Seven heavenly virtues can lift Kilkenny to famous five
Power, Pace, Poise, Precision, Pattern, Persistence, Perception. Not so much the seven deadly sins as the seven heavenly virtues which underpin so much of what successful teams do and how they achieve it.
No team in hurling history has come as close to reaching A1 marks under all the headings as the Kilkenny outfit of the last decade. On days when one or two of the seven strengths didn't quite function, others compensated so seamlessly that it was hardly even noticed.
The test for any team trying to unseat Kilkenny is to match them across as many of the seven 'Ps' as possible and hope the breaks fall your way after that. As so many counties have discovered, it's a mountainous task.
A year after being out-gunned on the home stretch, Tipperary are back for a second shot at the champions, hoping that the lessons learned last September will stand to them. As a reminder to Tipp and everybody else who have marvelled at the force of nature that Kilkenny have been as they marched towards their date with five-in-a-row destiny, here's how the seven 'Ps' have served them and how Tipperary must harness their response if they are to put themselves in a position to win tomorrow.
Power: A team that doesn't match Kilkenny for sheer power has no chance. Kilkenny are masters at driving at the opposition and breaking the first tackle, giving them an immediate advantage. Michael Fennelly and Eoin Larkin were the biggest exponents of that against Cork in the semi-final, but it can come from anywhere. Tipperary haven't just got to be ready for that, but they must also try to do it themselves because containing Kilkenny in this area is not enough -- you've got to take the battle to them (in the air and on the ground) and make them think.
pace: Kilkenny are no quicker than other teams. They're good over five-yard bursts and because their ball control is so refined, it makes them look that bit sharper as they wheel away from tackles. Defensively, there's a tendency to believe that speedy forwards can trouble Kilkenny but it never seems to happen. That's because Kilkenny are so good at the overall art of defending as opposed to speeding to the point of the action. Tipperary are certainly as quick as Kilkenny, but aren't quite as cute in the more advanced defensive requirements.
poise: A classic example of Kilkenny poise at its best. Recall the aftermath of Henry Shefflin's goal from the penalty in last year's final. There was a point between the teams, so the game was still there to be won. Tipp attacked and as they broke under the Hogan Stand, Michael Kavanagh swooped across, fell and skidded over the sideline, but still managed to keep the ball in play. A long clearance and Kilkenny were on their way to a second goal. Poise under pressure -- Kavanagh had it and what a difference it made.
precision: One of Kilkenny's major strengths rests in their capacity to do the right thing nearly all the time. It sounds simple, but it was a hugely important theme throughout the last decade. An absence of precision cost Tipperary dearly last year. They had goal chances which they didn't take and while PJ Ryan did brilliantly, no goalkeeper will get to a close-in strike if it's hit properly. Contrast that with Shefflin (penalty) and Martin Comerford -- when the chances presented themselves, they had the precision to capitalise. If Tipperary improve in this area, it narrows the odds considerably.
pattern: Kilkenny's version is quite simple, certainly until a game opens up. Early on, the system is basic: each man has to fight for, and win, his own ball. If that's achieved successfully, the rest follows. They will then go for the cross-field balls and the more expansive stuff, but it all stems from man-on-man dominance. Sometimes, Kilkenny tend to drop half-backs/midfield deep to create space for the half-forwards, but they tend to operate orthodox numbers across the various lines. Tipperary may opt for a two-man full-forward line and push an extra man towards midfield.
persistence: It's second nature to Kilkenny and comes from being so successful for so long. A team doesn't win 21 championship games in a row without knowing the value of persistence. Kilkenny haven't had to call on it in this championship, unlike last year when they needed it against Galway, who twice led by five points, and Tipperary, who led by three points on hour mark.
Tipperary are improving in the art of persistence. They required it when Cork beat them last May and in a specific sense when Galway led them by two points in the final five minutes of this year's quarter-final. They'll need it most of all tomorrow because nobody beats Kilkenny without being as stubborn as a mule.
perception: Kilkenny thrive on the view that they're something special, which of course they are. They don't manifest it with any sense of arrogance but rather with that inner -- and indeed outer -- calm that suggests they can sort out any problem that arises. That's a big positive for them as indeed are the perceptions that their training sessions are more competitive than anywhere else and that they have a second-string which is nearly as good as the first. The risk for all opposition is that they allow themselves to believe everything they hear and read about Kilkenny.
Tipperary have got to counteract it by magnifying their own strong points. They're a team on the rise; they came closer than anybody to beating Kilkenny in recent seasons; and traditionally Tipp have a good record in finals against Kilkenny. Tipp need to maximise every positive they can find so that they regard themselves as equals, not optimistic contenders.
my verdict: It's the final hurling demanded, the public expected and the occasion deserved. The best team that the great game has ever produced bids for a place in immortality against the clearcut No 1 contenders.
Kilkenny have worn their successes so modestly that -- unusually for a team that has been at the top for so long -- they are still very popular. Indeed, many neutrals believe that their brilliance for so long should be recognised by a place in history.
Tipperary will ignore that as they take on a challenge for which they are well equipped, even though they just might come up short. They have done everything right since the aberration against Cork in May and are better positioned for the big test than last year. But there's evidence that Kilkenny are better than last year too due, in the main, to the extra defensive security brought by Noel Hickey's return and JJ Delaney's release to wing-back.
The big question centres on Kilkenny's injured stars and the role they will play. That, plus the inevitable pressure that the five-in-a-row pursuit brings, raises some doubts. After all, the players are only human and, as history shows, stepping into five-in-a-row territory can do strange things to the very best.
Neither Kilkenny, nor anybody else, will know how it impacts on them until the pressure comes on tomorrow, but, on the basis that Brian Cody can continue to take them to places nobody else has ventured, I back them to out-grind Tipperary in a tough, tight and wonderfully intense battle.
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