Kilkenny v Tipperary: The script nobody wrote
One of hurling's two superpowers will be out of the championship even before any provincial title is won. Vincent Hogan assesses who can save their season
There will be just the faintest element of two great prize-fighters reduced to selling pencils in a casino lobby about Nowlan Park this Saturday night.
Just nine weeks after being centre of the hurling universe at the same venue, Kilkenny and Tipperary return in a championship context few could have imagined, let alone predicted. The rivalry that electrified Croke Park with three consecutive All-Ireland final meetings is now a Phase 2 qualifier with Brian Gavin set to take charge.
Defeat for either one will end their hurling year before a provincial final has even taken place. The luxuries of the past are, thus, suspended here. This is the last-chance saloon and, for both, the implications of defeat will be feverishly debated through the coming days.
Conversely, whoever manages to survive will become hurling's shortest straw in the qualifier route. But, for now, the respective supporters of Kilkenny and Tipp can seem to see only trouble.
WHAT ARE KILKENNY'S MOST OBVIOUS PROBLEMS?
In a word, injuries. Henry Shefflin's role in dragging Kilkenny through last year's drawn All-Ireland final will forever stand as the most eloquent expression of his greatness. Until he was moved out to the '40', Kilkenny could get absolutely no purchase from the Galway half-back line.
Long-term injury has almost habitually kept Shefflin out of the National League in recent seasons, yet equally habitually he has recovered his fitness in time for the commencement of championship. This year, for the first time, that has not happened.
Without Shefflin, Kilkenny struggle with on-field crisis-management, particularly in attack. Some within the county still maintain that the cruciate knee injury which forced his substitution just 13 minutes into the 2010 All-Ireland final might well have cost Kilkenny the five-in-a-row (and, given what has happened since, perhaps even a seven-in-a-row).
As a leader, Michael Fennelly is the next most natural alternative they have from midfield up (remember, he scored 2-3 of Kilkenny's 2-7 in the first half of this year's National League final when used at centre-forward), but Fennelly too is currently sidelined. Without these two Ballyhale stalwarts, Kilkenny lack something as fundamental as presence.
Fennelly's physical power and ability to carry the ball through contact make him a virtual force of nature. Without him, the team finds it more difficult to breach supplemented defences.
Cody has, typically, refused to take refuge in the excuse that, in being denied Shefflin and Fennelly, he is deprived the last two Hurlers of the Year. But factor in injured corner-back Paul Murphy (a nominee for the award last year) and ongoing fitness concerns about Jackie Tyrrell (six All-Irelands, four All Stars), Michael Rice, TJ Reid and Cillian Buckley and it isn't difficult to see how fundamentally Kilkenny have been compromised.
There may, of course, also be an issue with extraordinary high mileage (Cody's Kilkenny have hurled into September for 10 of the last 11 seasons) now beginning to take its toll.
WHAT ARE TIPPERARY'S MOST OBVIOUS PROBLEMS?
Primarily, a failure to unearth self-sufficient forwards and, maybe less conspicuously, a suspicion that they are now vulnerable to pace down the spine of their defence.
Much was made in 2010 of the unorthodox movement of the Tipp attack and an ability to create space that tended to leave opposing defenders dizzy and confused. It was considered revolutionary at the time as they eschewed the traditional two lines of three, preferring instead to give their forwards free licence for inter-change and maverick placement.
This wreaked chaos in an opposition defence if markers took the bait of following specific targets. In the 2011 final, Kilkenny's defenders were instructed to hold their positions and Tipp perished.
Tipp's current manager Eamon O'Shea has been widely recognised as the coaching innovator behind their All-Ireland win of three years back. And there were early signs in this year's National League that his return had, again, liberated the county's forwards.
Having scored six goals in as many games during last year's league campaign, they mined 14 in six games en route to this year's final. But Kilkenny then held them goalless in Nowlan Park, where the ploy of employing a third midfielder (Noel McGrath) seemed to leave the Tipp attack under-manned. Against Limerick on June 9, Tipp did create goal opportunities, but converted just one through substitute John O'Dwyer.
Deprived the space they lust after, Tipp lack old-style ball-winning forwards, with only John O'Brien and Patrick 'Bonner' Maher recognised as being accomplished in the air. This means they struggle for primary possession when deliveries out of defence are less than specific in trajectory.
Unless O'Shea can come up with a strategy that puts men like Seamie Callanan, Lar Corbett, Shane and Pa Bourke or Jason Forde running onto ball in space, he must unearth a different type of Tipperary forward. Brian 'Buggy' O'Meara might have been an option, but doesn't seem to have developed as a senior inter-county player.
Worry about the centre of Tipp's defence perhaps focuses as much on perception as reality given that, between them, Paul Curran and Conor O'Mahony have 22 years of inter-county hurling on the clock.
WHOSE PROBLEMS LOOK MORE SOLVABLE IN THE SHORT TERM?
