Get ready for the mother and father of all battles

A BLIZZARD can obscure the view and distort perception. And some blizzard has blown up around the All-Ireland hurling final, an historic event in many respects, and not least this time because the same counties are clashing for the third consecutive year.

A BLIZZARD can obscure the view and distort perception. And some blizzard has blown up around the All-Ireland hurling final, an historic event in many respects, and not least this time because the same counties are clashing for the third consecutive year.

Croke Park will be rocking on Sunday. It will be festooned in a sea of black and amber mixed with blue and gold as Kilkenny and Tipperary, the greatest and fiercest of hurling rivals, do battle for the golden fleece of the game, the McCarthy Cup.

In the finals of 2009 and 2010 the spoils were divided. The hurling was mighty. To get one good decider would have pleased the majority. To get two has left an air of near certainty that there will be more of the same.

Champions Tipp and Kilkenny carry a burden of expectation few who have gone before would have experienced. That is a side issue, like much of the talk, speculation and supposition that has surrounded a match that is sure to be a sell out.

Forget the grand talk and hyperbole. Sunday is about a 70 minute hurling contest. It is about winning! Nothing more, nothing less!

The pre-match talk invariably makes good listening, though.

When Kilkenny beat Waterford in the semi-final there was talk that they didn’t want to show their hand. A ragged closing quarter appeared to add substance to the suggestions.

When Tipp got a bit of a fright against deadly Dublin a week later in their semi-final, the chatter was that they hadn’t their minds on the job. After sauntering through Munster, the champs had eyes only for a showdown with the Cats.

Still they got the job done.

Semi-finals are about winning, not the quality of performances. Getting to the All-Ireland final is one major step in the championship for the current heavyweights of the game. The final step is winning it.

This week the respective managers, Brian Cody and Declan Ryan won’t spend much time talking about the semi-finals or the respective provincial campaigns for that matter during their last guiding words for the players.

They are gearing their players for a full-on confrontation, a final that could be as hard and as tough as has been seen in living memory. The pure hurling talent is there to thrill. The passion needed to decorate is there in abundance too. There is steel aplenty also.

In the decider of 2009 Kilkenny put the Premier County to the sword, but only in the dying minutes when a scoring barrage, swelled by a goal from ’People columnist Martin Comerford (see page 9), swung the issue. The score: 2-22 to 0-23.

Henry Shefflin scored 1-8 that day, while Eoin Larkin and Eddie Brennan shared half a dozen points.

Last year Tipp came back with almost frightening intent. They reversed the result. Then manager Liam Sheedy left nothing to chance during the planning.

When Tipp got a score, gained the upper-hand, the players raced around with finger pointing to the head. Absolute concentration was part of the key elements of their game plan. The score: 4-17 to 1-18.

The speedy Lar Corbett destroyed, bagged a hat-trick of goals which probably wrapped up the Hurler of the Year award for him. The experienced Eoin Kelly weighed in with seven points. John O’Brien, Brendan Maher and Seamus Callanan all scored more than once.

Goals were the key to the outcome in both finals, first for Kilkenny, then for Tipp. From the Cats point of view that was a change from previous years in terms of concessions. Their defence had always stood firm and strong. Tipp worked angles of attack that hurt and punched holes last year.

Their sprinter-like pace and deadly touch did the rest. A three year cycle brought a handsome return for the Premier County – a National League title, a defeat in the All-Ireland final followed by victory in the All-Ireland final.

Progress! Definite progress! This could be Tipp’s time to dominate, just as Kilkenny had done earlier.

Tipp were left in the shadows only by Kilkenny, who had put four All-Ireland wins together before last year’s reverse. That Kilkenny and Tipperary are the Titans of the game is beyond question.

Still fans wonder and speak about the ‘what if’.

Fervent Tipp followers wonder about the 2009 decider and how that one got away. Had the match taken a different course, they would now be chasing a hat-trick of wins, possibly. Some will never be convincing but that should be ahead of them now.

On the opposite side of the street, the most fervent in Kilkenny wonder about last year. What if Henry (Shefflin) and Brian Hogan had been fully fit? Would things have been different if the Noresiders had enjoyed a free run into the final?

That is all mere talk now; good time filling talk for many, however.

During their zip through the campaign, the champions looked the real deal. Corbett dug out the goals (7-9) like a lucky digger finds gold. Goalie Brendan Cummins hasn’t been as busy as other times, which reflects well on a defence in which Conor O’Mahony, Paul Curran but especially Padraic Maher have all been outstanding.

Kilkenny will have to find a way to shackle Maher and his ‘40’ line colleagues, to stop him and them launching bombs towards their goal. The trio on the full-forward line would destroy if allowed feast on the kind of ball that flew their way in Munster.

The challengers defence will have to start in attack. The half-forwards face a busy, busy afternoon chasing and closing down while at the same time looking for openings. Tipp’s short puck-outs will have to be covered too.

Remember, goals decided the last two showdowns.

Tipp didn’t raise the green in 2009. The fact that Kilkenny goalie, P.J. Ryan had an inspired game that afternoon shouldn’t be forgotten. He saved at least three shots that had ‘goal’ written all over them.

In Leinster the Noresiders blasted off in exciting mood only weeks after being destroyed by Dublin the National League final. They travelled to Wexford Park with questions in the air. There was no need for concern. They looked confident and assured as the home side was dismissed almost casually.

The Leinster final followed. The League final result inspired. Dublin were all but bullied. Kilkenny caught hold of the game early and never let go. They were efficient more than impressive in the semi. They got the job done, as they say.

The question is – how much better are Kilkenny with Henry Shefflin and Brian Hogan, who has risen to the challenge of being captain, aboard? Both are going very well.

While most of the training has been behind closed doors, the word is that everyone is flying, mad for another shot at the title.

Don’t expect too many changes on the team. Eddie Brennan would appear the most likely candidate if Colin Fennelly’s hamstring injury forces him out. Besides, T.J. Reid could face very stiff opposition from club colleague, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick.

Are Kilkenny ready? You bet! They have been waiting for this chance since about 5pm on September 5 last year. They know they played well last year. That wasn’t good enough. Hats off to Tipperary.

Tommy Walsh, J.J. Delaney, Michael Fennelly, Michael Rice and friends are ready to detonate a hurling bomb in Croke Park.

Saddam Hussein once made a famous pronouncement warning off others after invading a neighbouring state: “Get ready for the mother and father of all battles.” It turned out he was bluffing. There will be no bluff in Croker Park!

If boundless will and intent help challengers ford the small divide that separates them from the very best, then Kilkenny are ready..................ready for a winning effort!