This is going to be some game and I am really looking forward to it. An All-Ireland semi-final with Kilkenny and Tipperary involved in a head-to-head probably wasn’t what was expected.
Then maybe it was! But if anyone looked vulnerable early in the season and was going to slip up it was probably Tipperary. Few expected Kilkenny to falter the way they played throughout the National League and the assured way they opened in the championship against Dublin.
Very few people would have expected what happened between Kilkenny and Galway in the Leinster final. But things are the way they are, and it has all added to the excitement of what has been a very good championship so far.
Nothing can stay the same forever anyway, with Tipp and Kilkenny the dominant forces in hurling in recent times. Galway are a good team. Tipperary are a good team. Cork are a good team. Kilkenny are a good team.
For me, the quarter-final line-up was very strong, and fancied teams like Dublin and Clare didn’t make it.
From a Kilkenny point of view, hopefully that Leinster final showing is the one bad game in 10 years out of the system. That is sport, though. Anything can happen at any time. Also, the way things have gone, it puts a lot of things in perspective.
Hurling is not a simple game. Kilkenny have made it look very simple over the years, particularly in recent times, through the excellence of their play. With a deft puck of a ball, or a couple of pucks of the ball, they have won matches that were close and hard most of the way very easily in the end.
And that was in some really tough games when they ran out winners by seven, either or nine points. It all looked easy. Don’t believe it!
How often have you heard people saying ‘oh, Kilkenny had it easy again’? That is not the way things actually work. It was the same in the Galway game.
Galway got off to a terrific start. They hit Kilkenny really hard, and fairly it must be said. Yet I thought with 15 minutes to go with only eight points or so in it that Kilkenny were on the way back.
That’s sport. That’s hurling. That’s the quality of the teams Kilkenny have been coming up against, yet they repeatedly came out on top.
One defeat doesn’t change things an awful lot, bearing in mind Kilkenny’s track record in recent years and knowing the talent in the squad. The only thing it did was show to everyone that Kilkenny can be beaten; that any team can be beaten. That didn’t come as a surprise to players or management.
The best players live with the belief that every match is a 50/50 proposition. Deep down the belief is still there with the Kilkenny players. They always feel in games that if they can get a goal, they can get another one, and possibly a third one to bury a team.
Galway got off to a flying start. They got their tactics right and played brilliantly. On the day they were the better team.
Kilkenny had been performing so well, and whoever the opposition, they always went about their business well. There was only one way a result, or results, could go. The one day things went wrong was probably the best day of all, which was a day that left you with a second chance in the championship.
Kilkenny got a second chance. I don’t think they played their best in the last match against Limerick. There was nothing wrong with that at that stage of the season.
That match will bring on Michael Fennelly; bring on Michael Rice; bring on J.J. Delaney and help Henry (Shefflin) too. Even though Henry scored a couple of goals and added a few points, I think he needed that bit of additional action at championship level to bring on his game even further after being out with an injury for so long.
Looking at Tipperary, it has to be said they have been impressive in Munster. They are very good. They too have a strong track record. They are strong all over the field; they are clever hurlers; they use the ball really well.
And they have a good bench, which is a real bonus.
Hurling now is a team and subs game it has become so fast, so physically demanding. If there was ever a time when you could pace yourself in a game, even for a short period, it is gone now.
It is all very, very intense stuff now, hell for leather all the way, even in club hurling in which you have three and four lads around the ball battling for possession.
Players get very little time on the ball. The pace of games is massive. Some players can be used best by springing them from the bench when the pace of the game slows down a little and after they have had an opportunity to size up things. Don’t ask me why that should be the case, but it happens.
Tipp have a few players like that and they have used them very much to their advantage this season. That is good management, good decision making.
One man who will have to be tightly marked, whatever his involvement, is Lar Corbett. Jackie Tyrrell did very, very well on him in last year’s final. But on a good day he could destroy you.
Kilkenny will have to break down the Tipp half-back line. That is their big launching pad for attacks. The Kilkenny half-forward line will have to be winning ball, winning puck-outs. Tipp are very strong in the sky, particularly their two wing backs.
Hold Tipp half backs
They are good hurlers, very good attacking hurlers. They are worth two or three points to the team every day, which in a tight match, could be invaluable. That area to me is vitally important, and Kilkenny need to win the contest there if they are to put together a winning effort.
Small things could possibly decide this game because the team and players know each other so well, and there is so little between them in terms of talent. Kilkenny have had the better of the exchanges in the last three championship clashes which were in the All-Ireland final (2-1).
Although beaten, Tipp were in the first final to the very end (2009). Kilkenny were in the second one (2010) until about six minutes from the end when Tipp scored the goal that decided it. And even though Kilkenny played very well throughout last year’s final, I was always nervous that a goal might be conceded that would throw the match wide open.
In the last three All-Ireland finals one of the teams has been on top, but still there has been very little between them at the finish. I think that will continue on Sunday. A break here and there could decide it.
I know it is a cliché to say that, but the brilliant action from the three previous finals would suggest that is how things will pan out.
Tipp won an All-Ireland by basically pitching Lar Corbett on the edge of square, almost on his own. He caused massive problems. They tried that a second time and it didn’t work.
Both teams will be trying stuff, to exploit anything they think might be a weakness in the opposition.
Henry (Shefflin) was placed near the edge of the square against Limerick and that worked. There will be stuff tried. It may or may not work.
Work-rate will be huge. That is where hurling has gone anyway. Forwards defend as much as backs now because they have to, beginning at their end of the field.
Kilkenny didn’t play well against Galway and they weren’t at their best against Limerick, although they pulled away in the end, but I think there is a huge game left in them.
Kilkenny can make it into the final. We haven’t seen the best from the team, but it will take the best of Kilkenny to beat Tipperary.