Saturday 24 March 2018

More scope for Cats improvement in search for 35th crown

Kilkenny and Tipperary take almost identical records into Croke Park
Kilkenny and Tipperary take almost identical records into Croke Park
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If figures don't lie, there's a distinct possibility that this evening's All-Ireland final replay will head into extra-time.

After that, who knows?

In what is quite probably the most remarkable scoring sequence in Championship history, Kilkenny and Tipperary take almost identical records into Croke Park for the latest instalment in a rivalry that has fascinated the sporting public right throughout GAA history.

Kilkenny (16-132) and Tipperary (15-135) have accumulated precisely the same points total (180) from six games. If that's not unusual enough, their concession rate shows a mere one-point difference.

Kilkenny have conceded 9-105 (132), while Tipperary have given away 11-100 (133). And since both played Offaly, Galway, Dublin and Limerick, plus each other, it looks a very reliable form line.

Granted, Tipperary lost to Limerick, whereas Kilkenny beat them, but all the evidence points to Eamon O'Shea's squad being much better now than when they lost the Munster semi-final in early June.

Away from the Championship, the Allianz League provides additional evidence, which suggests that there's so little between Kilkenny and Tipperary that a speck of dust could tip the balance. They drew in the League final, before Kilkenny won by a point in extra-time.

Against that intriguing background, every argument that one of the other will win this evening's clash can be countered with an equally convincing theory. Still, barring another draw, Liam MacCarthy will know his winter destination by nightfall.

So where will it be? Kilkenny for a 35th time or Tipperary for 26th time?

My vote goes to Kilkenny, on the basis that they survived - indeed they came very close to winning - the drawn game without getting anything like maximum performances from quite a few players.

Of course, there's no guarantee that they will improve today but, if they do, it could prove the tie-breaker.

Colin and Michael Fennelly, Eoin Larkin, JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell are among those who are capable of better than they displayed the last day.

Joey Holden, Brian Hogan and Walter Walsh have paid the price for moderate performance by being replaced as Brian Cody delves into his panel, the depth of which he has always held as being central to Kilkenny's successes.

Obviously, there's room for improvement in the Tipperary line-up too, although perhaps not as much as in an opposition which proved two years ago just how different they can be between draw and replay.

Many of the strengths which earned Galway a draw in the 2012 final were neutralised by Kilkenny in the replay. And while the dismissal of Cyril Donnellan in the second half had a significant impact, it's unlikely that it was worth the 11 points by which Kilkenny won.

Since then, Kilkenny's reputation as replay specialists took a hit when Dublin beat them in last year's Leinster semi-final, but then they never functioned at full efficiency in the 2013 Championship.

They are much different this year, having remained the only unbeaten team in the campaign.

And yet, they were somewhat lucky to survive against Tipperary three weeks ago. For while they led by four points around the hour mark, they would have lost if John O'Dwyer's late free had been six inches further to the left.

Earlier, Tipperary had created several goal chances, but converted only one, a return rate which could prove fatal on another day. They will feel that if they replicate the energy levels and are a little more precise around goal, they can complete the assignment but the question is: will they get as many opportunities?

Probably not. And if that's the case, Kilkenny will score enough to win.

Irish Independent

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