Probably not, considering that both teams were down key personnel.

Tipp fell short in that encounter and that's been a trend over the last 10 years in big games between the sides. Kilkenny generally come out on the right side of them.

Another big question for me is this: have Tipp improved since 2017? I'm not sure yet.

I don't think they've come on defensively but their forward division has seen them through, even without some big players. Jason Forde has improved no end and that gives Tipp an added dimension up front.

Some might say that Tipp have an embarrassment of riches but that can sometimes work against you if you're rotating a panel, particularly when they're coughing up big scores. However, I have a theory as to why Michael might be mixing things up.

He may not want to come across as too predictable, hence why we're seeing players in positions we might not be accustomed to: Michael Breen in at corner-forward, for example, John McGrath on the wing, Barrett and Ronan Maher at midfield, Tomas Hamill to wing-back in the Limerick game, and the rotation of goalkeepers.

The manager will also be thinking about how to nullify TJ Reid, who remains ultra-consistent for Kilkenny, and who's still their 'go-to' guy.

It's a fantastic prospect in so many ways. Will Pádraic Maher tie down the centre or will Tipp opt for a zonal approach? Last year, Wexford deployed James Breen in a man-marking role on Reid in League and Championship - and it worked well.

Breen is not around this year and that was telling when the sides met in Wexford Park last weekend. Maybe Barrett could do a job on Reid, with Maher picking up Walter Walsh on the wing.

At the other end, Cody will feel that he has the right No 3 to take down Forde in Pádraig Walsh. If John McGrath stays on the wing, Cody could ask the highly impressive Conor Delaney to pick him up. Delaney was excellent on Wexford's Lee Chin last time out.

Beating Kilkenny and Cody on their home patch still remains a big ask for Tipp.

Since that last win in 2008, Tipp have lost four League finals, and they trail Kilkenny 6-2 in national deciders in that time. They'll be anxious to close that gap.

If this game was in Thurles, I'd be backing Tipp but I'm predicting that the Nowlan Park factor will shade it for the Cats - and secure a 20th national crown for Cody, in his 20th season at the helm.

I predicted that this would be an uncertain campaign for Kilkenny in a previous column - but added that they would be dangerous if they could unearth a few players.

There were suggestions that it was time for Cody to move on but I nailed my colours to the mast by insisting that there was no better man to oversee a transition.

Even though they lost their opening League match down in Cork, there were elements of Kilkenny's game that impressed me - and they've improved incrementally since then.

I wondered, in January, if the Empire could strike back. We'll have our answer tomorrow.

Big match prediction: Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 1-19.

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