Premier's need greater as O'Shea aims to keep confidence flying high
On a 'must win' basis, there's no doubt who ticks the box for tomorrow's league final. Tipperary's need is the greater and could well be the match-winning difference.
Kilkenny approach every final – from Walsh Cup up – as if it's the most important game ever, so they will be primed for another massive effort, but Tipperary should have an even greater motivation to win this one.
It's only six weeks since they were caught in something of a mini-crisis when they went into the game against Dublin off three defeats and looking very much like a team heading for a relegation play-off. They narrowly beat Dublin, squeezing into the top four on the tightest of margins, but have prospered since then, beating both last year's All-Ireland runners-up and winners.
The flak which the players took from their own people after losing to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway has abated following three successive wins, but everyone in the camp knows that it wouldn't take much to re-open the criticism tap.
In fairness to Eamon O'Shea, he smiled through the bad times, emphasising that things were going well in training and giving the clear impression that he had utmost confidence in the players. He has been vindicated, but he knows that the ultimate judgment will hinge on how Tipperary fare in the championship.
When Tipperary play with confidence, they are a powerful force, but, on the minus side, they don't cope all that well when their self-belief comes under pressure. That's why they have to make a big statement tomorrow. Kilkenny have beaten them in all the really big games over the last few seasons so they need to make a stand.
It's not as important for Kilkenny. This year's league was all about prospecting for talent, giving players a chance to stake a claim for a permanent place on the team and seeing how far they could progress while all that was going on.
Typical of Brian Cody and Kilkenny, they have managed to combine the two so efficiently that they are back in another final.
The road-testing has gone well. Brian Kennedy, Padraig Walsh, Joey Holden, Jonjo Farrell, Mark Kelly and John Power all got chances to make their cases, while Cillian Buckley had a big campaign too.
Ultimately, of course, the big question will be how many of the newcomers are in the championship team. Tomorrow's game will give some indication, but quite a few decisions will be based on what happens in the training games coming up to the championship.
For instance, will Tommy Walsh be aboard? And Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrrell, or just one of them? Walsh's name used to be first on the Kilkenny team sheet, but not anymore. Still, it would be daft to write him off. A player doesn't drop from the peaks he scaled that quickly. There's more to come from him.
Cody would love to win tomorrow, just to keep the machine ticking over, as has happened so often during the league, but it's not vitally important in championship terms, whereas it could be for Tipperary.
Kilkenny experienced a real culture shock last year when their season ended in July, but it won't have shaken their confidence. Years of consistent success has left them with deep reserves of self-belief, which one disappointing season couldn't exhaust.
Tipperary are more brittle, although their confidence is up after the recent improvement.
Winning a league title would be a massive boost, as it would not only secure national honours, but would also see them signing off the spring campaign with wins over Dublin, Cork, Clare and Kilkenny, all of whom are serious All-Ireland contenders.
That would leave Tipp in the perfect frame of mind as they await Limerick's arrival in Thurles in early June.
Players showed dignity during O'Grady bust-up
Speaking of Limerick, it was sad to see them walking into a controversy of their own making. Losing Donal O'Grady in the manner they did was something of an own goal, but it might not be as big a blow as is generally thought.
O'Grady is an excellent coach, but it must be remembered that the players are pretty good at what they do and will try to keep all this in perspective. They won Munster last year, so they know what's required. They will get on with the preparations under TJ Ryan and, despite being provincial champions, will start as outsiders against Tipperary. It's familiar territory which they like.
One thing that really impressed me about the Limerick squad is that they made no fuss, issued no statements and did not become engaged in any public wrangling throughout the O'Grady-County Board affair.
Privately, they were furious, but they kept their focus on the main event, which is the game against Tipperary. It's a good sign for them as individuals and as a group.