Cats to win by a whisker

MAYBE for some GAA folk it has become boring and predictable, but hurling enthusiasts everywhere are looking forward to Sunday’s All-Ireland senior final with huge anticipation. A third meeting in-a-row between hurling’s top teams offers the prospects of another mouth-watering contest.

MAYBE for some GAA folk it has become boring and predictable, but hurling enthusiasts everywhere are looking forward to Sunday’s All-Ireland senior final with huge anticipation. A third meeting in-a-row between hurling’s top teams offers the prospects of another mouth-watering contest.

It is no surprise that Kilkenny and Tipperary have once again reached the final. From the start of the 2011 campaign they looked the sides to beat in Leinster and Munster and the manner of their provincial successes justified that favouritism.

Tipperary had comfortable wins over Cork, Clare and Waterford in Munster, amassing an incredible 14-60 in those three games. Kilkenny strode majestically through Leinster, scoring an equally impressive 5-43 in their two outings against Wexford and Dublin.

Kilkenny and Tipperary may have romped through the provincial campaigns, but their All-Ireland semi-final performances never scaled the same heights as in the earlier championship games. The long lay-off since the provincial finals may have been a factor, still whenever questions were asked of the teams, they responded in emphatic fashion.

Both semi-finals were similar in that the underdogs (Dublin and Waterford) opted to play an extra defender. It is a tactic that can work and it did for periods in both games.

Decisive moments

But games are ultimately decided by the team with the most scores on the ’board and it is difficult to amass sufficient scores with only five forwards. Dublin and Waterford needed to throw caution to the wind in the closing 10 minutes, but their all too conservative approach was only ever going to yield one result.

Kilkenny’s semi-final success was achieved a little easier than Tipperary’s. Unusually for a game involving Kilkenny and Waterford, the tie lacked any real passion and tension, something we normally associate with these great rivals.

The decisive moments came with Richie Hogan’s two goals and once the Danesfort attacker hit the Déise net after three minutes for the first of those three-pointers, it was going to take a super effort from Waterford to stop the Cats reaching yet another final.

One does not usually associate Kilkenny with inaccuracy, so I imagine the 17 wides tally from the Waterford game will have been mentioned a few times in training over the past two weeks. Expect it to be rectified by Sunday.

Kilkenny was well on its way to another final long before the last whistle and that would account for a very tame closing quarter. The onus was on Waterford to attack Kilkenny, but other than John Mullane they had no player to offer any challenge to the Cats.

Dublin brought great physicality and commitment to the semi-final against the reigning All-Ireland champions. Their five-forward attacking ply worked very well to a point, but that tactic saps the energy of every player.

Dublin got very close to Tipp at the finish, but I never saw them winning at any stage. Their efforts, though, were gallant in defeat. Whenever Dublin looked like catching up on Tipp, the champions moved up a gear to shoot another point.

As we trekked out of Croke Park after the Waterford game the pundits narrowed the odds on Tipperary retaining the All-Ireland title. One week later, after Tipperary’s close call against Dublin, those odds had evened up considerably - to such an extent that predicting the outcome of Sunday’s final is now a lottery.

Hopefully Fennelly can play

Kilkenny may be forced to make one alteration to their semi-final team with Colin Fennelly struggling with a hamstring injury. It would be dreadfully unfortunate on the Ballyhale Shamrocks attacker if he has to miss the final as he has been in superb form all year.

If Fennelly is unavailable it may open the door for Eddie Brennan to make a return. Brennan’s experience would be invaluable against a team of Tipperary’s calibre, even if he has seen little championship action this year.

The rest of the Kilkenny team may be unchanged from the Waterford game although James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick will be pressing hard for a place. The Kilkenny defence has performed very well in this year’s championship, while the attack will need to be strongly defence-minded in addition to putting away the vital scores.

Declan Ryan must have left Croke Park after the semi with mixed feelings. His side had shown frailties against Dublin and having to replace three of his attackers will have given him some concerns.

On the other hand, he knows the performance against Dublin will bring his players down to earth. Complacency, if it ever existed, is no longer a problem for the Premier County.

Tipp will still carry the tag of favourites, but it really does not matter once referee Brian Gavin throws in the sliotar. This will be yet another highly-charged game of awesome intensity with players prepared to risk life and limb to ensure they get their hands on the McCarthy Cup.

So what has Kilkenny to do to reclaim the title? The problem on Sunday is that you could solve one or two problems and suddenly the threat comes from an unexpected source. Tipperary will have precisely the same dilemma with Kilkenny.

The Tipperary scoring this year has been spectacular, but the bulk of their 15 goals came via a consistent route. Kilkenny must tie down the Premier s half back line, and Paraic Maher in particular.

It is no accident that Brian Cody has picked three big men to play directly opposite the Tipp half-back line.

Defences can decide it

The Cats trio must, of course, deliver the vital scores, but it is their defensive work that could well decide who wins the final.

Tipperary has a very mobile midfield, but so too has Kilkenny and the powerful Michael Fennelly will have a major influence on the final.

Despite being somewhat below par the last day, the Tipperary attack has the ability to destroy any defence - Kilkenny’s included. This year, though, the Cats are stronger defensively.

Captain Brian Hogan is leading by example at the heart of the defence and Tommy Walsh will not be handicapped like last year.

While the Kilkenny defence looks more assured, the Tipp forwards are an awesome attacking force if given freedom. Closing off the routes to goal for 70 minutes will not be easy, but it is the only way to deprive Lar Corbett and his colleagues of attacking David Herity’s goal.

If Kilkenny can stop the long clearances from the Tipp defence, plus the marauding runs from midfield, they will go a long way to reclaiming the title.

The scoring returns to date from both finalists is frightening. That raises the question of which defence can best cope with its immediate opponent. The Kilkenny rearguard has, I believe, the slightly stronger credentials.

This brings us to the opposing set of forwards. Henry Shefflin’s return has transformed every aspect of Kilkenny’s play over its three championship games. In last year’s final the Cats appeared rudderless when he departed injured.

The Kilkenny forwards have a tendency to lapse into occasional moments of mediocrity. That must not happen on Sunday. On the other hand, the Tipp defence is very solid, but this is the first occasion this year when they will face an attack where any one of the six forwards can be a match-winner.

As we edge closer to the final, I sense that the tide may be turning towards the Cats. The notion of two defeats in-a-row to our great rivals is unthinkable. That has to be a powerful motivating influence for every Kilkenny player.

A replay, maybe?

The final score in the last two finals flattered the winners. Both games were much closer than the scores indicated. Sunday’s final might just end in similar fashion. My gut feel is that it will be closer than in 2009 and 2010.

It is over half a century since we had a drawn All-Ireland final. Sunday’s teams are so evenly matched in every sense, maybe we just might have another day out in Croke Park in early October.

But I think we will have to wait another year for that overdue replay. I expect Kilkenny to be ahead at the finish by a whisker.