Cats have learned lessons from last year's final day heartbreak -- Fennelly
ONE Kilkenny player who will have more motivation than most on Sunday is midfielder Michael Fennelly.
Going into last year's All-Ireland final he had never lost a championship game in his five years as a county senior, and he had been captain in 2009.
For a young man from a storied Kilkenny hurling family, who already had one minor, two U-21 and four senior All-Ireland medals tucked into his belt, losing was a particularly unfamiliar and chastening experience.
"I suppose we'd been on such a great run that you can't really complain," says the 26-year-old banker. "It had to end at some stage probably but unfortunately it happened at the worst time, in an All-Ireland final.
"We were out in Citywest afterwards and there was no 'Sunday Game' (presence) in the hotel or anything like that. Then on Monday there was the homecoming. That was very tough."
And the hurt didn't end there. Three nights later Fennelly returned to club training with long-time county champions Ballyhale Shamrocks but, without the injured Henry Shefflin, their domestic 'drive for five' also failed.
Whatever doubts were already there got even worse when Fennelly was injured and missed this year's Allianz League final when the Cats suffered a shock defeat by Dublin.
"Missing any game for Kilkenny is hard but looking at that you were wondering, 'are we after taking a few steps backwards or are Dublin after taking a couple of steps forward? Where are we lying? Are we even in the top four in Ireland or what's the story?'," Fennelly reveals candidly.
"It was worrying times alright, but we had the likes of Tommy Walsh and Henry to come back into the team," he points out, modestly excluding himself from the notable list of absentees that day.
Normal service has since been restored but Fennelly admits that this year's final still "feels a bit surreal" and not just because it's his first experience of entering one not saddled with the reigning champions and favourites tag.
"I think it's because normally we go through the likes of Cork or Galway," he says. "There's great history between ourselves and Cork in the last decade and any time we play Galway that's always danger territory -- they're capable of doing anything.
"I thought we might meet them in the semi-finals this year but it turned out to be Waterford. I suppose it was the fact that we played Wexford too, a local enough derby, then Dublin, only up the road from us, then Waterford, our next-door neighbours, and now Tipp, more next-door neighbours. It's all been quite local this year!"
His younger brother Colin (22), an All-Ireland U-21 winner in 2008, has also broken into the team this year at corner-forward but is not certain to make Sunday's starting 15 after a hamstring tear three weeks ago.
Fennelly can't allow that to distract him from one of the most important roles in the Kilkenny team and says he took several important lessons from the 2010 final.
"We'll be trying to create space for our forwards because last year it got very crowded. Looking back at the video, our half-forward and full-forward line kind of all closed in together.
"That really suits a back because you're hitting off one lad and then another very quickly."
And he is expecting midfield to again be a minefield.
"Last year you'd the likes of Gearoid Ryan back in my spot nearly and (Patrick) 'Bonner' Maher dropping back on the other side.
"Ryan was even in the half-back line or even deeper at one stage.
"Tipp's forwards have a licence to roam and it's working for them," Fennelly says. "Obviously you have to roam with sense and with opportunity. Waterford tried to do it a year or two ago and it didn't work for them but it certainly works for Tipp and we have to counteract that.
"We've seen it a lot more of it this year, they're popping up everywhere. Eoin Kelly could be out half-forward, (Seamus) Callanan could be inside, anyone of them could be anywhere, that's the problem for us but that's the challenge too, to look after that and come up with a plan against it.
"I'd say both sides will be looking at maybe the same tactic, half-forwards dropping out, midfield will be bunched, but a lot of that is really down to work-rate and who's the hungrier for it."