As the All-Ireland final awaits, Shane Stapleton examines a finely-poised contest.
If one thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning, Tipperary should come into this game looking as though they’ve been blindsided by a cactus.
Beaten, bruised and bullied, their recent history with Kilkenny suggests that Cody's men would be right to walk out of the dressing-room with chests out: “we don’t lose to Tipperary.”
This season has 2011 stamped all over it: Tipp cantering through a woeful Munster, but then eking out an All-Ireland semi-final win; Waterford collapsing in a provincial final, but then putting up a stirring resistance against the unrelenting Cats. The Premier are favourites, but no one quite knows why.
Seamus Callanan will get Player of the Year if he goes to town on Sunday, though there’s scant form to suggest he will. In fact, you could say the same for John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, who has featured for just 38 championship minutes since May 22. The latter’s crafty goal against Galway suggests all is well — though don’t ignore him losing the ball in six of his ten possession when he came on.
As for Callanan, in previous weeks we’ve written about his sensational goalscoring record from 2014 onwards, but we also warned about him missing 15 scoring chances between the Limerick and Waterford games, a figure that was bloated further by four more against the Tribe.
He brilliantly assisted John McGrath’s goal and brother Noel’s point with handpasses, but all of his own efforts were either wide or impeded by defenders. With just 2-9 from play all year, the classy Drom-Inch man is still searching for his best form coming into the defining game of the championship.
You might then be surprised to learn that the bulk of Tipp’s scoring from play this summer has come from two of their junior members: Michael Breen and John McGrath. The two evenly split 6-10, which comprises 46% of the Premier's tally.
Image: Michael Breen scores a goal. ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne
That scoring asterisk brings us to the next big issue for the Premier: only once in championship meetings since the 2010 final have they totalled more than 20 points overall against Kilkenny and that came in the drawn 2014 final. Ten minutes into the 2011 final, the 2012 semi, and similarly with the 2014 replay, you could sense that the Cats were going to win. The game was being played on their terms, they were getting in hooks and blocks, and Tipp had no flow.
Brian Cody’s hold over Tipp is reminiscent somewhat of how Alex Ferguson figured out how to continually beat Arsene Wenger, and on some occasions even wallop Arsenal. You felt that hold during the games.
More impressive still is how the Cats are en route to a three-in-a-row despite obviously not being the dominant team they once were. There’s still flair and brilliance — TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Paul Murphy — but not in the same abundance. What has remained is a work rate that surely makes other teams feel like they’re smacking the ball downfield towards 15 Novak Djokovics.
They always beat it back at you with interest, and therefore there’s a balancing act needed for Michael Ryan; he needs forwards who can all harry like Patrick ’Bonner’ Maher and Dan McCormack, but some of his poachers tend to shadow-tackle like Robbie Keane.
Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, pilot John Yossarian felt the best way to stay alive was by feigning sickness to ground himself, but Waterford have been winning medals of valour for services in the sky. Kilkenny’s half-backs have brought home All Stars for fielding ball for more than 15 years, but Derek McGrath limited the Cats’ entire team to just 13 clean contested catches (nine and then four) over two games. Will Tipp catch one, catch two, or will it be Catch-22? Fortunately for Cody, he doesn’t have Austin Gleeson’s hand to worry about this time, nor Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh’s cuteness against Cillian Buckley.
There’s a good chance that we’ll see plenty of aerial contests too. Darren Gleeson had the ball 38 times against Galway, and went long on 35 occasions, with his side losing it in 22 instances. In only two cases did a blue and gold shirt fetch the ball cleanly, through the McGrath brothers late on in either half. That script needs changing, because Kilkenny know to flood back en masse once a ball comes out of the Tipp defence.
Any hurling manager who doesn’t focus hugely on tactics is ultimately going to be found out, no matter the quality at his disposal. As one of the lead Brexiteers, Michael Gove, once said before his ambitions went up in smoke: “we’ve had enough of experts.”
Talking tall and figuring it’ll be alright on the night is fine and well, but as the fella says, “some day you’ll be caught with your pants down." The statistics suggest that Tipp may need to watch their belt buckle, because if they don’t alter the plan, they may as well turn on a re-run of the 2011 final and be done with it early. Long balls won the day against Waterford, but that was an aberration.
