Conor Browne is one of the young players trying to break into the Kilkenny team
They say if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
What better way for Kilkenny to continue their improving form than by beating their old sparring partner, Tipperary?
Championship games between these sides in the past decade or so will live long in the memory, but they have also produced extremely memorable National League encounters too.
Who could forget the League final of 2009 that went to extra time? Or the league round three game of 2014 that produced 10 goals?
Both years those thrilling League games were precursors to the main events in September.
This pair gifted the hurling public a classic as recent as early last year. In Thurles, to be specific. Again, in the league.
That evening did not start brightly for Kilkenny either. Having been handed a nine point defeat by Tipperary the previous September, it was feared the visitors full back line could no longer cope with the outrageous attack of their opponents. In the first half the Kilkenny defence was pulled asunder.
The hunter had become the hunted. Or so we thought. Kilkenny, somehow, managed to come out of what was a testing clash with a draw.
Another example that they do not know when they are beaten!
Somehow, no matter how good or bad they have been in previous games, these counties find a way to raise their game against each other.
Perhaps it is the fact that they both play in the traditional format; 15 against 15. Best man wins.
You could also argue that they have played each other so many times they know each so well, so it now comes down to who turns up on the day and performs better.
Kilkenny and Tipperary had contrasting summers in 2017.
The Noresiders bowed out early in the Qualifiers against Waterford. Tipperary got within a whisker of the All-Ireland final, being denied by a Joe Canning last minute point for Galway in a rip-roaring semi-final.
Things have left both teams in arguably very different places going into 2018.
While Kilkenny and manager, Brian Cody recognised it was time to start from scratch and introduce the next generation of players, Tipperary were further along the road.
They claimed All-Ireland success in 2016. When they failed to make it two on the trot last year, they were left at a crossroads.
Do they start again and rebuild, or try and win back the All-Ireland with roughly the same group?
You could argue that so far this year, Tipperary have worked both situations well. While they still have the reliables such as Seamus Callanan and Padraic Maher, they have filtered new names into the panel - Ger Browne and Donal Maher.
They have been boosted too by Jason Forde’s ability to lead from the front. Manager Michael Ryan will surely be pleased that he now has a new leader to rely on in tough circumstances.
The Kilkenny management knew the scale of the task awaiting them on Sunday. They also knew that if they were to get a win it would not only do wonders for the younger players confidence, but would also be a big help in avoiding relegation.
The selectors continued with the rotation policy and included some more new faces in Kilkenny’s starting XV. Conor Browne, Luke Scanlon and James Maher all started, while Joey Holden filled the vacancy left at full-back when Padraig Walsh was freed to play in Third Level competitions.
Kilkenny opened the scoring with a pointed 65 from T.J. Reid. Tipperary responded with a point from Sean Curran.
Tipperary were without John McGrath and Jason Forde due to their involvement in the Fitzgibbon Cup, so the new boys were expected to step up. Ger Browne in particular impressed in the first half.
He and his colleagues scared a jittery Kilkenny defence. They exploited the lax patrol of their markers and punished by picking off points.
That is not to say, however, that Kilkenny were not taking their chances at the other end.
T.J. Reid delighted the crowd with his striking. He scored a point in the middle of the first half that was worth the admission fee alone.
The other Kilkenny forwards followed suit. Pat Lyng followed with an impressive point.
The intensity, however, always a high point of Kilkenny and Tipperary games, was surprisingly low in the first half.
Play was open. There was little man marking. Both forward lines were able to pick holes in the opposing defence.
The first half didn’t produce a goal, which surprised considering the amount of goal chances created. One would have hoped going into the second half, that there would be a few green flags raised.
The teams did not disappoint! Right from the offset, bullets were being fired into the Tipperary goalmouth.
Walter Walsh, who had an unusually quiet first half, burst into life and scored a great goal.
Soon after Luke Scanlon spotted a gaping hole in the Tipperary defence; burst forward and fired the ball into the corner of the net.
Kilkenny’s tails were up. They looked dangerous any time they got the ball into Tipperary’s half. The home crowd sensed blood.
The visitors, however, were not in the mood to give in. They stole two goals through Michael Breen almost before Kilkenny knew what hit them.
The winners struggled to contain the new additions to the Tipperary forwards, Cian Darcy and Mark Russell. It seemed like Tipp were going to kick on, but in typical Kilkenny fashion, the home side dug in.
Points from Richie Leahy and T.J. Reid kept them ticking over.
It was a tense closing quarter. Both teams had chances to close out the game.
Kilkenny showed a little bit more nerve, plundered the deciding point through Richie Leahy, to come away with two very important League points.
In the campaign to date, this was probably Kilkenny’s most impressive performance. The squad was missing some valuable players because of colleges duty, but that did not disrupt any part of the game plan.
They showed tremendous nerve to hold Tipperary in the second half. It is fair to say the positives out-weighed the negatives.
Now it’s full steam ahead for the final preliminary round match against Wexford on Sunday!
See you there! Sure you couldn’t miss this one.
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