Defending champions, Kilkenny and challengers Tipperary are in a great place at an important time in the season as they prepare to do battle in the Allianz National Hurling League final.
The pair may have contested the decider 12 months ago. Things didn’t work out for them in their respective provincial championship subsequently, but the season could work differently this time.
“There are no negatives to being involved in the League final.”
That was the considered view of former Cork and Limerick manager and TV4 analyst, John Allen, when he ran the rule over Sunday’s big game for the ’People.
“It is a great place for Kilkenny and Tipperary to be, absolutely,” said the proud Corkman who guided Limerick to a Munster championship success in 2013.
“It is a particularly good place for Tipp, bearing in mind how some of the League games went for them. They won the first game they probably shouldn’t have won. They lost the next three. Then they scraped over the line against Dublin, and had Dublin scored just one more point they would have been in a relegation battle.”
The roll of the dice went with Tipp afterwards, and now they have a chance of winning the League title that looked a very remote possibility less than a month ago.
“Kilkenny then,” Mr Allan continued, “ have impressed all along. I was particularly impressed the way the new management, under Brian Cody, were so brave in picked experimental enough teams from the off. From the start against Clare they had maybe half a dozen new or less established players involved.
“That approach continued, and while they didn’t win every game, there were positives to be taken when every performance was examined. That’s the way to use the League. Get something useful from every match. I was very impressed with them.
“They gave nearly 40 players action in matches. That is a huge number, and despite all the experimenting, they still ended up in the League final. The big thing now is that they have a number of established players who are not sure that they will be playing or starting this year.
“Then there are new players, Padraig Walsh in particular, but also Mark Kelly, Brian Kennedy and so on who have put up their hand for a shirt in the starting XV for the championship. Kilkenny are progressing nicely.
“So the League final is the place to be at this stage in the season with the promising things that are happen in both counties. It is a bonus for both. Kilkenny don’t need to win a League to prove anything, really. For Tipp, winning would be bit more of a bonus. They had a poor year last year, and they struggled at times in the League, and now they find themselves in the final.”
A good, tight game would round off the campaign nicely for both counties, he insisted. Avoiding a comprehensive defeat that might knock confidence or stem momentum was the big thing now with the start of the provincial championships around the corner.
Tipperary, Mr Allen felt, might have surprised a lot of people with their strong showing and good win over All-Ieland champions, Clare, in the semi-final. He noted and highlighted the importance of the contributions of Michael Cahill, Padraic Maher and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, who weren’t playing in the quarter-finals.
“They are very important players for Tipperary,” he insisted. “Padraic Maher was good against Clare in a position that is probably not his best or favourite position. ‘Bonner’ Maher played a very significant role. He scored two goals. He was very busy and made a lot of things happen.”
They have experience, and they have shown in the past that they can be huge contributors to the team in big games on big days.
That trio, added to the good players Tipp had in the quarter-finals, improved the overall quality within the ranks.
“Now we have two teams who are showing improvement at a good time facing up to each other,” Mr Allen continued. “It is ideal preparation for the championship.
“Once the League is over, the club competitions come into play and all the counties will be looking for decent challenge games. This is a big game with something important at stake. Sure what could be better? The match can only be of benefit to both. It will be a whole new experience for some of the Kilkenny players, and they can only learn from it.”
Mr Allen has voiced his opinion about the structure of a League he feels doesn’t always help those outside the top rank. Dublin and Limerick came out of Division IB last year and won provincial championships, but the likes of Offaly, Wexford and Carlow didn’t enjoy the same lift.
However, he felt: “The quality of the games in Division IA has been excellent. The games have been high scoring. It has been an exciting League; well fought and few games have been one-sided.”
Sunday’s clash will be the fifth between Kilkenny and Tipperary in a little over a year. Clashes between the age old rivals hasn’t lost any of its sparkle or appeal, he said.
“Last year Clare broke up the monopoly by winning the All-Ireland,” he said. “It was time for the monopoly to be broken. Kilkenny and Tipperary are bidding to rebuild that again. These games don’t lose any of their colour or appear.
“There is no negative for either county contesting this final. It is a win, win situation really for both. For both teams, performance will be everything though.”