Cats hoping Tipp's agony endures in Nowlan cauldron
KILKENNY will harness the Nowlan Park atmosphere in a very special way on Saturday evening as they seek to use home comforts to boost their bid to stay in the All-Ireland championship race.
The team – and indeed the supporters –regard it as unthinkable that the All-Ireland title would be surrendered on a ground which has honed so much outstanding talent over the years and housed the legendary training sessions which have been a ritual in the Brian Cody era.
Kilkenny have been unbeaten in Nowlan Park in competitive games since losing to Galway in the Allianz League in March 2010, going down by a point (2-21 to 1-23) after Iarla Tannian scored a last-minute goal for the visitors.
Since then, they have played 10 league games at home, winning them all, including this year's final where they beat Tipperary by three points in early May. Nowlan Park has always been a real fortress for Kilkenny but Tipperary will be encouraged by the memory of the 2008 league semi-final when they crossed the border and beat Kilkenny by five points.
It was a significant win for Tipperary who prevented Kilkenny reaching the league final for a fourth successive year.
Prior to this year's league final, Tipperary's most recent visit to Nowlan Park was in February 2012 when they lost by eight points (2-17 to 0-15).
Playing in Thurles has never presented Kilkenny with any problems but Tipperary have been much less successful on the return journey. Their 2008 win was a rare success and a year later, they lost to Kilkenny by 5-17 to 1-12 in Nowlan Park.
Tipperary recovered and reached the league final where they lost to Kilkenny after extra-time in Thurles. The 2010 and 2011 divisional league games were also played in Thurles with Kilkenny winning both.
It now remains to be seen how Tipperary cope with playing such a big championship game in a venue that tends to have an intimidating effect on opposition. Tipperary will be delighted to have had the experience of playing in Nowlan Park in the league final only two months ago, especially since they lost by only three points after being hit for two goals by Michael Fennelly in the opening 20 minutes.
Tipperary staged a spirited fightback, before eventually losing narrowly. Neither they, nor Kilkenny, had any idea at the time that they would be back in Nowlan Park battling for their championship lives less than nine weeks later.
If Kilkenny lose, it will be their earliest exit from the All-Ireland championship since 1996, while Tipperary were last eliminated this early in 1999.
While the qualifiers have been played under various formats over the past decade, there's no doubt that this is by far the biggest clash since all counties beaten in the provinces were given a second chance for the first time in 2002.
It's estimated that if the game were played in Thurles or Croke Park, it would attract at least 40,000 spectators but Kilkenny won the right to stage it at home and will be hoping Nowlan Park provides a crucial advantage in a contest for which they are 5/6 favourites with Tipperary at 11/10.