THEY are the teams of the moment, and many a shrewd observer expects them to be among the last ones standing come championship time too, so Sunday’s Allianz Hurling League final could be a preview of important things to come.
Nowlan Park is expected to be jam packed for this latest showdown between the fiercest of hurling rivals, Kilkenny and Tipperary, writes John Knox.
The Cats, the current double champions, didn’t play particularly badly when they started out on the League road, but still defeats in the two early rounds against Galway and Tipperary had people wondering about them.
Tipp didn’t only stumble in the first round, they were hammered against Cork. They fell on their faces, and again, questions were asked.
However, things picked up for both afterwards. Now after commanding performances in their respective semi-finals, Kilkenny and Tipperary are being viewed as the teams everyone has to be able to beat if they want MacCarthy to reside in their county come September 2013.
The here and now in hurling is most revealing.
Tipperary are on an upwards curve with a new found belief and confidence instilled by new manager, Eamon O’Shea and his management team of Michael Ryan and Paudie O’Neill.
The dark clouds that hung over the county after the embarrassing All-Ireland semi-final defeat last season have been replaced by a bright new optimism.
Tipp produced a wipe out in the semi-final, beating Dublin by 4-20 to 0-17. The Dubs disappointed, many suggested.
Their thought, touch and general hurling made them look all over a Division IB team. They were on their way out of the League after 10 minutes. They were gone at half-time when they trailed by 0-8 to 3-11.
Ah, but the other side of the coin was that Tipperary were very, very good. They had a job to do. They set their own standards; hit their own goals in terms of achievement.
Tipp are exactly where they want to be at this point in season 2013. Meeting an in-form team like Kilkenny is exactly what they want as the month of May opens and championship days beckon.
Ambitious players like team captain, Shane McGrath, Brendan Cummins, Conor O’Mahony, Lar Corbett, Brendan and Patrick Maher, Pa Bourke et al want to be on the big stage on the big hurling days.
Nowlan Park will be that stage on Sunday!
Kilkenny are Kilkenny as we know them today…moving menacingly, ambitious, all fired up. Manager Brian Cody will be absent from the sideline again as he continues his recuperation after heart surgery, but the county is on the path he would have hoped for, and his fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty know the job that has to be done.
They have been around this block several times with Mr Cody. Every journey is different, as we know, but standards, application and expectations are constants in the Kilkenny camp. Fogarty and Dempsey know the score!
Kilkenny, too, left nothing to chance in their semi-final win over Galway, the team they beat in the replayed All-Ireland final last year and then lost to at the start of the League.
There were some unsure moments early on, but once the Cats hit the front via a Michael Rice point in the 31st minute (0-9 to 1-5) they caught hold of the game and the opposition were always looking for a way back into the match after that. The final score was 1-24 to 1-17, and the size of the winning margin could easily have been greater.
Form of all is decent
The thing about Kilkenny is that the form of all the players looks to be decent. There is no sharp variance, but rather a nice, easy and constant level of performance.
Many of the players are well walked, as they say, seeing that they are All-Ireland winners on numerous occasions, yet the hunger for more never appears to dip.
The way management steer the ship, handling the players with an easy rein and producing them nicely tuned for each test along the road, be it League or championship, is a wonder of the day, especially bearing in mind that the road travelled has been so long and honour strewn.
J.J. Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Jackie Tyrrell, Brian Hogan, Eoin Larkin, Richie Power, Aidan Fogarty and even Richie Hogan, who are multiple winners, often give the impression through their game that they are playing for their first medal. We should be forever proud in this county to have such fine men parading - and their colleagues - in our name.
Imagine what it must be like for the emerging players like Eoin Murphy, Lester Ryan, Cillian Buckley, Conor Fogarty and so on to be playing side by side, listening to and learning from such quality performers. Heroes and colleagues all rolled into one!
Tipp and Kilkenny are sure to produce a blaster. They did so in 2009 when they last clashed in the League final, when it took extra-time to reach a decision.
Both dearly want a win, because a League title is not to be sneezed at. Yet both know that a defeat will be a mere graze rather than a deep cut with the bigger hurling picture in mind.