Cats to prove Premier class in battle for mighty Mac

Here we go again! Months back it was all hope, a bit of a dream. Now the reality is that Kilkenny will trot out in Croke Park in another All-Ireland senior hurling final.

Here we go again! Months back it was all hope, a bit of a dream. Now the reality is that Kilkenny will trot out in Croke Park in another All-Ireland senior hurling final.

Spoiled we have been over these past 16 seasons as Brain Cody cast a magical spell over the black and amber wearers, and the players in turn cast a spell over hurling. Nine MacCarthy Cup wins. A 10th a possibility.

Sure we - no one actually - have never enjoyed the likes.

On Sunday the big old house will rock to another almighty battle between the greatest of rivals, Kilkenny and Tipperary. They like nothing better than beating us. Ditto in the other direction.

This will be the counties fourth meeting in the All-Ireland final in six seasons, with the Cats leading the series 2-1.

The loss was in 2010 when the Premier County claimed their 26th success and robbed their fiercest of rivals of what would have been a first ever five in-a-row.

That was an especially sweet win for the Premier. And now the talk is of ruining the drive for 10 - Henry’s (Shefflin) bid for a record. Sport throws up such things. Sideshows!

Around much the same period as regular the All-Ireland clashes, this pair have been dominant in the National League. The last four meetings in the final, the most recent in May, went Kilkenny’s way, two of them by a single point.

The point is, Tipp and Kilkenny are the teams of the era. Clare broke the cycle last season with their thrilling All-Ireland success. But you have to go back to 2005 (Cork) to find another All-Ireland winner.

This time last season Kilkenny hurling folk found themselves in the unusual position of looking in from the outside when the All-Ireland series was being decided. A 17 year unbeaten run of being involved was broken by a quarter-final defeat by Cork.

‘How will lads go’

Throughout the Winter there was more talk than usual about ‘how the lads might go next year’. The fear was that Kilkenny had enjoyed their day in the sun. They might be excluded from the All-Ireland party for a while.

The team, many members of the squad - Henry, J.J, Jackie, Brian, Eoin, Michael (x2) even - had given so much no one had a right to expect any more. Yet people wondered, maybe, just maybe....

Now here we are, ready to dance in Croke Park again, and with hopes, high hopes. Outsiders look in at us and wonder. They long for a big day out in the big stadium.

They see us enjoy them on a near annual basis, and judging by the excited street talk, people grow fonder and fonder of being at the heart of one of the greatest days in Irish sport.

And now for the final showdown of 2014. Two teams bang on form are ready to let rip.

Kilkenny have won all before them. They are out to collect the last piece of silverware. Our friend Liam would be the prize decoration if added to the collection - the Walsh Cup, National League and Leinster championship.

Tipperary haven’t collected such riches, but their powerful semi-final win over Cork would suggest they are in the best state of health they have been all season. And that’s all that matters, current form.

Their year probably turned for them on June 29 when they beat Galway in the Qualifiers. That was a big, big result, a season lifter. It was a badly needed, gritty performance.

It had been a trying season most of the way for Tipp, but their single minded manager, Eamon O’Shea never lost faith. The fans may have questioned and questioned the team, but now the absolute belief is that the Mahers, James Barry, James Woodlock, John O’Dwyer, Shane McGrath and the forward with the golden touch, Seamus Callanan and the rest can be kings.

Cork paid the price for slackness against the Premier in the semi. Goalie Darren Gleeson must have thought it was his birthday, such was the freedom enjoyed to pick out colleagues with short puck-outs virtually throughout.

In the first half especially, Cork, were bombarded. Two easy (virtually uncontested) strikes of the sliotar, starting from Gleeson’s hand, took it the edge of the Cork square.

That was asking for trouble, especially with a known assassin like Callanan around. And when Tipp got going, they played mightily. Tht was the point, ‘when they got going’. You could see the belief and confidence growing in each and every one of them.

Stars abounded - Patrick ‘Bonner’ and Paudie Maher, Gleeson, flying midfielders Shane McGrath and James Woodlock, who shared equally in six point, John O’Dwyer (0-6) and Callanan. Tipp return to Croke Park with the confidence cell fully charged.

Kilkenny will have watched and learned. Close down the pitch! Do good match ups. No better men than the Noresiders to be inventive in this regard; to put the pressure on at every point. It is a must this time, going on the Cork experience.

The Cats did it to Cork before in a final. Encore please!

Kilkenny’s semi-final against Limerick was totally different to the other semi. It was a slugfest at the finish, made so by a tight game in lashing rain and driving wind. But through the harsh elements their spirit, their drive, their dogged attitude sparkled.

They hurled better on other days, but rarely smarter or with more commitment. Brian Cody said all the elements were in the performance - the willingness to work to the last breath - to put Kilkenny in the frame to win.

That, he has always insisted, is aim No. 1 - that all 15 elements within the team work for, and only for, the unit. Remember the vital intervention by Colin Fennelly on the edge of his own square? An attacker doing a defender’s job.

The Kilkenny way. The first line of defence is provided by the full-forward line!

Kilkenny, too, are in a nice place going to Croker. The defence, with Brian Hogan back at the heart of it and Jackie Tyrrell more settled in the corner, is nicely balanced; midfield has been going well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Fennelly is returned there and Richie Hogan is moved forward.

Even with Eoin Larkin often playing as an extra defender well away from the attacking area, the scores have been piled up. Thirteen goals have been bagged. The only no goal scoring day was against Dublin in the Leinster final when 24 points were registered.

Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng have been extremely good in their measured handling of the squad. They used 49 players during the League and still plotted a course to victory. That was a finer deed than many might realise.

And now the wonder is what shape will the All-Ireland final team take, seeing that it has been in a constant state of change all season. Richie Power will start. Will Shefflin? Cody insisted there is 70 good minutes in him. That might not be enough.

I wouldn’t rule out a change in all sectors - defence, midfield and attack - if not in personnel, then in positions. That is guess work. What isn’t guess work is the belief that Kilkenny are ready.

Injury has ruled out Michael Rice, Michael Walsh and Tomas Kehoe. There is a clean bill of health besides. Expect an explosive start. Discipline will be vital then. After that it will be dogged all the way.

Tipp looked good when in full flow in the semi-final, but a two point interval lead (1-7 to 0-8) over opposition that played poorly and registered nine wides made you wonder. If they give Kilkenny such latitude they will be buried.

The final is such a close call I really don’t know, but I know enough about Kilkenny’s slave like commitment to the cause to believe. That 35th title can be landed!

Page 1 picture by John McIlwaine.