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Kilkenny grip Tipperary in tight mental bind for final

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Kilkenny's Henry Shefflin and Michael Cahill of Tipperary shake hands after the drawn All-Ireland hurling final. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Kilkenny's Henry Shefflin and Michael Cahill of Tipperary shake hands after the drawn All-Ireland hurling final. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Kilkenny's Henry Shefflin and Michael Cahill of Tipperary shake hands after the drawn All-Ireland hurling final. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

If sport can offer a viable definition of frustration through results, then Tipperary's experiences against Kilkenny over four seasons present the ultimate spreadsheet.

One win from ten Championship and League clashes - an Allianz League tie in Thurles last year - stands as Tipperary's sole success since the start of 2011.

That was not the direction the script appeared to be headed when Tipperary beat Kilkenny in the 2010 All-Ireland final. Indeed, Tipperary supporters regarded that success as a changing of the guard, the start of a new, exciting era when Liam MacCarthy would have regular September dates in Thurles.

In the 2009 final, Tipperary had troubled Kilkenny far more than the Cats' five-point winning margin suggested and a year later, Liam Sheedy's high-scoring machine cranked up for an eight-point win in the All-Ireland final, fuelling expectations that the good times were about to get better, especially when the U-21s completed the big double six days later.

It didn't develop that way. Kilkenny resumed normal service in the opening Allianz League game of 2011, beating Tipp by seven points in Thurles. Seven months later, Kilkenny beat Tipp by four points in the All-Ireland final.

And, with the exception of last year's League, that trend continued up to this year's All-Ireland final. Of course, it could be argued that Tipp broke the run in this year's League final, which went to extra-time in another high-scoring shoot-out. However, they lost by a point, which added to the disappointment, even if Eamon O'Shea moved quickly to dispel it.

"There was no difference between the teams - we lost by a point (after 90 minutes). I don't believe in lucky and unlucky. My players were outstanding. Anyone that criticised this group of players needs to think again," he said.

In reality, Tipp were unlucky, since they had what looked like a perfectly good point by Noel McGrath waved wide in normal time, while a shot by Colin Fennelly was signalled as a point when it looked to have drifted wide. That's a two-point swing in a game that, officially, finished level.

Hawk-Eye's intervention on John O'Dwyer's late free in the drawn All-Ireland final 18 days ago may have cost Tipp the title, just as the absence of the score-checking technology from Semple Stadium may have robbed them of the League crown. Effectively, Tipp could now be League and All-Ireland champions.

O'Shea made no issue of the disputed points in Thurles and obviously accepted Hawk-Eye's call a few weeks ago. Still, it must have dawned on him how narrow the margins have been for Tipp as they attempt to nudge their neighbours off the highest throne.

Brian Cody talks repeatedly about how little there is between the top six or seven counties, but he is doing so from a position where Kilkenny have beaten all of them far more often than they lost during his 16 seasons in charge.

The results from 27 League and Championship clashes between Kilkenny and Tipperary since 1999 show Cody's men leading 18-7 with two draws. It's 6-1 with one draw from eight Championship meetings since 2002.

The degree of dominance Kilkenny have enjoyed has to be good for Kilkenny's psychological well-being when they play Tipp.

Cody would never admit that, of course, but positive experiences must be of help when the temperature is at its highest, as it almost invariably is when this pair clash.

However, there are counter-arguments to support Tipperary's case. The closing minutes of the drawn final were played out in circumstances that Tipperary will find hugely encouraging.

When TJ Reid pointed a free to put Kilkenny three points clear after 66 minutes, it presented Tipperary with a massive test of their resolve.

The response was two-fold in its efficiency. Not only did they score three points, they also prevented Kilkenny from adding to their total before O'Dwyer had that long-range chance to win it.

Having scored 2-11 since half-time, it was surprising that Kilkenny didn't manage at least one more score but, for whatever reason, the balance swung quite decisively Tipp's way.

That period may well have gone quite some way to correcting the psychological imbalance, caused by Tipp's poor record against Kilkenny.

Granted, Tipp didn't win, but the confident manner in which they took on the challenge in the closing stages of such an energy-sapping encounter points to a new sense of confidence that will have delighted O'Shea and his co-selectors Paudie O'Neill and Michael Ryan. After all, Kilkenny are the proven experts at closing out a game.

Daunting

Of course, Tipperary's strong finish will count for nothing unless they win the replay, a daunting task against opposition who are in back in familiar territory, having drawn with Galway in the final two years ago.

Then, as now, it was the opposition who drew level, supposedly giving them a psychological edge going into the replay, but it yielded no dividend for Galway, who were blown apart in the final quarter, en route to losing by 11 points.

Away from the conundrum of whether Kilkenny or Tipperary have the psychological advantage for Saturday's final, there's no doubt which is favoured by the law of averages, an unpredictable influence that can never be discounted.

The only certainty about any sequence is that it will end eventually. And since Tipp haven't beaten Kilkenny in any of their last four Championship clashes over three years, they will feel that they are due a break, especially after coming so close the last day.

Since there's nothing that can be done about the law of averages, Kilkenny will ignore it.

Ultimately though, it could be just as significant as the many other considerations that surround a game brimming with endless possibilities.

Irish Independent