Shane Stapleton looks ahead to a repeat of last year's All-Ireland Final
There’ll be no tectonic shifts in the hurling landscape this weekend. Perhaps a tremor or two, no more.
For pretty much the same reason, Kilkenny and Tipperary need a result at Semple Stadium on Saturday evening.
To Brian Cody, hunger is a great sauce, but you need more than that to make heavy meals go down. You need your men to lower the blades too. Men now, moreso than good hurlers. That's always been their way.
Seeing so many Cats requiring medical treatment in the losses to Waterford and Clare must have raised questions, not to mention Cody’s eyebrows. The dismissal of Cork, though, was a timely reminder that this is spring-time and September is a long way away.
Colin Fennelly is back, and his brother won’t be too far behind. The former’s physicality and pace put Cork on the backfoot, more than partly contributing to a return to the Kilkenny of old. Few would deny that the old adage of 'Cork are Cork' has a more sarcastic tone to it these days, so any result against this Rebel side comes with a health warning. The Cats will want to show their claws again, for the sake of confidence.
There’s an expectation that Tipp will win, somewhat handily too. They rolled a Kilkenny side over to the tune of 12 points here two years ago, topped the league table, and yet the Liam McCarthy went back to Noreside. Sure, isn’t that the league for you? As instructive as a 4-0 first-leg lead over Barcelona.
After all, the script also flipped in 2016 as the Cats topped the league, beat the Premier… and yet here we are. There was an apparent context to last September, a supposed changing of the guard for good. It was #CatExit, and Saturday now may be the triggering of hurling’s Article 50. It's unlikely to be that simple. Like the man forwarding a GAA proposal, there'll be a fight til the bitter end.
Kilkenny players and management after the 2016 All-Ireland Final. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
More realistically, this is an audition for the final players in the new Cody jigsaw. Colin Fennelly, ex-Hurlers of the Year Richie Hogan and TJ Reid, and Wally Walsh have held the manager’s trust for a long time — but two more are needed, with Richie Leahy looking a likely man. Liam Blanchfield has shown promise and, while we're here, what’s the hold-up with Ger Aylward?
Michael Fennelly will retain Cody’s trust, as does Conor Fogarty who has been proven in that midfield tandem or at wing-back where he starred in the win over Cork; Cillian Buckley is equally interchangeable.
Padraig Walsh and Paul Murphy will form two-thirds of the full-back line, it seems. Kieran Joyce has been in and out, so the feeling is that the boss needs two men to nail down defensive berths.
A couple of gaps to fill, but the main concern must be disrupting the half-back platform — what Kilkenny success is usually built on — that had been put in place. Buckley and Walsh have gone forward and back a line of the field respectively, apparently for the greater good. When you’re trying to find answers to problems, the downside is when your solutions create issues elsewhere — as could be the case with these deployments. Fogarty, Jason Cleere, Joey Holden, Joyce, Murphy and Buckley all manned the half-back line in the opening three games - the line needs to settle down soon.
What Michael Ryan will want is new players to force their way into the team by the time of the Munster opener with Cork. Steven O’Brien’s hand is firmly up after three league games — a newly-cast iron fist among a forward line of velvet gloves. An alternative to Patrick 'Bonner' Maher or Dan McCormack, or a foil for them, should Ryan want to physically dominate an opposition. Little surprise that a once-dominant football is so good at breaking through the lines.
Joe O'Dwyer and Donagh Maher have rarely put a foot wrong, Barry Heffernan had a decent outing against Clare, and these are positives when framed in the context of an experimental team.
John McGrath could be the answer though. An answer to what issue, it's hard to say. We knew from his underage career that he was a talent, as we did when he lit up every game of the 2015 league.
John McGrath celebrates scoring a goal against Waterford. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson
The Loughmore-Castleiney man was injured for the 2015 championship and, along with Noel’s season being complicated by illness, it perhaps delayed Tipp's rise by a year. Two men who couldn't start a lost semi against Galway in 2015 were key players in a narrow win in a year later.
The thing about John is that, as county players go, he's slow. Most club lads would fancy taking him in a 100-metre dash. What could put him in the same stratosphere as a regular Hurler of the Year nominee alongside Austin Gleeson and Tony Kelly for the next ten years is his touch, his quick-thinking, his striking, his turn, and his coolness.
Truly, you can give it into him any which way and he'll do something with it. He was snapping ball over Daithi Burke last season when no one could.
McGrath hit 0-10 (0-5f) against Clare but the highlight was an assist, a reverse handpass to his brother Noel that sent three Banner backs for a hot-dog. We haven't even mentioned John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer or Seamus Callanan, but stopping form man McGrath is a big target for Kilkenny.
Brendan Maher had begun the Clare win in smashing form but won't play after hurting his AC, so a balance has to be found in the middle if attack-minded Michael Breen returns. The Premier won't want Buckley sprinting at their half-back line, nor allow the likes of Hogan too much space to roam from centre-forward.
For Tipp, this is about watering that seed of doubt in Kilkenny's minds. It's also about winning a 20th league title and a first since 2008. The only starting player from that win over Galway who is still an active inter-county player, incidentally, is Ryan O'Dwyer who now plays for Dublin.
Should the Cats come through this, should they find a balance and a couple of promising players audition well, it will go down as an important day.
Tipp's job is to make Cody feel his next generation aren't up to it, and ask him to continue rejigging.