Physical contest to make Kilkenny feel right at home
The Cats' ability to win more possession could be the difference today, says Jamesie O'Connor
Win, lose or draw this afternoon, the league has offered redemption to a Tipperary side that is finally earning back the trust and respect of its own hurling people.
Eamon O'Shea has done a great job in rebuilding the team's confidence. The older players have been rejuvenated; young talent has emerged and, most importantly, the experienced twentysomethings – Brendan and Pádraic Maher, Noel McGrath et al – are showing the form and leadership this team needs if it is to be a force.
While the attack has taken much of the plaudits for the team's resurgence, and seems to have regained a lot of the poise and panache that was its hallmark in 2009 and 2010, some of it can be attributed to how much harder the forwards now appear to be working. The work rate of the Kilkenny players from 10 to 15 has been a central plank of the last decade's dominance. Opposition defenders are allowed no time on the ball, and aren't used to being tackled with the ferocity and intensity the Kilkenny forwards bring. So, as well as creating turnovers that put defenders on the back foot, the constant pressure also destroys the quality of ball going into the Kilkenny half of the field.
The effort it takes, and honesty required to keep doing it, are non-negotiable elements in the Kilkenny players' contracts of employment. They are also part of the little things that, stacked together, are often what decide the big matches. It might have something to do with the competition for places in the Tipperary attack, but in the games I have seen them in, they have not only outclassed the opposition, they have also outworked them. If I was a Tipp supporter, I'd find that very encouraging.
Naturally, today will present a significantly stiffer test, especially in the tighter confines of Nowlan Park. With the Tipp defence and midfielders hurling every bit as well as the attack, the quality of ball the forwards have been getting has been first-class. It goes without saying that the rations are likely to be more meagre this afternoon. Therefore, making maximum use of the possession they will get is a priority.
Late in the second half of the Dublin match a fortnight ago, the newly-introduced James Woodlock lorried two aimless balls in quick succession towards the Dublin goal. One sailed harmlessly wide. As the other was being returned with interest, I glanced towards O'Shea. To say he wasn't happy would be putting it mildly. Economics is, after all, about making the best use of the scarce resources available. That wastefulness would have driven him mad.
With Kilkenny at full strength from one to 10, the mettle and character in the Tipperary attack, that many on Noreside believe to be flawed, will be fully tested. I don't expect Kilkenny to go man to man, Jackie Tyrrell moving to number six to renew acquaintances with Lar for example, as very well might be the case come August or September, but they'll want to atone for the defeat in March and lay down a marker for later in the year.
Kilkenny may still perceive Galway to be the bigger threat come the championship. But I believe this is a different Tipp team, with a very different mentality from the one that surrendered so meekly in Croke Park last August. If the Kilkenny management are seeing the same things I am, and I think they are, there'll be every effort made today to destabilise this resurgence and sow whatever doubts they can in the process.
As pleasing as it must be for the Tipp management to see the attack moving with the fluidity and style of old, the parsimoniousness at the back has been every bit as impressive. Paddy Stapleton is a loss today. He has been excellent, as has Conor O Brien on the wing. Pádraic Maher and Mickey Cahill are definite championship starters, and obviously Kieran Bergin has shown something in training to merit being parachuted in for his debut, at number five. By all accounts, he's a quality player, and if Tipp are going to find out if he and Conor O'Mahony at full-back are up to it, there's no better place to do so than in the environment Kilkenny provide.
One of the fascinating aspects of these encounters is how the respective managements learn as much about the opposition as they do about themselves. Tipperary know they have cover and strength in depth in most parts of the field. The consistent selection approach of making five or six changes right throughout the league up to and including today has given them that. The one position where that's questionable is full-back. Yes, Pádraic Maher can play there, but that robs the team of what he gives them further out the field. Kilkenny know that Paul Curran struggled with Eoin Larkin's size and physicality last August. Not only do Tipp need to learn if O'Mahony is capable of surviving in there if needed, you can also be sure that Kilkenny will be keen to figure out which of their attackers – Hogan, Larkin or Colin Fennelly for example – all of whom have different attributes, would trouble him most.
With Richie Power, Walter Walsh, TJ Reid and Henry Shefflin all unavailable, Kilkenny have effectively picked four midfielders
with Michael Rice and Cillian Buckley selected in the half-forward line. That's a lot of athleticism, strength and ball-winning ability, which in the narrower surroundings will make for a very physical contest.
Kilkenny may have sacrificed some firepower, but Darren Gleeson is going to see a lot of six-footers in black and amber jerseys strung across the middle when he goes to puck out the ball. That's where I see Tipp struggling.
Having lost to Tipperary once already this year, Kilkenny would be loath to give their neighbours a further dose of optimism heading into the championship. With four of the forwards who started in last September's All-Ireland final replay to come back into the frame, competition for championship places will be stronger than ever. Pressure therefore on Lester Ryan, Michael Rice and those in possession of a jersey to perform which ensures an uncompromising afternoon for anyone wearing the wrong colours.
Tipperary don't have to win this afternoon, but they do have to stand up and deliver a performance. I think they will, and yet there's bound to be a card or two kept in reserve for later. Away, in front of a packed house in a tribal atmosphere, against opponents who would love to put them to the sword, victory might be a bridge too far. The 60 per cent of the possession that I think Kilkenny are likely to win should be enough to tip the balance in the home side's favour.