The League title may the glittering prize on offer, and champions Kilkenny and Tipperary may both want it, but they also have one eye on a bigger prize down the hurling road.
Nowlan Park will be throbbing on Sunday when the greatest rivals in hurling and the form teams of the moment clash in an intriguing Allianz League decider before an expected full house.
The current standing of both will be decided on Sunday. However, the forthcoming championship is what will define the season.
“In terms of us going to and playing Kilkenny, it is the best game we could possibly get at this time,” was the assessment of the here and now by Tipperary assistant manager, Michael Ryan.
“It will give us a great sense of how far the boys have come, and how they react to the challenge on several levels. Obviously how they play; how they handle the tension about taking on Kilkenny are important issues.
Can they stick heat
“Is it bothering them? Does it sit easy with them? Are they enjoying this? Ultimately that will inform us can we ask them harder questions, will they be able to stick the heat later on.”
That about summed up the mood in the run up to a battle neither wants to lose given the traditional intense rivalry between the counties, yet both know the outcome won’t impact greatly on their season.
Playing in their own back yard brings no guarantees for the Cats, who are in their ninth decider in 12 years.
“The guarantee is that it will be a very tough, very competitive game,” was the context painted by Kilkenny selector, Martin Fogarty. “That is the guarantee. We are the two best teams in the country at the moment.
“Both want to win. Both have hugely talented player. It all adds up to a very competitive game. That is the only guarantee, that it will be competitive. We look forward to that and hope we can come out on the right side of things.”
What was more important thing, getting a big game at this stage of the season or winning the League?
“The championship is the No. 1 competition,” replied the Erin’s Own (Castlecomer) clubman, who will handle affairs with fellow selector Michael Dempsey in the continued absence of manager Brian Cody, who is making good progress after heart surgery.
“If you had a choice you would want to do well in the championship,” he continued. “But they are tied together. To have a game like this coming up before the championship is excellent preparation.
“No county would ever pass up the opportunity to win a League title, or any other title,” he insisted.
The counties face each other with a good line of form behind them. What were his views on that?
“In sport, no two games are the same,” Mr Fogarty responded. “Players are not machines. Lads have good games. Lads have fair games. Lads have games they would rather forget.
“Trying to keep the incentive up, that is the challenge for the players, to try and perform as best they can, or as close as possible to that. This is a fiercely driven squad, and has been for years. Every Kilkenny team, every county team, wants to succeed. Things will be no different on Sunday.”
The challenge of measuring themselves against double champions Kilkenny was an inspiration to Tipperary.
“It is great to play Kilkenny,” Mr Ryan assured. “It is exactly who you want to play. If you were in Kilkenny now, they would probably give you the same answer about playing Tipperary, with the greatest of respect to other teams.
“Kilkenny are in everyone’s line of sight. They want to win in their own back garden. That is what makes it even better, if we could take the cup out of their back yard and earn us bragging rights for a few weeks.
Tested in every facet
“You will be tested in every facet when you play Kilkenny. They will give you nothing, on any level. Look, we pretty much know what they can do physically. The mental stuff is the real challenge.
“We are building,” he continued. “We are on a trajectory. This isn’t September. It is the League final in April. Lads won’t be ruled out if they are slightly sub-standard.
“The younger guys are developing. We are trying to find a balance of how much you can load at any one time. The League final is a progressive step. You can’t play the best teams often enough, and Kilkenny are currently the best.”
The Cats will be without star attacker, Richie Power, who has two broken ribs. He felt faint in the Carrickshock dressing-room after Friday’s senior hurling league tie against James Stephens, and tests in hospital afterwards revealed the extend of the injury which could have been suffered in the League ssemi-final.
Walter Walsh (arm) will be missing too. Michael Rice sat out Friday’s match with a groin injury. He has no more than a 50/50 chance of playing. He too has a star match in the semi. Michael Fennelly, who was injured for the semi, played a full match against Dicksboro and did very well, so he is a real contender for Sunday.