QUITE possibly Tipp’s. They, at least, go to Nowlan Park fresh and desperate to redeem themselves at a time when Kilkenny have seldom looked to be creaking on so many levels.
The suspicion that mental fatigue may be afflicting some of Cody's most trusted lieutenants is unavoidable after a third consecutive unconvincing championship outing. If this is the case, it is difficult to see what the manager can do to remedy the problem in seven days. Cody's empire has been built around the unwavering competitive aggression of his teams. On his watch, Kilkenny might occasionally have been outhurled, but never out-fought.
But in Portlaoise, Dublin palpably had a physical edge on their opponents, displaying an appetite for so-called 'dirty ball' that the All-Ireland champions could not meet. Tyrrell looked compromised by injury, but other stalwarts like JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Eoin Larkin simply did not look themselves.
Cody has, historically, been a master at revitalising a beaten Kilkenny team, but this may be his greatest challenge yet as many of his players looked out on their feet by the end of the Dublin game.
O'Shea, by contrast, surely needs only to remind Tipp of their last championship outing against the Cats to be sure of a team arriving into Nowlan Park hungry for combat.
HOW BIG A FACTOR MIGHT HOME ADVANTAGE BE FOR KILKENNY?
POTENTIALLY, it could be their trump card. The idea of the Cody era possibly being ended by Tipp of all teams on their home sward might just be the motivational key needed to trigger a venomous Kilkenny response.
This isn't to suggest that Cody is already preparing a farewell but, given the year he has had, it would not be a surprise if he chooses this to be his last campaign in the white heat of championship combat.
Shefflin will be 35 next January and it is a moot point if a man who has now spent four of the last five winters recuperating from serious injury will find the appetite to go again in 2014, regardless of how this championship culminates. Many have long felt that Cody and Shefflin will probably depart together.
Losing to Tipp in Nowlan Park would hardly be their choice of denouement.
WHICH TEAM LOOKS BETTER EQUIPPED TO BUILD AN ALL-IRELAND CHARGE OUT OF VICTORY ON SATURDAY NIGHT?
Probably Kilkenny. If Cody can buy his team some time, getting the likes of Shefflin, Fennelly and Murphy back on the field could then reinvigorate their challenge.
Just now, his hands seem largely tied, with few real options to the personnel that came up short against Dublin. There is certainly no expectation of wholesale change within the county for the Tipp game, though Cody might consider U-21 captain Brian Kennedy as an option for the ailing full-back line.
Tommy Walsh's younger brother Padraig is another possibility, but then Cody might reasonably argue that the concession of 1-16 was not Kilkenny's primary problem last Saturday, rather the scoring of just 0-16 and, specifically, a mere 0-5 from play.
Dublin wing-back Stephen Hiney seemed startled after the game by mention of Kilkenny's failure to create a single goal chance in Portlaoise. "I hadn't actually thought about that," he reflected, before conceding that, yes, Dubliner goalkeeper Gary Maguire had "a somewhat quiet game" on the night.
Kilkenny have scored just one goal in 210 minutes of championship hurling this year. That strike rate needs to change.
Tipp have been too inconsistent to make any compelling case at this juncture for long-term progression, though the boon of a win in Nowlan Park could transform seemingly brittle confidence.
WHICH TEAM LOOKS WORST EQUIPPED TO DEAL WITH THE IMPLICATIONS OF DEFEAT?
Again Kilkenny, simply by dint of their status in the game. Like it or not, defeat this weekend will be interpreted as the end of a natural cycle, albeit one of the longest cycles hurling has ever known.
Under Cody, they have won nine of the last 13 All-Irelands, an unprecedented strike rate in GAA history. There have been alarm bells ringing (2011 league final, 2012 Leinster final) to suggest decline only to then be silenced by All-Ireland victories.
But facing into their fourth championship game within five weeks, many of the team look in desperate need of a rest. Seldom have Kilkenny been so emphatically beaten in the air as they were against Dublin and seldom has their swarm-tackling been so easily bypassed by a quick offload.
This looked, above all, a crisis of appetite.
For Tipp, defeat will undoubtedly decant further criticism of the team's suspect heart for battle, but expectations within the county have never quite recovered from last year's 18-point All-Ireland semi-final humiliation. This is a team that has still to win back the trust of their own people.
As such, a Tipp defeat won't generate any great earth tremors. A Kilkenny defeat will.
ARE WE WITNESSING THE END OF AN ERA IN HURLING?
It certainly feels that way. This has already been an extraordinary championship in which so much accepted wisdom has been discredited. For a start, the notion that Division 1B league hurling will prove some kind of death sentence come summer no longer holds much water, given Dublin and Limerick's presence in the Leinster and Munster finals respectively.
But maybe nothing captures the sense of looming revolution quite like the cast for Nowlan Park next Saturday night.
This is the script that nobody had written.