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Eoin Larkin of Kilkenny

Eoin Larkin of Kilkenny

Eoin Larkin of Kilkenny

AMID the many uncertainties that surround tomorrow's All-Ireland hurling final, one very strong probability stands out.

With the exception of the Cork team of the 2003-2006 era, Tipperary are better equipped for the massive challenge that awaits them than any of the four other contenders who tried their cases against Kilkenny in finals this decade.

Offaly 2000 and Clare 2002 were in decline, even if both summoned one big recovery effort to reach the final, while Limerick 2007 probably wouldn't have been in the final only for Waterford's hectic schedule left them flat in the semi-final, which was their third game in 14 days.

Waterford 2008 exploited their craft and experience to outwit Tipperary in the semi-final, but they would have needed a whole lot more than that to trouble Kilkenny.

thawed

It was in their locker, too, but failed to emerge as Waterford froze over quicker than an Arctic lake and never thawed out in the course of 70 excruciating minutes.

Unlike Offaly, Clare, Limerick and Waterford, none of whom were reigning provincial champions when they reached the All-Ireland final, Tipperary arrive in the decider off a two-season unbeaten run in Munster and bearing convincing evidence that their graph is still very much on an upward curve. They proved that over the course of two National Leagues, one of which they won, their other in which they reached the final, only to lose narrowly in extra-time.

What's more, that was against Kilkenny just four months ago, a game that would have convinced Tipperary they were better qualified than anybody else to unseat the four-in-a-row contenders. First, of course, they would have to stay sound on their side of the draw as that guaranteed they would avoid Kilkenny until the All-Ireland final, assuming of course that Kilkenny didn't lose either.

Once Kilkenny survived the early scare against Galway, they were always likely to reach the All-Ireland final, just as Tipperary were the best from the opposite approach route.

Now they are set to collide in a final which has the potential to end the decade on a spectacular high. Still, there's no guarantee that will happen. With the exception of Cork, who beat them once and twice ran them to three points, Kilkenny have been trouble-free in their four other finals since 2000, winning by margins ranging from seven to 23 points and averaging out at 12.5 points.

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Could they win that easily tomorrow? Of course, but at the same time, it's most unlikely.

With the exception of Brendan Cummins, Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly, the Tipperary team have no experience of an All-Ireland senior final, but they do have an awful lot to recommend them as an emerging team whose rate of progress has been consistently solid.

Also, they have so many talented hurlers that once they settle into the rhythm of the day, their skills will express themselves in a very natural sort of way. Most of all, they are a good goal-scoring side which is always a formidable punch for an underdog.

Even allowing for the chaotic nature of the Limerick defence which conceded six goals in the semi-final, Tipperary deserve credit for exploiting it so ruthlessly. However, it was by no means the only day their forwards cut loose as they put four goals past Waterford in the Munster final and three past Clare a few weeks earlier.

Perhaps most significantly of all, they hit Kilkenny for four goals -- three in normal time -- in the League final. There's no doubt that in Corbett, Kelly and Noel McGrath they have an inside line with an instinct for goal, which is another reason why Tipp are so much better qualified than previous All-Ireland finalists to worry Kilkenny.

As luck would have it, goal-rich Tipperary are coming Kilkenny's way at the end of a season in which the champions have been leaking goals more regularly than used to be the case. They conceded only one in last year's entire championship campaign but were hit for a total of six in two games against Galway and Waterford this summer which is the precise number they conceded in nine games in 2007-2008.

Is it a sign that the defensive bolts are loosening? If so, then Tipperary will exploit it. That wouldn't necessarily win the game for them unless they succeeded restricting the Kilkenny attack, a challenge which very few sides have managed.

No opposition has prevented Kilkenny scoring less than a total of 20 points in the championship since Cork in the 2006 All-Ireland final. Even then Cork lost by three points. Kilkenny have averaged 29 points in 12 championship games since then, a target which would win them tomorrow's final.

Can Tipperary pare it back to around the 20-point mark? If so, they have a real chance of winning a first All-Ireland title since 2001. However, it's asking a lot of Conor O'Mahony, Declan Fanning and Co to curb Kilkenny's free-range hitters led by Henry Shefflin.

On all known evidence, Kilkenny will win the four-in-a-row for the first time. However, three factors, combined with Tipperary's overall solidity, raise some doubts.

Apart from being a rapidly improving team, Tipperary also have a good record against Kilkenny in All-Ireland finals and while tradition should not be an issue, it tends to be in Gaelic games.

Also, there's no way of knowing if Kilkenny are about to hit the wall. It happens to the greatest of teams and individuals, often when least expected and, when it does, there's nothing they can do about it. And there's the law of averages.

Kilkenny are bidding for an 18th successive championship win so sooner or later the sequence has to end.

However, based on the assumption that there will be no slippage in Kilkenny's standards, they are well-positioned to rack up a 32nd All-Ireland win, but only after an all-the-way battle.

Verdict: Kilkenny


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