Young guns out to restore old order
Tipp and Kilkenny turn to new breed to face down Clare challenge
If you nodded off to sleep at the end of the May bank holiday weekend last year and woke up today, you would assume that very little had changed across the hurling landscape.
Kilkenny and Tipperary closed last year's spring campaign with the latest from their personal collection of epic contests and are back again to wrap up this year's Allianz League. It all looks very familiar but the bare facts of two league campaigns tell nothing of the upheaval which hurling underwent in the intervening 12 months.
The general view among the public leaving Nowlan Park after last year's league final was that a splendid game had served its purpose as an appetiser for an All-Ireland rematch in September.
Even allowing for Galway's feisty intervention in 2012, Kilkenny and Tipperary still looked the likely lads to dominate last summer.
How wrong that turned out to be. Five weeks later, Tipperary were out of the Munster championship, beaten by Limerick in what was only their second provincial defeat in five seasons. By the end of June, Kilkenny were gone from the Leinster championship, evicted by Dublin in a replay. It was only Kilkenny's second defeat in nine Leinster championships.
Two superpowers in trouble locally attracted widespread attention but it was still assumed that they would re-emerge with compelling force in the All-Ireland qualifiers. After all, Kilkenny won the 2012 All-Ireland title after losing the Leinster final to Galway by 10 points while Tipperary won the 2010 All-Ireland after taking a similar-sized thumping from Cork in the Munster quarter-finals.
Those recoveries sent out a clear message that Kilkenny and Tipperary react positively to setbacks. Surely it would be the same last year. Not so.
Tipperary were gone from the All-Ireland race by July 6, beaten by Kilkenny, who appeared to have got their season back on track. Just over three weeks later, they too were out of the championship, beaten by Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-finals in what was their earliest championship exit for 17 years.
The elimination of Tipperary and Kilkenny in July was the most unexpected double in hurling for a very long time and even as the season raced on towards a Clare-Cork final, intrigue was building as to how Brian Cody and Eamon O'Shea would respond to the unusual turn of events.
Tipperary's case appeared more serious. Their defeat by Limerick was particularly alarming, having come after they led by four points in the 50th minute. They lost the final 20 minutes by 0-9 to 0-2 in what was quite a wipe-out.
The All-Ireland qualifier defeat by Kilkenny was easier to fathom but it still left them with two defeats from their only two championship games. It was not the summer they expected.
Kilkenny never imposed their trademark ferocity on Dublin in either the drawn or replayed game but appeared to have rediscovered it during wins over Tipperary and Waterford before the dismissal of Henry Shefflin in the first half against Cork effectively changed everything.
Those who felt that Cody and/or Shefflin might retire at the end of last season didn't quite understand the sense of unfinished business experienced by Kilkenny.
They accepted the Cork defeat with good grace but didn't believe that it had come about on its merits, remaining adamant that Shefflin was sent off in error, a loss that seriously impacted on the balance of the game. They were proved right when Shefflin later had the red card rescinded by the Central Hearings Committee.
While that unsatisfactory ending to Kilkenny's year provided a special motivation for this season, it was always certain that changes would be made on the team and the wider panel. It's part of the natural evolution of all teams anyway but a failure to win either a Leinster or All-Ireland title, coming a year after losing heavily to Galway in the provincial final, provided a timely opening for renewal in Kilkenny.
The extent of the overhaul has been evident in league programme so far. Brian Kennedy (St Lachtain's), Joey Holden (Ballyhale Shamrocks), Padraig Walsh (Tullaroan), Mark Kelly (O'Loughlin Gaels), Jonjo Farrell (Thomastown) and John Power (Carrickshock) have all figured prominently, thereby raising the pressure level on the long-established names.
The fact that Kilkenny have reached the final (five wins, two defeats) with a much-changed team suggests the rebuild is going to plan. The next big point of interest will be in how many of the newcomers are retained for starting duty in the championship. Freshening up a panel is an on-going process but the new brigade must prove that they are worthy of their places on merit, rather than to merely accommodate the changing process.
And since they are trying to dislodge some of the most famous names in hurling history, it's a high-stakes game.
Tomorrow's outing will be an important, but not decisive, part of that process since Cody has always gone for players who are shaping well in training. That allows quite a lot of room for manoeuvre for many players – experienced and otherwise – over the next five weeks before their championship opener against Offaly on June 7.
Tipperary's restructuring has gone well since that dreadful run when Kilkenny, Clare and Galway hit them for a total of 12-51 in February-March. The defence still looks uneasy at times but the strike rate at the other end has been sufficiently high to counteract the security issues.
Newcomers, Cathal Barrett (Holycross-Ballycahill), James Barry (Upperchurch-Drombane), Kieran Bergin (Killenaule) and Niall O'Meara (Kilruane MacDonaghs) have all done well while John O'Dwyer is advancing progressively in his second season.
The big question facing Tipperary is whether all the travails which attached themselves to the mid-league slump have been zapped from the system.
O'Shea insisted all along that the fundamentals were solid and that things would eventually come right. He talked of Tipperary "needing to find a rhythm", which they duly did.
His comment after the quarter-final win over Cork that "when you like the ball, you can do anything with it" was a reference to days when they were at odds with their touch which, in turn, undid a lot of good work.
The basic tenet of O'Shea's approach held that there was nothing seriously wrong with Tipperary, even if three successive defeats – one against Kilkenny where they led by 10 points in the first half – suggested otherwise. O'Shea never dodged the questions, jauntily facing the media and explaining that they were training better than they were playing.
That didn't impress the more critical wing of the Tipperary support but events over the last three games have backed up O'Shea's assertion.
So then, a year after thrilling a packed Nowlan Park, Tipperary and Kilkenny head to Thurles for a game which has an even more fascinating backdrop than 12 months ago.
Back then, it was a clash between the two counties most expected to be in the All-Ireland final. Now, they fill two of the top three favourites' slots with Clare while several others are jostling to join the queue too.
How Kilkenny and Tipperary have responded to the new world where the leading group are more tightly bunched than for a long time will become clearer tomorrow.