Old foes Tipp and Cats bid to restore order
Kilkenny and Tipp hoping league win will be springboard for All-Ireland success
ON Sunday, they go again. Whenever Kilkenny and Tipperary meet these days, it's always white-knuckle stuff.
Even the March encounter, a fixture that hardly ranks among the most significant of recent times between the pair, blazed with a different type of fury.
Ten goals shared evenly and a Kilkenny win had us all ushering the summer in with a renewed sense of urgency.
Ahead of Sunday's Allianz Hurling League final, they'll see the landscape has changed – and there are little signs of it everywhere.
Last winter was the first time since 2006 that Liam MacCarthy has wintered outside of the two great rivals, Kilkenny securing all but one of those titles.
All was seemingly going to plan, 12 months ago, when the sides paired off in the final. There was no sign that Kilkenny's shortest summer in an age was on the horizon. Tipp's year was even briefer.
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody took immediate action, shaking up his backroom team and exposing a host of new players to senior inter-county hurling as Clare declared their arrival at the head of the new world order.
Their emergence heralded a change in style too. Clare's game was based on pace rather than power and that, combined with tighter refereeing, has taken some of the edge out of the game for Kilkenny veteran Eoin Larkin.
"Over the last year the physicality is going out of it a small bit," he says.
"Clare won the All-Ireland with a relatively small team. They were strong but I think the physicality is gone out of it a small bit.
"Red and yellow cards are being given out a lot easier now than they would have been a couple of years ago; you are no good to the team on the line after a red card, so I think lads are pulling back now a small bit."
In all, 32 players featured in the league for Kilkenny, a response to failing to make the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time since 1996.
And having been forced to sit on their hands for much of last summer, as the Cats stuck with the tried and trusted, Larkin sees some players out to make up for lost time.
"When younger lads weren't tried last year, as they have been this year, you're not seeing what they can actually do," reasons the James Stephens stalwart.
"And you're thinking to yourself, maybe they aren't ready for it. But we have all seen this year that any of the lads that were used are certainly ready for championship hurling.
For Tipperary, there has been less change but their form has varied wildly.
After losing three of their first four games, leaking goals at an alarming rate, they squeaked into the knock-out stages on the back of a win against Dublin, in a game that could just have easily put them into the relegation shake-up. Eamon O'Shea's side haven't looked back since, beating Cork and most impressively All-Ireland champions Clare to reach Sunday's final in Semple Stadium.
"We were letting in goals for sport in a few matches in the league but we were still battling and battling," says Tipp defender Paddy Stapleton.
"If you're looking for positives in adversity, well we had a lot of adversity in the league. There are players who got that experience but they still battled on and some of the older lads helped them along.
"There was a lot of doom and gloom at the time, but Eamon really was stressing to us that 'this is going to stand to you'.
"We were conceding goals we maybe shouldn't be conceding. And if you concede four or five goals... we all know it's very hard to win a game.
"But we're battling back. In a lot of the games, we weren't getting thrashed, even though we were playing poorly, and conceding poor goals."
Tipp's recent record against the Cats is poor.
Since the epic 2012 All-Ireland final success, it has largely been one-way traffic as they have beaten Kilkenny just once in eight attempts across league and championship.
And Stapleton, who returned the training last night after a hand injury, insists that isn't an issue for the Premier men.
"I don't think that should bother you. If that bothers you going out, there's something wrong with you," Stapleton reasons.
"You have to go out with the attitude 'I'm playing 15 players' and confident enough to win it.
"A lot of those games, we could have won them and had the chances to win them. But it's our own fault that we weren't clinical enough to win the games.
"I don't think it's a case that we were going out and getting dominated. I think we're in a very good head-space. I think we're feeling quite strong."
That solitary success came in the league last year, on home soil, but Stapleton argues that playing Sunday's decider in Thurles isn't the advantage it might appear.
"Any time we've played there, there would be as many away supporters as our own supporters – whatever it is with Thurles and the big stadium and the town beside it.
"I wouldn't see it as a massive advantage. We love playing at Semple Stadium, that's obvious. But a lot of teams love playing there."
An early season teaser so, but after last year's experience, no one will be getting carried away regardless of the result on Sunday.
"Other teams were building up towards the championship and I think we kind of peaked at the wrong time last year maybe," Larkin says of last year's league win.
"I suppose if we had got the injuries back coming into the championship that would have given us a boost as well but it wasn't to be.
"To win (the league) it would be brilliant to get the confidence up, especially after the way last year ended."
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