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Martin Breheny: Old order returns to face big questions in final act

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Tipperary's Patrick Maher evades the attentions of Kilkenny's Jackie Tyrrell during this year's Allianz League final in Thurles. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Tipperary's Patrick Maher evades the attentions of Kilkenny's Jackie Tyrrell during this year's Allianz League final in Thurles. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Tipperary's Patrick Maher evades the attentions of Kilkenny's Jackie Tyrrell during this year's Allianz League final in Thurles. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

The old order is back in charge as two of hurling's 'Big Three' return to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.

Following Galway's failure to wrest the title from Kilkenny in 2012, Clare last year broke a Kilkenny-Cork-Tipperary monopoly, which had reigned since 1999, when they beat the Rebels in a replay.

Now it's the turn of Kilkenny and Tipperary to resume final-day rivalry for the fourth time in five seasons, having previously met in 2009-'10-'11.

They do so in broadly similar circumstances to 2010, when Kilkenny arrived in the final as Leinster champions, while Tipperary had travelled via the qualifier route.

Tipperary shattered Kilkenny's dream and while the circumstances are different this time - neither side are defending All-Ireland champions - the stakes are equally high.

The Allianz League final, where Kilkenny beat Tipperary by a point in extra-time, followed by a high-quality championship campaign, has set the scene for what promises to be a fascinating occasion with a lot of questions to be answered.

Question: Is it advantage Kilkenny or Tipperary, based on whether All-Ireland winners travelled the direct route to the final or entered, via the back door?

Answer: Advantage Kilkenny. It's 12-5 to provincial winners since the championship system was changed for the first time in 1997.

Q: Is the balance changing? Didn't three of the last four All-Ireland winners come through the qualifiers?

A: Correct: Tipperary (2010), Kilkenny (2012) and Clare (2013) were all beaten in the provincial championships, but went on to win the All-Ireland title later that summer.

Q: Tipperary came through the qualifier route this year. Any similarities with 2010?

A: Yes, in the sense that they were beaten early in the Munster Championship as opposed to reaching the final, where the losers go directly into the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Tipperary had to play two qualifiers to reach the quarter-finals this year.

Q: How impressive have they been?

A: Take the first 50 minutes of the game with Galway out of the equation and they have been very imposing. They trailed Galway by six points 15 minutes into the second half and looked ready for the scrap yard, only to launch a remarkable revival. They outscored Galway (over the final 20 minutes), Offaly, Dublin and Cork by a total of 55 points (11-76 to 2-48).

Q: So what brought about the transformation?

A: Tipperary played very well at times in the Allianz League, but also had some dreadful days, mainly in February-March when they lost to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway in consecutive games. However, they finished the League well, beating Dublin, Cork and Clare, before losing the final by a point to Kilkenny.

Then, they lost to Limerick in the Munster semi-final and their supporters began to fear the worst. However, luck intervened to give them home advantage against Galway in the qualifiers and since putting together a late blitz in Thurles, they haven't looked back.

Q: Scoring 11-76 in 3hrs 50mins is serious stuff. Is the Tipperary attack something special?

A: It has been in those games. Seamus Callanan and John O'Dwyer have been their main marksmen, but the scores came from lots of other channels too, including midfield, where Shane McGrath and James Woodlock helped themselves to 0-3 each against Cork in the semi-final.

Q: Okay, so the Tipperary attack was always highly regarded, but weren't there big question marks about the defence?

A: Indeed. Tipperary conceded an average of almost 2-20 per game in eight League and one Championship outing, prior to the Galway game in the qualifiers. They were hit for three or more goals in four of those games. Kilkenny scored 5-20, Cork 4-19, Clare 4-15 and Galway 3-16 in the League.

Q: So what has brought about such a dramatic change to their security, which enabled them to keep the average concession rate down to 1-15 against Offaly, Dublin and Cork?

A: Omit the Offaly game and it dropped to a 1-12 average against Dublin and Cork. The big change came about with the positional swap between James Barry and Padraic Maher in the Galway game.

