Monday 19 February 2018

The defence

Jamesie O'Connor

Tipperary: The feeling probably exists, that the Tipperary full-back line can be got at, and while they've only coughed up a single goal in their four championship matches, and showed improvement in the last two games, both Cork and Clare had goal opportunities, especially early on.



The same question marks posed last year about Paddy Stapleton are still being asked this time round, and while Mickey Cahill will take the confidence of a brilliant performance in last year's final into today, his form probably hasn't been as good as a year ago either. Only Paul Curran, who has been rock-solid and dependable at full-back, has played consistently well in their inside line.

Of course, the full-back line's life in the last two finals was made considerably easier by the dominance exerted by the Tipp half-backs outside them. In 2009, this line won the aerial battle and was the rock on which the Kilkenny four-in-a-row almost perished. That, and ensuring there's no reprise of Pádraic Maher's tour de force of 12 months ago, is something that's likely to have been exercising Brian Cody's mind for some considerable time.

One of the players of the year to date, Dublin didn't hit a single puckout into Maher's area of the field in the semi-final and yet he still exerted a significant influence. Blessed with a superb big-game temperament that belies his years, he's developed into one of the most physically powerful players in the country and someone whose influence Kilkenny have to curb.

Tipp supporters are also likely to be heartened by the evidence from the semi-final that Conor O'Mahony, after an average Munster campaign, has also started to rediscover his best form at centre-back. This triumvirate is completed by rookie John O'Keeffe, who, after the immense displays of Declan Fanning at wing-back in each of the last two finals, has serious boots to fill.

Fanning's leadership and importance in the dressing room was understated, but no one fronted up to Kilkenny more, and his retirement left a void that most expected Brendan Maher to slot into. The Clare game apart, where he was out of position at corner-back, and substituted at half-time, O'Keeffe hasn't done a whole lot wrong. However, the likelihood is that Kilkenny will target him and with Henry Shefflin his likely direct opponent, he faces the ultimate test this afternoon.

While statistically, when you look at categories like shots allowed on goal, or goals conceded, the Tipp defence's numbers look good, they have yet to meet an attack as physically strong or as potent as Kilkenny's. How they cope with that challenge may well determine today's outcome.

Kilkenny

The chief enforcer in the Kilkenny defence -- Jackie Tyrrell -- is again likely to pick up Eoin Kelly, but is unlikely to stray as far from his own goal as he did last September, when tracking Kelly out the field.

At full-back, Noel Hickey is reportedly going as well as ever. Cody places huge value in his honesty and toughness, but he was left badly exposed a year ago, and protecting him will be central to their defensive strategy.

Similar to Tipperary, and something which only adds to the intrigue surrounding today's encounter, is that Kilkenny have a rookie, Paul Murphy, starting in the other corner where his direct opponent is likely to be the opposition's key strike forward: Lar Corbett.

Murphy was excellent at wing-back against Wexford, but reverted to the corner for the Leinster final, and played well there also. Whether this match-up will materialise is debatable, especially given the form Corbett is in and the havoc he wreaked a year ago.

Cody may be tempted to man-mark him and, if that's the case, JJ Delaney would be my choice as the Kilkenny defender I'd least like to spend 70 minutes in the company of.

Because he can play wing-, corner- or full-back, and is superb in the air, Delaney ticks a lot of the right boxes. He's also not immune to dishing out the type of punishment the Kilkenny backs might feel Corbett in particular needs to be met with.

However, his best position is still at number seven, and with Seamus Callanan also requiring watching, that's where Delaney is likely to start.

After owning the ball in the '09 final, Tommy Walsh was reduced to a peripheral role in last year's game. Tipp deliberately kept the ball away from him, but it's hard to see Walsh allowing himself to be as ineffective this afternoon.

Another comfort to Kilkenny supporters is that Brian Hogan, who missed last year's final through injury, is arguably a better centre-back than John Tennyson. Hogan is understated, but highly respected, and has had an excellent year in the position. He understands the role and will drop back in front of Hickey and the full-back line at every opportunity.

However, with Noel McGrath at centre-forward, this strategy requires a lot of trust in the Kilkenny midfielders and half-forwards to track back and close the spaces down.

All in all, this defence is still top-class. Tipp can't afford to fall too far behind because if the Cats establish a lead, breaking them down, given the way they'll defend, is likely to prove very, very difficult.

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