A cunning plan there will have to be if Tipp are to be stopped

Not impressed with Kilkenny in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, reader? You weren’t the only one.

Not impressed with Kilkenny in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, reader? You weren’t the only one.

There’s a man in Roscommon and another in Paris – neither of them hurling strongholds, as Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh might say – who weren’t impressed either.

The man in Roscommon, who’s from Roscommon, was unimpressed because he thought – correctly - Kilkenny were ludicrously overdependent on Henry Shefflin. The man in Paris, who’s from Glendine Road in Kilkenny, was unimpressed because he thought – equally correctly – they were desperately one-dimensional and predictable in the second half.

All the wides, 13 in total, plus the balls dropped into goalie Clinton Hennessy’s waiting hand. All those agricultural, route-one deliveries to the edge of the square, so reminiscent of the predictability of their attacking play in the second half of last year’s All-Ireland final when Kilkenny played in straight lines while Tipperary played in the spaces between the lines.

Shefflin the only man seemingly capable of playing a low, percentaged ball to a colleague. Richie Hogan bizarrely popping up as a shield in front of his own midfield.

Underwhelming stuff indeed, the saving grace for the victors being that All-Ireland finals are not won in August. Beating Cork by 12 points in last year’s semi-final didn’t do the defending champions much good a few weeks later.

Felt they could coast home

And there’s no question but that Kilkenny, 10 points up early in the second half against Waterford, concluded they could coast home from there and subconsciously, even consciously, took the foot off the pedal.

Which leaves them in a place they haven’t been for five years: entering a game as underdogs.

Sunday’s is the first match since the 2006 All-Ireland final, 21 championship outings ago, they will not enter as either strong or unbackable favourites. It is the first of the three September encounters with Tipperary where Brian Cody has to worry more, and therefore think more, about Tipp than vice versa.

His decision to hold some sessions behind closed doors is a tacit recognition of this new dispensation. Kilkenny fans should not be worried; rather they should be reassured.

It shows the management realise there is work to be done. New work. Different work. Blue-sky thinking, as that awful phrase has it.

While it’s overdoing it to say that Tipp cleaned Kilkenny’s clock in tactical terms in the past two finals, they certainly thought a better game on both occasions. The deployment of Lar Corbett as a roving centre-forward in 2009, a move the defending champions couldn’t have seen coming, worked beautifully; Corbett wound up with four points.

And last year the speed and movement of the Tipp forwards simply tore their opponents apart.

Now the boot is on the other foot. Now it’s Tipperary who are there to be scrutinised, analysed, picked apart and shot at. Such is the burden of champions.

They may well rise to the occasion splendidly. There exists the possibility that Tipp, after the kick in the backside they received from Dublin, will find not just another level but two other levels.

And shred the Kilkenny defence with their ability to find space and their angled runs. And get through for a rake of goals. And win comfortably.

Need cunning plan

If they do so it’ll be an indictment of Kilkenny’s planning. The challengers have, after all, had 12 months to plan for Sunday. But a champagne Tipperary performance that lays the basis for the completion of a three in-a-row next year cannot be discounted.

Like they did against Cork in 2006, Cody and Martin Fogarty and Mick Dempsey have to have a cunning plan. And it had better not have been designed by Baldrick.

The first thing such a plan will do is to recognise Kilkenny’s strengths and weaknesses, and specifically the fact that this is no longer the all-singing, all-dancing, all-conquering outfit of 2008.

Back then life was simple, a black and white existence in a black and amber world. Like a Swat team, Kilkenny kicked down the door, went in with guns blazing – loads of guns, heavy guns – and blew away everything in the room.

But now Kilkenny are older, slower, less agile, more careworn. In short, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Such is the principal reality Cody faces. A secondary reality is the fact that against Tipp last year his team actually won the possession battle but lost the match.

In other words, what they’d done so well for so many years no longer sufficed. Not against Tipperary’s attacking carousel, a kind of hurling equivalent of the Barcelona midfield, and their perpetually moving forwards.

Come to think of it, there’s a third reality the Leinster champions have been forced to cope with of late: an inevitable slowdown on the domestic production line.

In the normal course of events the minor team of three years ago would have produced a few contenders for this year’s senior team. Unfortunately for the county, and not totally surprisingly in view of the inordinate number of junior and intermediate clubs represented, the 2008 minor team - the crowd that hit the less than princely total of 3-6 in a final in which they mugged Galway at the death - has to date proved next to useless in channelling new blood to the seniors. (Think of it as karmic payback for the 1988 under-21 team, beaten 4-11 to 1-5 by Cork in the All Ireland final in Birr yet eventually yielding Willie O’Connor, Liam Keoghan, Bill Hennessy, Michael Phelan and Shiner Brennan.)

There have been improvements

Thus Kilkenny have to a large degree been forced to hurl from memory this summer. That said, the improvements to the starting XV should not pass unacknowledged.

David Herity in the form he’s shown to date is an upgrade on P.J. Ryan. The emergence of Paul Murphy has been an immense boon, providing a badly needed injection of mobility in the full-back line. (Granted, Murphy struggled against John Mullane, but who wouldn’t have?)

Those wretched, poxy injuries that disrupted the build-up to the five in a row attempt are a bad memory. And, perhaps most importantly of all, Henry is back.

We’ll never know if the great man would somehow have managed to drag Kilkenny across the winning line last September had he stayed on the field. A personal view is that he wouldn’t have; Tipp were too fast, too fresh, too hungry, Kilkenny too sapped by wear and tear and the passage of time.

At the very least it would have been a possibility, however. And of Henry’s manifold gifts, that is among the greatest: that with him there, everything is possible.

But victory on Sunday will only be possible if the underdogs’ accuracy improves. They hit 17 wides against Waterford; Tipp hit five wides against Dublin. Nor were these aberrations, for Kilkenny have been averaging 13 wides per match this summer to Tipp’s seven.

The latter is a mark of how well Tipp work the ball and use the dimensions of the pitch.

Hit 13 wides here and Kilkenny will not win.

Concede more than two goals and they (almost certainly) will not win.

Be slow about bringing in substitutes, as they were in both of the past two finals, and they will not win.

Cannot be left chasing

Get themselves in a position where they’re chasing the game in the second half and they will not win.

Fail to do the bread and butter stuff – cutting out high balls, winning the breaks when they don’t – that Dublin did so well against Tipp and Waterford did so badly against them and they will not win.

A number of subsidiary imperatives present themselves too.

Stopping Shane McGrath, always a rousing force for Tipperary when he charges upfield, getting forward. Keeping Padraic Maher, the potential Hurler of the Year, out of the game inasmuch as possible, in much the same way that Tipperary took due care to keep Tommy Walsh out of the game 12 months ago. Testing the Tipp corner-backs, who in Munster were noticeably discomfited when run at and turned.

That’s a lot of imperatives. Too many?

Too many for most teams, definitely. But even three years after they scaled Everest, not necessarily too much for this team. Irrespective of what they might say in Roscommon and Paris.

Enda McEvoy is a columnist with the Irish Examiner.