O'Shea sticks neck out in search for right summer blend as Tipp bid to heal deep scars left by Kilkenny
EVER since Tipperary embarrassed themselves with an abject surrender in the final half-hour of last year's All-Ireland semi-final, they have been waiting for a chance to show that it was an aberration.
That opportunity arrives tomorrow, when they take on Kilkenny for the first big prize of the 2013 inter-county season. Tipperary have already beaten Kilkenny in this year's Allianz league, but the stakes are now altogether higher.
While Tipperary will be driven by a powerful motivation to succeed tomorrow, Kilkenny have their own special incentive as they attempt to win the league title in Nowlan Park for the first time since 1966, when they beat New York by 7-5 to 0-8 in the second leg, having come out on top in the first game by 3-10 to 2-7 in Croke Park.
Kilkenny's desire to dominate every competition has been their trademark during the Brian Cody era and, in his absence, that zeal showed no sign of diluting when they easily beat Galway in the semi-final last Sunday week.
Indeed, Cody's absence may well have given Kilkenny an extra surge of purpose, which, when coupled with the determination not to allow Tipperary to take the league trophy out of Nowlan Park, could again prove decisive.
Bizarrely, there's a theory in the hurling world that Galway didn't really extend themselves in the semi-final, thus making it easy for Kilkenny to reach the decider for the ninth time in 12 seasons.
Now, quite why a team like Galway, that so badly needs to inject consistency into their game, would treat a league semi-final casually is a conundrum for conspiracy theorists.
If, indeed, Galway were half-hearted going into the challenge, they deserved everything they got. The reality is far simpler – they tried their case for 30 minutes and when they found it made no impression on Kilkenny, they quit.
Harsh? Not really. After all, Kilkenny won the final 40 minutes by 1-16 to 0-12 while always looking as if they had a whole lot more to give if required. It was even easier for Tipperary in the other semi-final against a Dublin team that melted at very low temperatures.
Neither last-four clash revealed a whole lot about the victors, a reality that Eamon O'Shea reacted to by making a whole series of changes. That includes the very significant decisions to replace Brendan Cummins with Darren Gleeson in goal and to select newcomer Kieran Bergin at right half-back.
O'Shea is prepared to take a risk in his search for the right blend for the championship, hence the various changes on the team.
It's somewhat surprising that he didn't opt for the experimental route in the semi-final, which was always going to be a lesser challenge, but presumably he wants to see how the rebuild operates against the best in the business.
Tipperary have racked up some very big scores, including 4-22 v Galway, 4-20 v Dublin and 3-19 v Clare. They have been solid defensively too, conceding just five goals (never more than one per game) in six matches.
Their average giveaway rate is similar to Kilkenny, but they have a four-point superior strike rate. And with Eoin Kelly back in the team, Tipp will be confident of setting a target which makes them very difficult to beat.
Nonetheless, it's the tallest of tall orders to beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Kilkenny would regard it as a serious affront to their pedigree to lose a final to their great rivals on home territory and will also be very anxious to ensure that they concede no psychological edge to Tipperary ahead of the championship.
Tipperary are still haunted by the memory of losing the final 25 minutes of last year's semi-final by 3-12 to 0-3 and will be on a serious confidence retrieval mission tomorrow. They will do enough to give them a good send-off for the championship, but not enough to win the game.
Tipperary – D Gleeson; M Cahill, C O'Mahony, P Curran; K Bergin, Padraic Maher, C O'Brien; B Maher, S McGrath; S Callanan, L Corbett , Patrick Maher; S Bourke, E Kelly, N McGrath.
Kilkenny – E Murphy; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, K Joyce; L Ryan, M Fennelly; C Buckley, M Rice, E Larkin; C Fennelly, R Hogan, A Fogarty .