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Even King Henry may not be able to loosen Tipp's grip on crown

Predicting the 2011 All-Ireland hurling finalists called for little more than a glance back over the last few seasons, but forecasting the winner requires a special relationship with mystic powers not normally available to mere mortals.

For every argument that Kilkenny's obsession to regain the title as part of the healing process for the squandering of the five-in-a-row opportunity last year, there's a counter case for suggesting that their defeat was down to the arrival of a superior force.

And for each claim that Tipperary altered the axis on which the hurling world had spun for so long, there's the alternative view that their 2010 triumph was heavily influenced by injuries to Henry Shefflin, he went off after 13 minutes, and Brian Hogan, who missed out altogether.

No, this is a final where each theory -- irrespective of how persuasively put -- has a readily available antidote. In the circumstances, it's best to stick with instinct. Mine tells me it's Tipperary for the double, provided they perform at the full range of their capabilities.

Their graph has been on the rise since early 2009 and reached a new peak in last year's final. The aberration against Cork in the 2010 Munster quarter-final was seen to be just that and, since then, they have won nine successive championship games.

That's a long way short of Kilkenny's 21 in a row between June 2006 and last September, but it's still an impressive sequence. What's more, most of the wins have been by wide margins.

Kilkenny haven't exactly been uncomfortable this summer either, but the big question is whether they are capable of soaring even higher than they did at any time in the 2006-2009 four-in-a-row run.

They will need to if they are to win because Tipperary have more power than anything the Cats met in that period, with the exception of Cork in the 2006 All-Ireland final.

Tipperary weren't especially impressive against Dublin in the semi-final, but, in many ways, it was perfect preparation as it reminded the forwards, in particular, of what it's like to have a defence virtually arm-wrestling you for air.

Lar Corbett, Eoin Kelly, Noel McGrath and Co rampaged through Munster virtually unchallenged and badly needed to be tested physically and psychologically before engaging with Kilkenny.

They survived Dublin's conven-tional weapons and must now pre-pare for Kilkenny's nuclear bombs.

Hogan's return to the Kilkenny defence strengthens them from last year (remember how much progress Tipperary made on down-the-middle raids), so the question is: have the Tipp attack improved since then? Only the intensity of tomorrow's challenge can answer that.

Kilkenny's front-line is unquestionably strengthened by the return of a fully-fit Shefflin, whose absence for most of last year's final was significant.

The brood badly missed Mother Hen, not only in terms of an individual contribution, but also as a leader and a headache-inducing distraction for the Tipp defence.

There were times when Kilkenny forwards gallantly took on the Tipperary defence, but their running lines were too predictable and their approach lacked unity, whereas Shefflin would have been pointing, directing and organising while also drawing markers into channels, creating clear openings for his colleagues.

Instead, he had to watch sadly from the stands.

It will be interesting to see where Kilkenny deploy Shefflin tomorrow. He tends to visit several forward locations, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't spend some time in the left corner to test Paddy Stapleton.

That particular patch of ground has yielded some crucial goals for Shefflin against various defences over the years, so he is likely to try it out again.


Mention Shefflin's possible influence and you're drawn back towards Kilkenny.

But then that's the thing about a final which is wrapped tightly in so many imponderables that it's probably futile to nominate the key ones.

Who, for instance, would have thought that Kilkenny would have conceded four goals in last year's final? Who would have envisaged Noel Hickey conceding the first goal so easily to Lar Corbett, who went on to score two more?

And when Kilkenny recovered from a slow start (they trailed 1-7 to 0-4 after 20 minutes) to draw level four minutes into the second half, nobody would have foreseen them being outscored by 3-7 to 0-8 from there on. After all, that's usually the point when Kilkenny kick on.

There are so many fascinating possibilities about tomorrow's final there seems no limit to the heights it can reach.

A word of caution, though. Sometimes the most eagerly-awaited contests in any sport don't quite live up their billing, although in this case, it could afford to drop back from the last two years and still produce a memorable encounter.

Tipperary to edge it and retain the All-Ireland title for the first time since 1965.

Verdict: Tipperary

Tipperary -- B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Curran, M Cahill; J O'Keeffe, C O'Mahony, Padraic Maher; G Ryan, S McGrath; S Callanan, N McGrath, Patrick Maher; E Kelly, J O'Brien, L Corbett.

KILKENNY -- D Herity; P Murphy, N Hickey, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, JJ Delaney; M Fennelly, M Rice; E Brennan, R Power, H Shefflin; C Fennelly, E Larkin, R Hogan.

Irish Independent