In the opposing corner, we’ve seen Cody ring the changes over the years. Certainly against the Deise with Reid joining the alternating Hogan and Michael Fennelly at midfield, and that’s a key aspect heading into the final. No matter what 15 is named, the guessing game continues until throw-in.
Image: TJ Reid of Kilkenny scores a late free aginst Wateford. ©INPHO/Donall Farmer
Will TJ stay between the 65s? Unlikely. Will Hogan play there too? Or will he stay at 11, which should bring Ronan Maher outfield, allowing the rampaging Colin Fennelly to attack James Barry in space, as per the 2014 replay?
The most worrying aspect for Tipp is the evidence from the semi-final, where the opposition were allowed to pick the match-ups. That’s why we saw Conor Cooney and Cyril Donnellan claiming high ball in the corners, and why Conor Whelan didn’t always have a speedster tailing him. Cody can again look for an edge where one might be offered — perhaps the height and aerial ability of Liam Blanchfield or Wally Walsh at the top of the right or left — if Ryan decides his 15 will be deployed as selected.
Now while that would offer Ryan’s side dependability and structure, the element of surprise wouldn’t be in the picture. History has shown us that Kilkenny will try players in new positions, like Hogan at midfield in 2012 and 2014, Reid in the last game, and most forwards generally rotating at will. Just as John O’Keeffe was targeted by Henry Shefflin five years ago, we may see Reid wander over to Seamus Kennedy to ask a few questions.
So what will Tipp do to unsettle Kilkenny? Here’s a suggestion: mimic them.
Bring Bubbles out to centre-forward and see if he can drift around and score ludicrous points from all angles as Hogan does. If the Killenaule man is followed by the centre-back or say Paul Murphy, that opens up room for Tipp’s full-forward line. Joey Holden is an All Star and Shane Prendergast has been very consistent, but still the Premier will want to know, when exposed, if these two are as vulnerable as has been suggested so often.
Image: Tipperary's John O’Dwyer celebrates scoring a goal. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
The problem, as ever, is getting at them, and there’s a somewhat overlooked figure in all of this. Wally Walsh has all the grace and finesse of a concrete block, but he is also built like one. He can score, and his work is unmatched. After notching a point and assisting a Colin Fennelly goal, the big wing-forward also won possession in his own defence six times in the Waterford replay.
You’d have to wonder if Derek McGrath was given a mulligan for that game, would he tee off with Maurice Shanahan, who so obviously made a telling impact after coming on? Rewind five years, would Declan Ryan again start with Brendan Maher on the bench in that September headliner? Let’s be honest, Tipp scraped by Galway recently, so would Michael Ryan be cursing himself forevermore about not starting John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer had the coin landed the other way? All these factors be weighing on the managers’ minds, they all want to find an ace in the pack.
The Premier need more goals than the Cats to win this, and after four games each, the big plus for Ryan is that his side has raised the green flag twice as often as their opponents (Tipp have 10 goals to Kilkenny's 5). Reid may have scored just 0-5 from play all year, but his side have still managed 19 more white flags than their neighbours, proving once again how finely poised this is.
Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne
It will be won in the trenches. It will be decided on the line, where Cody would never take off a Noel McGrath as Ryan did almost to his cost against the Tribe. It will be won between the ears, where Cats players so regularly find an extra pass to set up attacks after relieving trouble, whereas Tipp tend to lorry it out of danger.
For all that, the blue and gold have everything required to win this game. The McGraths are sharp, Bonner is as blunt, Paudie Maher is both, and the team has a higher work rate than we’ve seen in years. Get enough ball in, preferably delivered without snow, and the winning of the game is there.
If it was a case of once clawed, twice shy, Tipp fans might go into this game more self-assured. However, that gnawing feeling of history repeating itself might send them into Croke Park on edge.
As will Hogan, as will Reid, as will Colin Fennelly and Wally Walsh. The Cats are the old dogs for the hard road, and deserve to be the heavy favourites until proven otherwise.