Flip of a coin but Tipp have greater room to improve
A good start is vital, but Tipp have what it takes to edge out their rivals, says Jamesie O'Connor
As All-Ireland semi-final wins go, the Galway management have to be awfully satisfied with how events transpired last weekend. Below par for much of the first half against opponents who must have taken great heart from going in level at half-time, Galway had questions to answer, and it was as much a test of character as anything else. That they had to dig deep to come through without playing near their best is a huge positive to take into the final.
So while last weekend's game went along predictable lines, trying to draw a conclusion on today's outcome has been anything but. Assuming they set up as expected, with Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice sitting in front of their half-back line, then breaking Kilkenny down represents a huge challenge for Tipperary.
Tommy Walsh was back in form against Limerick, Brian Hogan returns from injury and with JJ Delaney manning the edge of the square flanked by Jackie Tyrrell and Paul Murphy, a premium will be placed on denying Tipp the space to cause real damage.
In 2010, Tipp not only had a clearly-defined strategy to open Kilkenny up, but also the pace and players in form to execute it. Last year, Kilkenny identified who they needed to stop most, went man for man, and with increased levels of aggression, the counter-measures ensured there was no repeat.
It'll be interesting to see if Kilkenny opt to go man to man again today and what the match-ups will be, especially with Lar Corbett selected on the wing. They may also just opt to trust the system, take their usual positions and pick up whoever comes their way. However, because they're the ones most likely to hurt Kilkenny, Corbett and Noel McGrath can expect to have close company.
For Tipp to win, they are going to require a couple of goals, so the question is where are they likely to come from? While it's understandable that Tipp would want to keep Corbett away from Jackie Tyrrell, or JJ Delaney for that matter, it's vital for them that he operates where he can hurt Kilkenny most, and that's close to goal.
With the lines he runs and positions he picks up, Corbett can still be a threat from the half-forward line, but only if he's prepared to make those runs and risk the belts that go with them. If Lar plays and stays out the field, he may still wield an influence, whether on the wing or at centre-forward. But, Kilkenny are more likely to see it as a sign of submission, and if he gets three or four points from play, it's far more palatable than having him stick one or two in the net. With all that went on earlier in the year, and after over a decade of service, this could very well be Lar's swansong. If that's the case, and with some people still questioning his mental toughness after last year's final, there's only one way to answer it.
The other player that Tipp need to have a big game today is Noel McGrath. To me, he's been in a comfort zone for most of the year, even though he's still chipped in with three or four points a game. Now while that's an acceptable return for most players, McGrath has the ability to deliver so much more. He probably has more genuine class than anyone else in the Tipp team and has the ability to produce the bit of genius that could unlock this Kilkenny defence. Tipp can't afford to have him operating on the margins as he has all year.
Another key man for Tipp today is Bonner Maher, but there are fewer question marks hovering over his form. Bonner has arguably been Tipp's best player in the championship, and his work rate and ability to run hard at defences and make things happen is crucial. They will need his ball-winning presence in what will be a fiercely contested middle third, but it would be interesting to see him put in a stint on the edge of the square just to see what happens.
At least if the starting attack malfunctions, Tipp have plenty of viable options off the bench. Gearóid Ryan, Seamus Callanan and Eoin Kelly all started last year and Shane Bourke (pictured) has looked really impressive in the cameos he's made. In fact, a glance at the Kilkenny bench, with Eddie Brennan's retirement and Richie Hogan's suspension, reveals a dearth of cover especially in attack where only Matthew Ruth and to a lesser extent Cillian Buckley have had any real game time.
At the other end of the field, the Tipp defence has tightened up as the season has progressed. On the basis that Mickey Cahill and Pádraic Maher play on the other side, Kilkenny are more likely to target the right flank even though Conor O'Brien and Tom Stapleton have performed well to date. That said, Kilkenny went after John O'Keeffe in last year's final and he only lasted 20 minutes on Henry Shefflin. They also targeted Stephen Walsh's inexperience in the Limerick match and, with Shefflin as driven and hungry as ever, reaped a two-goal dividend from it. Thirteen years on from his debut season in 1999, he still remains the one player Tipperary need to stop. That's especially the case now with both Eoin Larkin and Richie Power struggling to find their best form and Richie Hogan suspended.
As evenly as the teams appear to be matched, the battle within the battle that may yet determine the result is the one at midfield. Shane McGrath and Brendan Maher give Tipp a lot of go-forward ball when they're hurling well, and their dynamism often sets the tone for others. Tipp badly missed Maher from here last year where Kilkenny's Rice and Fennelly had the better of it, and not starting him was a mistake. This is the match-up I'm most looking forward to seeing.
All in all, a lot of things need to go right for Tipp to win, whereas you couldn't say the same about the Cats who appear that bit mentally tougher. While Tipp were the hunters in 2010 and were the hunted a year ago, the Galway result has changed that dynamic again. Having tasted defeat this season, I'm not sure the psychology of it has swung back in Tipp's favour, and Kilkenny will come with all guns blazing in the belief that if they win today, there's no way they'll lose to Galway twice in the same season.
In 2010, Tipp managed to match the intensity that Kilkenny bring to bear and that's something they have to reproduce today. The first 15 minutes will tell a lot and Tipp need to get off to a fast start and force Kilkenny to chase the game. Then the spaces may open up as they did two years ago, but it's harder to see Tipp winning if they have to come from behind.
Who will win? It appears I'm leaning towards Kilkenny, but last year Tipp's best form was behind them coming into the final. This year we've yet to see the best of them. It's more a hunch than anything but I think Tipp have a big performance in them. If they deliver it, the fresh legs off the bench in the last quarter may just, and I stress just, get them home.
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