Kilkenny v Tipperary: Three key battles that could swing the verdict in Sunday's All-Ireland decider
Three key battles that could swing the verdict in Sunday's decider.
Conor Browne v Noel McGrath
Ten minutes before half-time in Tipp’s All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford, selector Tommy Dunne instructed Noel McGrath to switch from centre-forward to midfield.
To that point, McGrath had tried to play a wandering role from the pivot of the Tipp attack. But with Wexford’s successful deployment of a sweeper, he found Paudie Foley in his shadow everywhere he moved.
From there until the end – but particularly in that rousing passage after his brother John was sent off – McGrath was an inspiration. He scored 0-4 and had a direct hand in another 0-7 of Tipp’s haul. Which makes him an target for Conor Browne. The Kilkenny rookie, who made his senior debut at wing-back in a league match against Tipperary last February, has revelled in his role as a ‘holding’ midfielder, in much the same style as Conor Fogarty in Kilkenny’s back-to-back All-Ireland winning teams of 2014 and ’15.
He nullified the creative forces of Cian Lynch in the semi-final but also showed the positional sense to anchor the Kilkenny midfield, filling the space around the 65 when Walsh dropped deep. Browne also has all the athleticism to make that middle third a war zone for Tipp.
TJ Reid v Brendan Maher
With 5-72 from seven games (12.42 points per match), TJ Reid is still behind Patrick Horgan’s average of 13.83 per match from six but he’ll finish the summer as hurling’s most prolific player unless he is held scoreless in the All-Ireland final on Sunday and Jason Forde manages to get 0-22.
Such is the extent of Reid’s influence on this Kilkenny team, it is seems pertinent at least to stage the debate about whether or not he is the greatest hurler to ever play the game.
Maher has been Tipp’s story of the summer.
At 29, there were no guarantees of a full recovery back to peak form after suffering a cruciate ligament rupture against Clare in Thurles last May.
Eleven months later in the Tipperary No 5 jersey on a day the Premier attack bamboozled Cork with their movement in the Munster SHC opener in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Maher was an inspiration, catching puck-outs and breaking lines.
The second of his two points that day was, arguably, the finest individual score of the afternoon.
His detail may be much more basic on Sunday, however. Reid has accounted for over 52 per cent of Kilkenny’s scores this summer.
Huw Lawlor v Seamus Callanan
There's no such thing as a soft apprenticeship for an inter-county full-back.
In his last three games, Lawlor – 23 – has marked Conor McDonald (0-4), Patrick Horgan (3-10, 1-0 pen, 0-8f) and Aaron Gillane 1-9 (1-0 pen, 0-6f).
It’s been quite an initiation for a man who made his first appearance for the Kilkenny seniors in the Wild Geese Trophy against Galway in Sydney last November.
On Sunday he’ll pitch up alongside Séamus Callanan, who has scored a goal in all seven of Tipp’s championship games to date and who, in the last championship meeting of the counties in the 2016 All-Ireland final, scored 0-9 from play.
Joey Holden was left cruelly exposed that day. Kilkenny’s half-back line went roaming with their men, vacating the area in front of Callanan.
The ball in from Ronan and Pádraic Maher that day was exactly the speed and height Callanan required.
Pádraig Walsh has been responsible for guarding the area in front of Lawlor this summer, most notably in Wexford Park in the last of the Leinster round-robin matches, when he played so close to the O’Loughlin’s man, he was almost an auxiliary full-back. Curbing Callanan will be a joint effort.