Here we go again, another Kilkenny-Tipperary duel. Only, unlike last year’s league final, when everyone would have thought we had the best two teams in the country facing each other and that it was a mere sample of what lay ahead for the championship when the same two would ultimately play out the All-Ireland between them, there is a big difference this time in that Kilkenny and Tipperary bring reshaped teams into this latest league decider.
Last year’s league final won by Kilkenny was not at all instructive as to what followed in the championship. Kilkenny and Tipperary were like two former heavyweight champions punching away in a prize fight, unaware that young champions were coming up all around them.
As it happened, neither Kilkenny nor Tipperary made it beyond July.
I think there is a less of an expectation this time that we are seeing the two best hurling teams in Ireland playing in the league final. Both have got where they are in the league final and deservedly. But there is also a keen urge to bring momentum from the league into the championship.
There have been a lot of big Kilkenny-Tipperary matches in recent years (this is their third league final meeting in six years) and the rivalry is a traditional one that has an edge. Kilkenny have held the upper hand in those past few years and established a winning trend, but despite this pattern I think the momentum could be with Tipperary this time.
Head of steam
Tipperary have built up a head of steam in the league since that final group match with Dublin. In that game, in the dying seconds, Dublin’s Niall McMorrow made the critical decision and opted to drop the ball into the square in search of a goal when a point – which was on – would have actually sent Tipperary into a league relegation play-off.
The way in which that Tipperary win was greeted by the management and players afterwards was an indication of how a pressure valve had been released. The reaction was more like winning a championship game rather than an ordinary league game.
It was an indication of how scary things had become for Tipperary in March and proof positive of the pressure they felt under at the time. But those poor early league results may have hardened them and may ultimately provide positivity.
I don’t think anyone in the Tipperary camp that day could have forseen that the win over Dublin would be the catalyst for a run that would bring them into the league final and a chance of winning the title.
But the release of that valve has seen them kick on: they improved in the league quarter-final win against Cork and improved even more for the league semi-final win over Clare.
There might be question marks about the level of desire in Cork or Clare to be league champions, but those wins served Tipperary’s purpose very well. It has given them impetus and allowed the team to develop and settle off the difficult March base.
This is a reshaped Tipperary team that has evolved in the space of only six weeks since that Dublin match: Cathal Barrett, James Barry and Niall O’Meara have brought new shape; Brendan Maher has solidified himself at centre-half back; and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher is back to his best form.
The league has worked out well for Tipperary to date and they don’t have a whole lot to lose playing at home against Kilkenny.
I’m pretty sure we’ll see a big performance from them. I do think it is very important for Tipperary, having reached the league final, to push on and to win.
It would be a seriously important result for a team that is effectively only six weeks old.
Last year’s league final defeat sent Tipperary on a very scary ride afterwards and, from that point of view, it is more important for Tipperary to beat Kilkenny this time.
Having said that, Kilkenny in the last number of years have been able to raise more intent for Tipperary than any other opponents.
Kilkenny, too, have freshened their team this year. Pádraig Walsh and Brian Kennedy have come in and made real impacts; Cillian Buckley has found a serious amount of form at wing back; and Walter Walsh is a more serious contributor to the attack.
Brian Cody has pushed on the team in the fashion that proved successful last year for Clare, Cork and Limerick where younger players came through.
Both Cody and Eamonn O’Shea have moved with that same programme and there is a new shape to both teams.
I believe it is more important to Tipperary – moving forward – that the new shape holds up. The winning team tomorrow will bring that new form into the championship. For the losers, particularly if it is Tipperary, it would be a setback.
On that basis, I am going to go against that trend of repeated Kilkenny wins and suggest that Tipperary, with the momentum they’ve built up over the past five to six weeks and the necessity of winning at home, have a really good chance of winning.