Lights, Camera, Action
Tipperary have the stage to lay down huge marker against Cats
Lights, cameras and plenty of action.
Hurling hasn't know a start to the National League like it before; such pomp and hype has been the preserve of football in Croke Park on occasion over the last few years.
But when you have protagonists like Kilkenny and Tipperary, a venue to cater for them and lights to shine upon them, it didn't take a stroke of marketing genius to send the 2010 campaign on its way with a bang with much the same ingredients that finished it so spectacularly last September.
The significance of the fourth meeting between these sides in under 12 months cannot be overstated. Publicly, neither side has, or would be, willing to subscribe to the level of significance attached to it for that would be to strip away too much of the safety net that suspends beneath these league matches, the safety net that caught Tipperary after their calamitous visit to Nowlan Park last season when they shipped five goals on their way to a 17-point trimming.
Plead a little indifference to it, dumb down its importance and room for manoeuvre has been allowed.
Privately, neither side will want to concede any ground on Saturday night; covertly the markers they will want to lay down will take deep-rooted foundations for the season.
Tipperary's need is greater. It is the most important hurling match for the next three months. Only another league final between them could be deemed to be of greater importance between now and May 30 when the reigning Munster champions take on Cork.
Lose and it will be their fourth successive reversal to the same opposition since last March, an unwelcome sequence regardless of how promising a team is. Tipperary can't afford to let Kilkenny defeats seep too deeply into their skin.
When the dust settled after last September and Tipperary took stock, they realised that they had perhaps played above themselves than anything they had produced before and yet still lost. It provided a sobering realisation that they still had some distance to travel.
Liam Sheedy will also find his management under more scrutiny than last year; a fact of life when you are three years on the road in a county like Tipperary.
Under Sheedy, Tipperary have progressed impressively into a functional, professional, well-drilled side. For the second successive year the cost of preparing inter-county teams topped the €1m mark with the blue riband team soaking up much of that.
The returns have been good but inevitably more will be sought and it's games like Saturday night that will help to determine if Sheedy can make the adjustments to move onto the next level.
There are changes in personnel to consider. James Woodlock's long-term knee injury has required addressing and the temptation to remove Noel McGrath from corner-forward and relocate him beside Shane McGrath will be strong. Even if McGrath doesn't make it out that far, a place somewhere across the half-forward line is more likely.
It could be the most important change Sheedy will make to the team in 2010. There will be noises about the players he can bring in. Denis Maher -- the rising Thurles Sarsfields star who scored six points in last year's Munster club championship against Newtownshandrum -- is one, and after McGrath's success last season, Sheedy won't be reluctant on the basis.
John O'Neill is another. A case could be made for Seamus Hennessy or Jody Brennan. But the prospect of another McGrath or Padraic Maher emerging in 2010 is less likely.
Kilkenny's capacity to change takes them on much more familiar territory. Noel Hickey is close to a comeback, James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick's annus horribilis, spiked by illness and injury, is behind him on the most recent Shamrocks evidence and three from the quartet of Richie Hogan, Richie Power, Martin Comerford and Aidan Fogarty will bid again to join Henry Shefflin, Eoin Larkin and Eddie Brennan in attack.
For Saturday night none of the Shamrocks players are being summoned to attend while Michael Kavanagh is also being rested after club duty and success with St Lachtain's. Larkin continues to rehabilitate from a hip operation.
Otherwise, Kilkenny will call upon familiar faces who haven't had a serious public outing together since last September. They lost a Walsh Cup Shield semi-final by a point to Laois last weekend with a team that will feature very few panelists later this year, never mind first-team players.
When Offaly turfed them out of the Walsh Cup proper, only Hogan and John Tennyson featured from the front-line. But, away from the glaring eye, they used a challenge against Shamrocks to stitch their strongest team of the season together on the eve of the defeat to Offaly.
As ever Kilkenny will be primed and ready, devoid of excuses. But the time for Tipp to match them has passed.
They have to better them now with a marker that will reverberate well into the season.