With Galway full-forward Jonathon Glynn giving Maher all sorts of problems, Tipp switched Barry to full-back. Maher moved out to the half-back line and suddenly it was as if a new locking system had been put in place. Maher returned to full-back against Offaly but Barry has manned the No 3 berth for the last two games. He has done well, while Maher has been superb in the half-back line.

Q: So Tipperary's defensive bolts are now firmly in place?

A: Yes, but they are about to be stress-tested to a degree they haven't previously experienced. The Dublin attack misfired against Tipperary in the quarter-final, while Cork's front men were even more inept in the semi-final. They managed only 0-11 in 65 minutes before grabbing a late goal. Kilkenny will be an altogether different proposition tomorrow afternoon.

Q: Has the Kilkenny attack been shooting out the lights?

A: Yes and no. They averaged 4-19 in the first three games against Offaly and Galway (draw and replay) but dropped to 1-19 in the Dublin-Limerick games. Interestingly, their strike rate has decreased with each game, starting from a high of 5-32 against Offaly. It dropped to 3-22 and 3-19 respectively for the two Galway games, was down to 0-24 against Dublin and fell to 2-13 against Limerick.

Q: Is that a worry for Brian Cody?

A: It has to be. They were always comfortable against Dublin, but would have liked to decorate Leinster final day with a few goals. Their 2-13 against Limerick was comprised of 1-9 in the first half and 1-4 in the second half. They went from the 40th to the 55th minutes without scoring, which is most unusual for Kilkenny. Granted, conditions were awful, but Limerick shot five points in that period and missed a few chances too. The Kilkenny attack were well beaten during that stretch.

Q: Are there any other negatives for Kilkenny that day?

A: No. In fact, the barren spell proved beyond doubt that the Kilkenny spirit was still very much intact. Limerick turned a three-point deficit into a two-point lead, heading into the final 15 minutes, only to be outgunned 1-2 to 0-1 from there on.

It was a horribly miserable day, the sort when an emerging team like Limerick might be expected to be hungrier than a side which has won so much.

However, Kilkenny dug in for a furiously intense finish. Such was the ferocity of their game that it appeared as if they hadn't won a title for 20 years and weren't going to take 'no' for an answer.

Q: Typical Kilkenny then?

A: Absolutely. It proved beyond doubt that however else they might be beaten, it won't be for lack of commitment or ambition.

Q: Last year was regarded as something of a watershed for Kilkenny when they were eliminated from the championship before the end of July, their earliest departure since 1996. Has much changed in the last year?

A: Not as much as many anticipated this time last year. Joey Holden and Padraig Walsh established themselves as regulars, Conor Fogarty was transformed into a midfielder and Henry Shefflin became a supersub, but otherwise it has been largely business as usual.

Q: Why didn't Brian Cody make more changes? After all, Kilkenny dropped back last year so surely some fresh faces were required in his team.

A: Only if they were good enough to displace the incumbents, which clearly wasn't the case. The automatic assumption is that Kilkenny's production lines deliver a constant flow of top talent. That's not always the case. The old hands saw off all-comers this year.

Q: Does Kilkenny's and Tipperary's performances against common opponents tell us anything?

A: They both played Galway and Dublin. Kilkenny were held to a draw by Galway but won the replay more comfortably than the eight-point margin suggests. Tipperary beat Galway by nine points, having trailed by six in the third quarter.

Kilkenny beat Dublin by 12 points; Tipperary beat them by 13, so the form lines have been fairly consistent.

Q: Which side has the psychological edge from recent clashes between the counties?

A: Kilkenny. They beat Tipperary in their last three championship meetings and won most of the League clashes too over the last few season.

Q: What type of game can we expect tomorrow?

A: Kilkenny-Tipperary clashes tend to be high-scoring affairs. Last year's qualifier tie was one of the lower-yield games (Kilkenny won by 0-20 to 1-14) but the previous four ties in 2012-'11-'10-'09, were all high-scoring.

Q: If the average from their last five clashes applied tomorrow, what would the score be?

A: Kilkenny 2-20 Tipperary 1-19

Irish Independent