Kilkenny and Tipperary cannot avoid each other. Another chapter will be written in Thurles on Sunday when they meet in the NHL final.
Despite trying out many new players, Kilkenny played impressively in many games. It is no great surprise, therefore, that they have reached another League decider.
The contrast with Tipperary could not be more different. The Premier County barely avoided the relegation quagmire, but they are now in the final too.
They made the most of their good fortune in their last League tie against Dublin. A draw would have left Tipp in relegation territory. Subsequently Cork and Clare were overcome, so much has changed in a couple of weeks for the Premier County.
Tipperary, though, is far from the finished article but confidence is now sky high in the squad. Even their supporters seem more relaxed. It may seem a strange statement to make, but Tipperary need to win this game far more than Kilkenny.
From a Kilkenny perspective the League was as much about finding new players as reaching the knock-out stages. It is a major bonus that Kilkenny has been successful on both fronts.
Brian Kennedy and Padraig Walsh have settled in well in defensive roles. It is a bonus that they can both play in a variety of positions. The new men really impressed against Galway and every game brings new confidence.
It looks like Cillian Buckley is holding the key to the number seven jersey. He has looked commanding and assured in this new role. Another big performance would most likely see him secure the jersey for the championship opener against Offaly.
Richie Hogan’s League form at midfield before the Galway game was superb. He offers a contrast in style to Michael Fennelly. I hope the selectors persevere with him in midfield. Fennelly’s play is looking sharper with every outing. The squad training in Nowlan Park will have him in good fettle for the Tipp game.
If there is any concern with Kilkenny’s defence it is the continued dependence on J.J. Delaney and Brian Hogan in the two key central positions. Both are in the twilight of extraordinary inter-county careers. Ready-made replacements are not obvious. Jackie Tyrell, assuming he is not selected in his normal corner-back role, is the most likely player to fill either position.
Kieran Joyce would also be a strong contender for both spots. Paul Murphy remains the outstanding Kilkenny defender.
Kilkenny has options in attack. Richie Power and Eoin Larkin missed out against Galway. If either is available for the final it will leave the selectors with a dilemma when picking the starting six.
John Power’s emergence is a big boost. He looked frustrated at times against Galway as a couple of chances went astray. He persevered and duly got his reward with a goal which was crucial at the finish.
The Kilkenny attack is the best around, but performances from individual players have sometimes lacked consistency. Still, it is good to see different players stepping up to the plate in different games. Throughout the League every forward has performed impressively at some stage.
Henry Shefflin’s value was evident again against Galway. His astute reading of the play was an example to every player. He remains the real leader, continuously instructing his fellow players.
It has taken Tipperary some time to realise that its two best defenders, the unrelated Mahers, should man the central defensive roles. Padraic is probably better suited to wing back and Brendan to a similar position or even midfield, but right now they are the best men for the two key spots.
Against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park some weeks ago Tipperary completely lost its shape with players playing in positions completely alien to them. You will not see that in Thurles.
Seamus Callanan must be close to being player of the League. His battle with J.J. Delaney will be worth watching. If Tipperary wins, they will earn it. Kilkenny will not relinquish the title without a major effort, especially when the opponents are its greatest rivals.